justin.searls.co

Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but at least he didn’t gawk

It’s time we had a talk about the news.

From the first time I heard a modem chime, I’ve been on a mission to discover, curate, and editorialize as much news as possible. Over the years, I’ve written for a variety of outlets — called “web sites” at first, then “blogs” for a while, and now subsumed by the lifeless social media platforms to which we all contribute. From the mid-nineties until I graduated college, I slowly optimized this information funnel — broadening the aperture of content I could absorb each day, while tightening my own editorial voice. Being informed calmed my anxieties about the unknown world, whereas honing a distinct persona gave me a sense of control as I navigated it.

But optimizations that lack a limiting factor run the risk of becoming too successful. My voracious appetite for novel content was so far outside the norm that a developer working on Google Reader once contacted me to ask what I was accomplishing by using the service — apparently it was unusual that I’d been reading an average of 900 articles a day at an uninterrupted pace for over 7 years.

Perhaps it merely felt normal because I’d gradually habituated myself to rapid consumption of news media. Reading hundreds of thousands of articles a year never occurred to me as strange, because the impulse to absorb information and share it with others seems so fundamental to the human experience. But I also know my case is extreme; early on, a series of events I still don’t understand led me to writing dozens of stories per day to audiences that numbered in the hundreds of thousands before I’d even entered high school.

An aside: sometimes people ask me for advice on how to improve their writing. The best advice I have is to write news for an audience of hundreds of thousands of people and to then compulsively edit and re-edit every post until it’s free of any errors or imperfections, for fear of being found out to be a 13-year-old boy.

Over the years, the people in my life have learned to accept my nervous addiction to distraction. My punctuated check-ins with Twitter. The glances I steal at my lock screen. But more subversive were the ways I found to sneak content consumption & editorialization into every moment of my day. Any moment of silence I encountered couldn’t be enjoyed, because its very existence suggested I had failed to find the most efficient path to reaching my goal of reading everything that was happening in the world.

Worse, I can see now that my hobby-bordering-on-shadow-life has hardened me in ways I didn’t anticipate. When news of tragedy breaks, I don’t react. In fact, I completley fail to comprehend how news can elicit an emotional reaction in people. At times, I’ve even condescended others for feeling anything over awful events as they unfold thousands of miles away — don’t they read about all the other horrific things happening today? And where are their tears and outrage for the countless other stories that will never be emblazoned on a CNN chyron? It’s shameful to admit, but if breaking news of horrific events makes me feel anything, it’s annoyance at the fact that it will crowd out the coverage of topics I believe to be more consequential.

That’s not a humane impulse. And I was just starting to see it in myself when, this week, the levy broke.

In the past, I have related to news as a category of free, non-fiction entertainment. And how else would I relate to it? To the extent the news media is ever actually consequential, those consequences weren’t likely to be felt by me. But this week, even as I sit perched in a position of tremendous privilege, the same news I rely on to escape my reality seems likely to impact it. And the carefully-curated news sources I’ve arranged around myself like a pillow fort will afford me no more protection than a couch cushion.

I can see now that the pull-to-refresh Skinner box I’ve housed myself in for decades has been monumentally counter-productive. The act of swiping to receive new information has, perversely, sated any inclination to take further action in response. Hunting around the Internet for morsels of novel information requires a degree of exertion, and the fatigue that came from reading a hundred editorials before bed left me to falsely equate my own passive consumption with having actively contributed anything. But now I am keenly aware that I haven’t contributed much at all, pithy tweets included.

It’s going to take me a lot of time to understand the implications of this realization. For now, I can only see the first step I need to take: unilateral de-escalation. I’ve started by:

1. Deleting all my RSS readers and news apps

2. Unsubscribing from all my podcasts

3. Removing my access to cable & network news channels and other shows

4. Using my ad blocker to block the news sites I habitually visit

5. Unfollowing some people on Twitter, and muting a lot of terms associated with the news

But I know I’ll fail if I quit cold turkey. I’m not prepared to suddenly embrace the hell that is quiet moments of a peaceful existence. Instead, I’m going to try to wean myself off my information addiction gradually. I’m thinking of it as a slow food movement for content. So far, I’ve done the following:

  1. Started listening to my first audiobook (the full-cast version of American Gods, which seemed oddly appropriate this week)
  2. Spent time organizing and browsing through Apple Music for new albums to queue up and listen to in a focused, thoughtful setting (I haven’t listened to music in a context apart from multitasking since college)
  3. Bought a few video games with an intention of, for once, actually playing them
  4. Sat down for an uninterrupted two hours to write this post

We’ll see where this takes me, but I’m genuinely excited to reconnect with aspects of the human experience that are deeper and more permanent than the shallow and transient chatter I usually immerse myself in.

If you’re interested in joining me and have any questions, don’t hesitate to find me on twitter and ask!