I’ve been trying lately to ease myself into an information diet. For the last 10+ years, I’ve spent at least a few hours each day reading and consuming information, primarily in the form of news, articles, and essays. My goal is to try to limit what feels like an excessive amount of time and energy I spend on this activity.
Alas, gorging on news and trivia is one of my greatest pleasures. As a kid, I would read encyclopedias and entire series of informational books and magazines (such as the much beloved Zoobooks). As an adult, I’ve spent hours every day relentlessly consuming information from news websites, Wikipedia, social media, and non-fiction books. The pleasure of knowing so much about so many different things has clearly satisfied some deep desire I have to hoard knowledge.
So why would I try to limit something that is so integrally a part of my identity? One reason is that I find it impossible to keep up with anything anymore, especially the news. My inability to keep up has often left me feeling anxious—the proverbial “fear of missing out” but for current events. I also increasingly feel that the time I’ve spent trying to keep up could have been spent writing, engaging with friends and family, or simply resting.
I was recently reminded of how failing to restrain my desire to keep accumulating trivia is a form of procrastination. In Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium recently, one of his lectures describes how Gustave Flaubert put off writing a novel for over a decade because he couldn’t stop researching every little detail about everything his characters encountered. The novel itself became a type of encyclopedia: long, pedantic, and interminable despite Flaubert’s extraordinary gifts as a writer.
Infotainment is a form of distraction, albeit one that has a veneer of respectability that other distractions do not. Most troubling for me as a writer and a reader, is how I’ve felt alienated from texts themselves. Sometimes I feel we live in a society where people drench themselves in media while alternately broadcasting themselves to others, a world of people shouting at each other through megaphones.
As a writer, I’ve wanted to reach people more intimately, and as a reader I’ve wanted to be touched by what I read more viscerally too. I want to expand the channels of trust through which we talk to each other and share our ideas and experiences.
Going on an information diet may also help me resolve something that frustrates me about political writing. We live in a world in which any form of political communications eventually becomes drowned in spin and propaganda. I too am responsible for having produced bits of internet ephemera and “hot takes” as part of the media machine. For example, six years ago, I started what Ezra Pound would have called a “small magazine”, Distilled. During our short existence as a conventional digital and print magazine, we primarily published articles on politics and current events. Like many other small magazine founders at the time, I felt that there was a role for magazine writing and essayists in instigating change, much like how politics and Commentary transformed political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1940s and 50s.
Unfortunately, the Distilled experience taught me that our voice was often just one of many frightfully similar voices in a broad competitive landscape of public intellectuals. And by seeking to be sustainable in terms of our readership and eventually finances, we were more prone than we thought to click-bait and provocation. As the scope of our ambition grew, so did our distance from our audience and our initial purpose to be a more intimate, community-oriented publication.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure how effective it is to write for a broad unknown audience or to read contemporary essays as another anonymous reader. There’s so much content in which any one of us can drown in modern society, and the level of the tide seems to keep rising. In that saturated context, we may read and write essays, but will any of it compel us to act? Can any of it transform us?
I believe it still can, but that the likelihood that a piece of writing will mean something is increased significantly if it is placed in the confines of intimacy of a personal correspondence.
I believe that many people in our society are suffering a dearth of trust and confidence in their relationships with others, themselves, and the world. In these newsletters, meetups, private correspondences, Distilled pamphlets, etc. I would like to revive the hope that what we say and read does matter and can lead to action laden with conviction because they are being said in the trusted space that exists between friends. Perhaps with time, these trusted spaces will grow stronger and more robust because we are using them to build something new between ourselves.
That being said, here are some of the ways I’ve chosen to limit how much time I spend every day being distracted by the media churn. I hope they may be helpful to you too.
I’ve subscribed to newsletters rather than subject myself to endless archives of content on various news and magazine websites
I’ve used an extension that limits the number of tabs I have open in my browser window
I also use an extension that blocks a blacklist of sites after I’ve browsed them collectively for more than an hour any given day
I try to satisfy my desire to read articles with print materials
Finally, I’ve blocked Twitter altogether
As with any addiction, I’ve certainly lapsed in terms of my information consumption by indulging in consuming more than I wanted or should, but over the past few months I’ve made some progress on making these lapses fewer and shorter. I believe that these lapses are natural parts of any long-term behavioral change, and I hope that what I’ve shared is helpful if you find yourself in a similar position.