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.