It’s been about 6 months since I decided to stop watching news on TV, reading newspapers (except when stealing a glimpse of a headline at the grocery), and following most news sites on the Internet. Back in my high school days I took special pride in reading the morning paper and keeping track on world affairs. But for what purpose? Other than it making me feel smug and superior to those who weren’t doing it, I’m not sure I have a good answer.
Unless you’ve been living in a shed, you know as well as any man on the street that the past decade has affected tremendously the availability and amount of information. Even before the Internet, TV and newspapers took care that when something noteworthy happened in the world, it didn’t take long for you to get a report. Then came the Internet and the quantity of available information just exploded.
Considering how long we’ve had TV, or even newspapers, do you think that the human species has had sufficient time to adjust to handle that kind of amount of information? I don’t have an answer to this, but I can let you know how deliberately ignoring news has affected my life; I’ve become happier, and I have more time and energy to focus on things that really matter to me.
I think that the biggest problem with following news is, that considering the time invested in doing it, it doesn’t really give you anything in return – except maybe something you can gossip about with your girlfriends. Really. Think about it. If you read about a plane crash, oil spill, or how some economist thinks that the downturn is predicted to end when the swallows migrate back, how is that information really going to affect your actions? What can you do about it? Or how will knowing that piece of news improve your quality of life?
Herbert Simon, who was the pioneer in Attention Economics, argues that the overload of information results in a decrease in human attention:
“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”
I have heard similar concepts elsewhere as well; that we have a limited amount of energy, willpower, or attention to use each day, and wasting that on useless pieces of information will decrease the amount available to really focus and put our hearts into things that matter, things that can have a positive impact on our quality of life.
Being able to focus is a gift. It’s a unique ability we humans have that allows us to concentrate on specific things for long periods of time. If asked, productivity gurus and trainers would tell you to figure out what’s important in your life, or what are the most important tasks you need to do, and then focus on one task at a time, while eliminating all the distractions that might make your attention to wander. They would probably also tell you to start working on those tasks first thing in the morning, for the simple reason that if you wait until the evening you have already filled your head with so much useless stuff that there’s no willpower left to focus on anything.
I can hear you already arguing, that how can I then know what’s going on, especially if it’s something important like a nuclear meltdown or the death of Michael Jackson? I use my supreme powers of Internet wizardry to circumvent this problem, which pretty much comes down to two things: I’m on Twitter and Facebook. With those two tools alone I can very well see what people are talking about. It works like an automatic news filter. Only the really important news, something that people feel strongly about, or will actually affect their lives, are the ones that will get discussed and thus brought also to my attention. You wouldn’t believe how well this actually works in practice. It’s almost like having a personal staff, telling you only the things you might actually have to react to in some way, or have a strong interest in.
So, if I don’t follow news I must be pretty ignorant then? Not quite. I would rather say that I’m selectively ignorant. Like I said, following the so-called world news doesn’t really add much value to my life. I see it as time wasted and as a distraction. So instead, I put that time into reading books and blogs focusing on topics that I care deeply about. There are also a few science news sites that I check occasionally if I have time to procrastinate, as well as sites such as Digg, Mixx, and StumbleUpon, but even with these customizable and crowdsourced sites I find the real added-value very fleeting for my purposes.
Finland and H1N1
A good case example about how not following news pays off was the H1N1 hysteria here in Finland. I started hearing about it first from my mom, then looked into it a bit on international health sites to discover that there was not really any reason to get worried about it – less chance of getting an H1N1 infection than the seasonal flu, and even in the worst cases it seemed easily treatable with modern medicine. At the same time, however, news outlets in Finland were using fear mongering tactics; pandemic, estimates of H1N1 death toll, how especially pregnant women were at risk etc. Now consider if that was your only source of information, like it was for many people, how would it have made you feel? Scared? Panicked?
Then Finland bought 5.3 million doses of Pandemrix vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline, as recommended by The National Institute for Health and Welfare. Hallelujah! And the scare tactics had worked, too. People were actually fighting to get vaccinated. The Institute continued its campaign of fear with the help of news outlets – as most of their information came from the Institute. Latest at this point, however, some people started to become skeptical: Finland has a population of about 5 million. Was it really expected that everyone would get vaccinated? Then the best part was discovered: The National Institute for Health and Welfare had received 6 million euros from GlaxoSmithKline for ‘research’, and the Institute did not ask for competing offers or from any other pharmaceutics companies, but went straight for GSK’s Pandemrix vaccine. If this doesn’t smell fishy, then I don’t know what does.
Only when the complications and side-effects of the vaccine started to become too numerous to ignore, the voice of the mainstream media started to change somewhat. Yet during the whole ordeal, a non-profit citizen activist website had published H1N1 related information from numerous sources, national and international, and as a result got even accused by The National Institute for Health and Welfare for spreading misinformation. So no matter what was happening in the rest of the world, the Finnish people are apparently expected to have blind trust.
I do not want to keep beating this death horse any further, and I definitely want to avoid all the conspiracy theories surrounding World Health Organization, the corruption in Finnish national healthcare, or how BigPharma is pushing its own agenda in the Finnish parliamentary politics etc. What I want to say, however, is that in light of these events no matter what your source is, you can’t be certain that the information you get is correct. It might also be wise to consider what motivation your source might have, or who is actually funding it. Can you trust them to offer a neutral, objective view on the topic?
Despite this ‘trust no one’ tone of voice, I want to believe that there is a better chance at finding more accurate and objective information from specialist sites such as The New England Journal of Medicine or Mercola.com, compared to the Finnish mainstream media that seems to get its information from the aforementioned biased and possibly corrupted sources.
In the end, if I had followed the news surrounding H1N1 in Finland, I’m almost certain I would have felt a lot more anxious and worried about how the situation would play itself out. At the same time there wasn’t really much I could personally have done about it, yet it would have robbed me of some of my attention, willpower, or energy – whatever you want to call it – and hindered my ability to put my mind into more important things. That to me is worth much more than finding out who won the Big Brother this year or who is our prime minister dating this time.