Thoughts and observations

Stop reading the news

One week ago I stopped reading the news. As a child I devoured books. On holidays I would read an entire Tolkien book in a single day. And at university, I spent hours each day reading books and papers. I like to think I still spend as much time reading, but mostly it is industry specific or world news rather than longer reflective analysis or books: noise.

Six months ago my reading habits were better but still not ideal. My Sunday morning practice was to read The Economist supplemented with occasional articles through the week and a quick scan of a few technology blogs most mornings. I can’t recall what brought about the idea but I decided to try Apple News. It was also about this time that my Twitter usage began increasing.

Since my habits changed I have may have had a greater awareness of reported events, yet I haven’t felt better informed. Instead, a growing sense of unease has bothered me. At times I became anxious when I realised I hadn’t checked the news or noticed growing number of unread tweets. Worse still I knew that much of what I was reading was the intellectual equivalent of junk food. None of it mattered.

I am not the only one experiencing these feelings. Last month Andrew Sullivan writing New York Magazine:

And yet I wonder. The ubiquitous temptations of virtual living create a mental climate that is still maddeningly hard to manage. In the days, then weeks, then months after my retreat, my daily meditation sessions began to falter a little. There was an election campaign of such brooding menace it demanded attention, headlined by a walking human Snapchat app of incoherence. For a while, I had limited my news exposure to the New York Times’ daily briefings; then, slowly, I found myself scanning the click-bait headlines from countless sources that crowded the screen; after a while, I was back in my old rut, absorbing every nugget of campaign news, even as I understood each to be as ephemeral as the last, and even though I no longer needed to absorb them all for work.

This resonated with my fears of slowly losing control and endlessly being drawn back into the glow of my stupid phone. But, as is common with many of these articles, it’s conclusion amounted to little more than ‘although it’s hard we need to unplug else it’ll cost us dearly.’ I agree but this was challenging to apply.

Last Friday I came across Rolf Dobelli’s article Avoid News. Rolf puts forward a number of concerns about the format and consumption of modern news. I was particularly struck by Rolf’s arguments that news is both costly and mostly irrelevant. Time spent reading the news quickly accumulates even if one’s consumption is limited to only a single session per day. The irrelevance of news was less obvious to me. Rolf’s argument is this: apart from its possible entertainment value, the news does not substantially increase the quality of your life.

Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life – compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? Even that question is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can’t possibly identify the value of a piece of news before we see it, so we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worthwhile? Probably not.

Thus I am choosing to spend more time reading long form articles and analysis rather than reading the news. When important news does occur I’ll simply read it a few days later and get the complete picture. To help me in this, I’m looking forward to subscribing to more periodicals and perhaps a Saturday newspaper.

For the time being, I’ve deleted Apple News and buried Twitter on my phone. I’ll likely remove Twitter from my phone in preference for accessing it occasionally from my computer. Goodbye, news.