January 19, 2020

Do You Need to Read the News?

“Could it be a civic duty to tune out the news? Journalist Oliver Burkeman floats this provocative idea in a recent essay published in the Guardian newspaper. We owe it to society — and to ourselves — to tune out a good deal of the time, he says.

Burkeman’s essay makes the case with more detail and nuance than space allows here, and he writes with a charming lucidity that makes reading it a pleasure. For me, his most important observation is that the digital revolution has upended the problem of scarcity as it applies to information. For all of human history up to the present, humans had too little information; suddenly, information is everywhere. What’s scarce now is attention.

Today, we carry more news in the palm of a hand than it is possible to digest. So, how do we choose where to spend our limited bandwidth? Purveyors of information battle for each fleeting increment of our time, and they have found that their best weapon is our existing set of interests and biases. If we read a little bit about a subject, and thus signal our interest, their algorithms pounce on us to offer more of the same.

Fed an endless diet of information tailored just for us, we can easily fall into a distorted version of the world. Just as easily, we can find others through social media who share and reinforce that view. We get the feeling that each day’s news confirms our worst fears and begin to wonder whether the world is coming unhinged. All of this is a function of information merchants trying to seize our scarce attention and hold it as long as they can.”

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