News: a poor quality distraction

98329748_a947300152_bTwo related articles about news and distraction lately.

(1): America’s junk news binge epidemic:

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

(2): Addicted to distraction:

ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified… Instead of reading [books], I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

This is familiar territory to us here at arbitrary constant. It’s been nearly two years since I shared how I was feeling about news and media.

The crux of my reflections was this:

But even with spending so much time consuming [news and media] I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

The rest of the post explores what remains a fantastic essay by Ralf Dobelli, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), which:

provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

It’s an essay and way of thinking I can’t recommend highly enough.

How has it gone? To a large extent I’ve managed to alter my news consumption and instead switched to reading more books (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Libib Library). I occasionally find myself slipping back into old ways, though – especially when it comes to Twitter – and so am hoping to refocus a bit more in order to

pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

Reading these two articles was a timely reminder of this intent. I’ll let you know how I get on!

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“No news is good”: the practicalities

A couple of weeks ago I posted “No news is good”, which captured my plan to opt out of news, social and other media in order to:

pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

It was great to have various exchanges with people about the move, and I really would recommend taking the time to read Rolf Dobelli’s original essay (pdf).

A couple of people were interested in the practicalities of what I was going to do instead. This post briefly summarises the things I’ve put in place or am trying to help make my opt out a reality, broadly by media type. It’s not at all a riveting read, but shared in the hope it may be useful to others thinking about this topic.

Spare Slots grid

My "Spare Slots" grid - things to do if in a spare ... on Twitpic

By far the most important element of my approach is the Spare Slots grid above. This simple grid enables me to make proactive choices about what I might want to do depending on what sort of time slot is available. The things that are in the grid are aligned with things I’m interested in or trying to prioritise – arranged by the 3 headings of Create, Consume and Cardio – including things like writing more or opportunities to read/study.

The time slots are truly ‘spare’ time, i.e. when family time or work responsibilities are done (or as done as they ever can be!).

What the Spare Slots grid does is provide a menu of things that are important to me, and that are an alternative to the default of opening up my laptop/phone, which often leads to “sink” activities.

Twitter

  • The first and main thing I’m doing with Twitter is to use it according to my Spare Slots grid. This means I spend no more than 15 minutes at a time on it, and so help manage the overall time I spend on it
  • I tend to focus much more on interaction rather than tweets. So the first and second columns in Tweetdeck are @ replies and Direct Messages, rather than my timeline
  • I’m being clearer with myself on who I am following/unfollowing and why. Hard as it is, I’m also being a little less English and unfollowing people rather than hesitating over it all the time
  • Lists are very useful – it enables me to separate specific work people / things and other interests
  • I use favourites a lot
  • Another useful trick is to schedule tweets. This means that I can only be on Twitter for 15 minutes but still post stuff over a period of a few hours / days without necessarily having to be on Twitter myself
  • I use filters, especially with some website links. Thus, I now very, very rarely see Daily Mail or Guardian links (for example) in Twitter
  • The main tool I use to do all of the above is Tweetdeck. This works best on my laptop, and haven’t yet found the best app to use on my phone that allows me to do as much as I want.

Facebook

  • I didn’t use Facebook much anyway, which is fortunate because it’s in no way as customisable as Twitter is. The key here appears to be (if you’ll excuse my phrase) “selective vision”. Thus, if I see a picture with text on it, I just don’t read it.

YouTube

  • YouTube is more customisable than I’d realised, especially using a Chrome Extension that takes a lot of the noise away (some ads, suggested videos etc. – search for “YouTube” in the Chrome Extension Store)
  • The main thing I do here is use subscriptions to channels
  • Similarly, I use Watch Later a lot, and this is the landing page I go to when first visiting YouTube.

Feedly (RSS Reader)

  • I still don’t get why Google discontinued Reader because I find RSS the most effective way of managing sources of information
  • Feedly is my RSS Reader of choice LINK, which allows me to aggregate all sources of information I’ve chosen. This means I then don’t have to visit those sites and so reduces the possibility of wider distraction
  • My RSS feeds are categorised and arranged by certain topics
  • I’ve particularly added blogs / sources of info that explore issues in depth, are high quality or are from sources I trust/respect
  • Even here, I filter the aggregated information quite quickly by using star item/read later systems.

News

  • I’ve basically switched it off! I’ve done this in the following ways:
  • I use a website/URL blocker as a Chrome Extension, which means that, even I have clicked a link, I still can’t see actually see it
  • I don’t buy newspapers or periodicals
  • I very rarely watch television. If there is something I’d like to see I use YouTube or, for flims/series etc. I tend to use Netflix (other streaming services are available)
  • I’m still considering the possibility of a subscription to a quality print periodical. The ones I’m thinking about at the moment are re-subscribing to Prospect or the London Review of Books, but I haven’t done this yet. Good as they may be, I won’t be getting a subscription to something like The Week, New Statesman or The Economist etc.

Personal email

  • The number of emails I deleted without reading was amazing. If I found myself deleting an email without reading it I would instead unsubscribe from the mailing list if at all possible. This has left me with around six newsletters from organisations I like (for example, Policy Network and Nesta).

Phone

  • I’ve removed some apps from my phone
  • I’ve turned off all notifications
  • I use airplane mode quite a lot (partly a battery problem, and much to the annoyance of my wife. Ever the diplomat, it’s only a matter of time before I get a mobile battery pack and not use airplane mode.).

So, those are most of the practicalities. After a bit of time seeing how it goes, I’ll do an update on what difference this has made, as well as reflections on the bit that I think will be the hardest: balancing all of the above with the responsibilities of work.

No news is good

Rolf Dobelli’s essay, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), has provided me with the final signing post of a journey I’ve been on for the last few months.

In that time, I found I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

I was tired, and yet found it difficult to draw myself away from it. As a result, I wasted huge amounts of time consuming news, social media and what x had to say about y or z.

I was checking all of these things when I didn’t have anything better to do.

Actually, I was checking them when I did have better things to do.

But even with spending so much time consuming, to use Short Circuit’s phrase, input, I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

Dobelli’s essay provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

In what is a forceful argument, the line of argument that particularly resonated with me was:

News has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.

Instead, it:

feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking.

What’s worse, Dobelli notes that as humans we are more inclined to:

swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-coloured [sweets] for the mind.

As it goes for news, so it goes for social media and all the other brightly-coloured sweets on offer.

To some extent, and with one considerable exception, news, social and other media isn’t at fault; it is simply exploiting pitfalls in our make-up. Dobelli draws a parallel with food that goes beyond just sweets, but his essential argument is that we’re not rational enough to be exposed to the news – a thought that’s entirely reasonable to anyone familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the work on heuristics it summarises. What’s worse is that the seeming availability of all this other input doesn’t challenge our thinking. Dobelli quotes Warren Buffet:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.

And so we have become, in Dobelli’s words, shallow thinkers; we can’t differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s new.

The considerable exception I note above is that news can and does shape the public agenda. The lament that politics is now about spin and not substance only captures one side of the problem, because:

Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want news reported to set the public agenda?

It’s this question to which Tony Stoller, in a brilliant lecture for Gresham College, answers with a resounding “no”.

Bringing this all together, it’s no surprise that I was at a dead end. But the question becomes: where do I go from here? At the level of the individual, Dobelli argues we should stop consuming news entirely. Instead we should read books and journals, think and concentrate during uninterrupted time, and “go deep instead of broad”.

These, then, are the things I am doing.

It’s easy to consider this a New Year fad but the timing, I think, is just a coincidence. The process is one that began last year, and is why I refer to Dobelli’s article as the final signing post rather than a first step. In practice, I’m sure it will be harder than I think, and the outcomes of what this means I do do (for example, on social media) and the practicalities of how I’m going about doing it aren’t the point of this post (I may blog on them another time).

The crux is that I’m making a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. Instead, I am aiming to pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.