2019 was a news-heavy year for India. It conducted the largest-ever election in the world. Everything about it was overwhelming.
2019 was also the first year where I did not intentionally consume any kind of news.
Want to know how much of the important stuff I missed? None.
If you wake up to your morning newspaper, listen to a news podcast on your way to work, watch the TV news for hours daily, and then crib about your kid wasting time on Instagram and TikTok, here's something you need to understand - there is no difference between flipping through news channels and scrolling Instagram. It's graphic, doesn't take much brains to understand, sensational, gossip inducing, and focuses on whatever's trending.
Incentives drive everything. The business model for both news and social media is the same - advertisements. And how do ads work? By grabbing your attention and making sure you don't feel full even after hours of consumption. So as soon as a news story starts to get stretched beyond two minutes, they move on to a new one, or you switch the channel. Just like when you send hearts to someone’s birthday photo on Insta but totally ignore the 20-photo story they posted of the same birthday party.
With more than 10 Million downloads and a 4.6/5 rating, inshorts is one of the most popular news apps in India. It serves you news (read worthless garbage) in less than 60 words and a related picture with every swipe. Law of least effort at its best. Here’s a small fun exercise I do whenever someone tries to tell me that it’s a moral duty to be aware of what’s happening in the world - I ask them to open their favorite news app. Most of the times it’s inshorts. Then I ask them to start scrolling and stop when they think that this news ‘short’ can lead them to take any action of significance in their life.
They are still scrolling.
I’ve got nothing against inshorts and alike. Who wouldn’t want to build a product that can make its users stick like these news apps? The real issue is people deluding themselves into thinking that consuming news helps them and makes them an informed human being. “Thanks to this crucial bit of information, I am now much more armed to act in the welfare of the society.”
It's not the media's role to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. It is upon us consumers to realize that news is not very useful for understanding the world.
- Hans Rosling
Ask yourself when was the last time you read a news story that led to a decision having a long-term impact on your life? News is completely irrelevant to what matters. News, like most other forms of entertainment, is just that - entertainment. But it has the potential to inflict much more mental harm than other forms of entertainment because it’s deceiving.
It’s difficult to fool yourself into thinking that watching movies or TikTok videos is the duty of a good citizen, but this idea is very closely bonded with News gorging. Thus making it much more dangerous. People waste 2-3 hours everyday gorging on mental sugar and end up feeling pretty proud about it.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
- Attributed to Charles Baudelaire
But some News is more equal than other News, right?
I do not say all this only for the tabloid-kind news stories that focus on who’s dating whom but even the ones that seem important. Stuff like some company going bankrupt or a war raging in some country or a new policy by the government. All of it is noise!
I often get questions like “How do you know whom to vote for if you don’t follow politics at all?” See you don’t have to track political news every night to place a vote once in five years! And some brief online research one week before the elections will suffice for that.
It should be banned to use ‘news’ and ‘staying informed’ in the same sentence. If you’re afraid you’re going to miss anything “important”, be rest assured that you will still be living among humans. And anything even mildly important will find its way to you.
Giving up on news does not only help with freeing up your time, but also saves you from many cognitive blocks it brings along. News is all about what’s happening “right now”, and we tend to give much higher weightage to any recent event and ignore the longer historical trends when making a decision.
Investing decisions are especially much more susceptible to this kind of error. A seemingly negative corporate or government announcement can lead to momentary panic selling, destroying people’s wealth, only to see the dust settle in a few weeks and everything going back to normal. Until a new announcement comes along.
News also makes you a lazy shallow thinker by dishing out flawed narratives as explanations. Though it will be unfair to just blame media outlets for this. It’s more of a human thing. We are story-driven animals and post-event rationalization is something we cannot do away with. Any news organization that comes out and says that “We have no idea why the markets tanked” or “We have no capability to make accurate predictions” will go out of business in no time. The truth here leads to death.
“Watching news is about staying informed” is exactly the kind of deceitful post-rationalization we indulge in after wasting hours everyday, trying to save ourselves of the guilt.
All I am saying is, either stop throwing away your most precious resource - time, or stop fooling yourself into thinking that news adds any value to your life.
Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. Why give it away so easily? You are not that irresponsible with your money, your reputation or your health. Why give away your mind?
- Rolf Dobelli
What about sounding smart?
There’s one problem with prescribing a zero-news diet - it’s not a human behavior friendly advice. It’s like saying stop having any expectations and you will lead a happy life. True, but nearly impossible to do.
There’s a social pressure to stay informed. You don’t like to come off as the clueless guy while everyone is busy bashing the government for the new foreign policy it rolled out.
Your colleagues and clients will probably take you for a fool if you say that none of the events happening right now are going to have any significant impact in the long-run, and even if they do, we have no way to tell right now.
For most part of the human history, we lived in tribes. Our animal cousins still live the same way and if you’ve seen any nature documentary, you know that the best chance for the wolf to hunt its prey is to get it away from the pack.
Being separated from the tribe was a death sentence. The one left out got killed while others passed on their genes to the next generation. Trying to “fit in” is not a fad, it’s a survival hack.
So how to remain sane, save your time, and consume news in a way that actually helps you:
Subscribe to long reads like a weekly/monthly newsletter or a magazine. Avoid daily newspapers. The idea is to read about an event in-depth once it’s done and dusted, instead of tracking the trivial details every hour.
Read. Don’t watch. Visual content has much better chances to enrage you - making it difficult to stay objective.
Ask your friends if there’s anything worthwhile going on in the world.
For any of the above sources, look for opposing views. Do not read/listen to just one point of view. Cancel out the biases. You never know when you’re being informed and when misinformed.
This approach is all you need to engage in discussions with people around you and satisfy that social pressure.
Don’t go overboard. No matter how important that one news story is, it won’t have any direct impact to your life, or something that you can do much about. What’s the point of any information if it’s not actionable?
Living a news-free life is not possible. Whether you like it or not, news will find its way to you. This approach will reduce the news that comes to you by 20% but the time and effort you put in by 80%.
Try going cold-turkey on news for seven days and on the eighth day ask yourself if you really missed out on anything substantial? I’ve been doing this for more than a year now. And the answer till date is ‘No’.
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