Rolf Fobelli: News is to the mind what sugar is to the body
“We humans seem to be natural-born signal hunters, we’re terrible at regulating our intake of information. We’ll consume a ton of noise if we sense we may discover an added ounce of signal. So our instinct is at war with our capacity for making sense.”
“When people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.”
“Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, peoplerelated, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on more subtle pieces of intelligence that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias. News media outlets, by and large, focus on the highly visible. They display whatever information they can convey with gripping stories and lurid pictures, and they systematically ignore the subtle and insidious, even if that material is more important. News grabs our attention; that’s how its business model works. Even if the advertising model didn’t exist, we would still soak up news pieces because they are easy to digest and superficially quite tasty. The highly visible misleads us. (…)
- Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
- The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
- Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
- Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.
- Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.
Afraid you will miss “something important”? From my experience, if something really important happens, you will hear about it, even if you live in a cocoon that protects you from the news. Friends and colleagues will tell you about relevant events far more reliably than any news organization. They will fill you in with the added benefit of meta-information, since they know your priorities and you know how they think. You will learn far more about really important events and societal shifts by reading about them in specialized journals, in-depth magazines or good books and by talking to the people who know. (…)
The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. (…)
Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. (…)
This is about the inability to think clearly because you have opened yourself up to the disruptive factoid stream. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. (…)
News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest barricade to clear thinking. (…)
In the words of Professor Michael Merzenich (University of California, San Francisco), a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity: “We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” (…)
Good professional journalists take time with their stories, authenticate their facts and try to think things through. But like any profession, journalism has some incompetent, unfair practitioners who don’t have the time – or the capacity – for deep analysis. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional report and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece article by a writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.
My estimate: fewer than 10% of the news stories are original. Less than 1% are truly investigative. And only once every 50 years do journalists uncover a Watergate.
Many reporters cobble together the rest of the news from other people’s reports, common knowledge, shallow thinking and whatever the journalist can find on the internet. Some reporters copy from each other or refer to old pieces, without necessarily catching up with any interim corrections. The copying and the copying of the copies multiply the flaws in the stories and their irrelevance. (…)
Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong. So, why consume that junk?
Did the newspapers predict World War I, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, the fall of the Soviet empire, the rise of the Internet, resistance to antibiotics, the fall of Europe’s birth rate or the explosion in depression cases? Maybe, you’d find one or two correct predictions in a sea of millions of mistaken ones. Incorrect forecast are not only useless, they are harmful.
To increase the accuracy of your predictions, cut out the news and roll the dice or, if you are ready for depth, read books and knowledgeable journals to understand the invisible generators that affect our world. (…)
I have now gone without news for a year, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first hand: less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Table of Contents:
No 1 – News misleads us systematically
No 2 – News is irrelevant
No 3 – News limits understanding
No 4 – News is toxic to your body
No 5 – News massively increases cognitive errors
No 6 – News inhibits thinking
No 7 – News changes the structure of your brain
No 8 – News is costly
No 9 – News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement
No 10 – News is produced by journalists
No 11 – Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always
No 12 – News is manipulative
No 13 – News makes us passive
No 14 – News gives us the illusion of caring
No 15 – News kills creativity
— Rolf Dobelli, Swiss novelist, writer, entrepreneur and curator of zurich.minds, to read full essay click Avoid News. Towards a Healthy News Diet (pdf), 2010. (Illustration: Information Overload by taylorboren)
☞ The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks
☞ Nicholas Carr on the evolution of communication technology and our compulsive consumption of information
☞ Does Google Make Us Stupid?
☞ Nicholas Carr on what the internet is doing to our brains?
☞ How the Internet Affects Our Memories: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips
☞ Dr Paul Howard-Jones, The impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (pdf), University of Bristol
☞ William Deresiewicz on multitasking and the value of solitude
☞ Information tag on Lapidarium