Is Staying Informed Overrated?

Published 5 March 2017 | 1,885 words | Categories: Philosophy, Psychology

I saw a couple of tweets earlier this month from Naval Ravikant, and they've stuck with me. Not because they're particularly enlightening on their own—they're individual tweets, after all. It's because Naval's statements mesh with other pieces of information I've seen this year. Together, the sum of this knowledge paints quite an interesting picture.

"It's the news' job to make you anxious & angry. Underlying scientific, economic, education & conflict trends are positive. Stay optimistic."

""Staying informed" is overrated."

Oddly controversial statements to make these days:

Yet in certain ways, they make sense. Is it worth taking the time to keep up with the news?

The news isn't always meant to inform

The media is becoming ever-more focused on providing entertainment so they can get higher ratings. (Thus, higher profits.) Keeping people on the edge of their seat is in the media's best interest. And what of someone's personal goals? It takes a lot of time and energy to consume media. Even more time and energy if he or she wants an accurate understanding of a topic. To be dedicated to a particular goal means their time would be best served achieving that goal. Instead of wasting time with whatever the media's opinions are. Most news will have no impact on someone's immediate life; even local news can be questionable.

It's difficult for the untrained mind to find truth in a piece of news, as facts are often mixed with bias and irrelevancies. The average person can't find important information if they're deluged with noise. It becomes a "needle in a haystack" situation. It's sometimes referred to as "the signal and the noise," and information overload (noise) can be dangerous.

"Cameras everywhere, partisan media, clickbait headlines & short attention spans means that news is degenerating into never ending "gotcha!""

There's also a theory that the media promotes outrage culture because we like it—because it provides a dopamine high. That explains why people keep going back and reading news which upsets them. They're looking for the next hit of dopamine. If this theory is true, the media knows about it, and is taking advantage. An audience addicted to their news—there's nothing better, in the eyes of a multi-million-dollar corporation. (Remember, most media is owned by huge corporations.) To break the addiction, people would need to find other ways to boost dopamine. There are plenty of options; I won't get into that here, though, because it's a bit off-topic.

What does it mean to be informed?

Being informed is literally "having or showing knowledge of a particular subject or situation." Personally, as much I want to be an expert on all topics, it's impossible. There's too much information out there.

I know that no one can be 100 percent informed. The more I learn, the more I realize that it's better to be a specialist than a generalist. Someone can specialize in more than one thing, but trying to specialize in too many things... that becomes a different beast. It's spreading oneself too thin. This is where we get phrases like "jack of all trades, master of none" and "I know enough to know that I know nothing." Everyone's resources are finite.

For example, it's within the realm of possibility to find someone who's a good plumber and carpenter. But it's unrealistic to expect someone to be a plumber, carpenter, architect, electrician, car mechanic, and lumberjack. That person may know a bit about each topic, but it's impossible to be an expert—or otherwise well informed—on all topics.

"As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering." - Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker

For someone with clear personal goals, perhaps they should free themselves of unnecessary distractions in pursuit of that goal. A lot of the news (and internet in general) is full of unnecessary distractions. Things that won't be remembered a week later. Is watching the news helpful... or is it mere entertainment? Does staying informed lead to personal fulfillment? Even when there's a topic which is legitimately important and outraging—what can one person do about it? Are they informed enough to make decisions about that topic?

Rare is the time when the media will offer a solution; their goal often isn't to inform, it's to make the public mad. (Usually to keep them watching or reading, asking "what happens next?" So the media can collect more advertising revenue.) Many people are too busy to look for a solution on their own time. Or finding a solution requires expert-level knowledge which takes months (if not years) to acquire. Problems are often problems because they're hard to solve, and there's only so much we can do. It's easy to be distracted in today's digital world; and difficult to focus on what's important.

"You can do anything. You just can't do everything. Life is a game of trade-offs and priorities." - Ed Latimore

Does staying informed matter?

I've been doing media analysis on this blog for a while. Every week I do a summary of important global events that can be read in 5 minutes. It's occurred to me: is this worth my time? It's interesting to see what happens around the world in seven days. I'm sure people have found my summaries useful; I try to make them easy to read and without overt bias. I separate the signal from the noise. (A lot of news has bias injected into it.)

"Reading the source material is better than reading other people's opinions about the source material"

Yet I don't feel better about being informed. Reading the news and keeping up with social media is tiring in the Constant Outrage Era. Especially when poor reporting and/or falsehoods are passed off as fact on a frequent basis. Even when there's a rebuttal or correction, the update doesn't always get the acceptance it deserves. Facts don't change a person's mind about a topic. I've been thinking that my time can be better spent if I ignore the news (for the most part). It might improve my overall mental well-being and make me more productive.

Recent major events included:

How many of these, I wonder, are relevant to the average person's life? (It depends on location, of course.) For someone in Iowa or Denmark, they're unlikely to care about any of these events. For people in Venezuela or Yemen, they probably care more about finding food than reading a newspaper. People tend to think of themselves first; everyone has a bit of ego and selfishness in them.

"Being informed" on global events is a first-world problem. (Not that I'd classify it as a real problem.) Local news is what will matter—and even then, much of that news is likely irrelevant to daily life. (Note: there are always exceptions.)

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." - Herbert A. Simon

Life is always based on survival of the fittest. One way or another. How many people need the mainstream media to survive? Especially in the age of social media, where endless information is connected to billions of fingertips.

Leisure is important, and reading the news doesn't sound like the most enjoyable use of time. Most people would rather watch a movie or travel. Although as far as hobbies go, "reading the news in-depth" isn't a bad idea. I'm sure people find it fun because some events unfold like a real-life soap opera. However, that's what the media is becoming—an entertainment outlet, not an information outlet.

Philosophers have said, throughout the ages, that life is intrinsically meaningless. It's up to us to imbue our lives with meaning. Scientists have even speculated that our universe is a simulation... and that's a topic for another blog post. The point is, reality is subjective, and enjoyment of our reality depends on the actions we take. If someone doesn't enjoy the news, they don't need to stay informed. Anyone can quit the purposeful consumption of news.

"The only reasonable goal in life is maximizing your total lifetime experience of something called happiness." - Scott Adams

Is staying informed overrated, considering all the above points?

Other (related) observations

I've realized that "being informed could be overrated" isn't limited to news. Ignorance doesn't directly correlate with stupidity—it depends on the context. While I still can't believe a significant number of people erroneously believe the sun revolves around the Earth, I'm more understanding about this than ever before. Does it matter if someone knows that the Earth revolves around the sun? For the average person, once they've finished grade school, this knowledge is useless.

Not knowing a piece of basic information doesn't mean someone is an idiot. It's impossible to judge the level of someone's intelligence based on whether they know one fact. If they don't need to know something to go about their life and achieve their goals, I say: go ahead and forget it. There isn't a real downside to forgetting unnecessary information. People can fill their brain with stuff that's important to them, not what's important to other people. Everyone has their own interests. Generally, people don't use facts and logic for decision-making anyway.

"Life is going to play out the way it’s going to play out. Some good, some bad. Most of it is actually just up to your interpretation. You’re born, you have a set of sensory experiences, and then you die. How you choose to interpret those sensory inputs is up to you, and different people interpret them in different ways." - Naval Ravikant

Another important observation I've come across:

The only thing people can never get more of is time. A person can always find a way to get clothes, money, food, or whatever else is necessary. But time? It's a limited resource. Ticking away one day at a time. Every day is another day that never comes back.

With this perspective, people should think about how best to use each day. Every moment is valuable. And there are a lot of distractions which demand that precious time.

Social media, for instance. Computer World ran an article in December 2015 saying "social networking is engineered to be as habit-forming as crack cocaine." Cutting down on use of social media is bound to be difficult for many people, even if they're better off in the long run. This isn't to say that people should abandon social media—it has its place—but how many people overuse it? The same concept applies to the mainstream media.

It seems like we stress too much over stuff that doesn't matter. Isn't life too short to waste time?

"Stress is just the dark side of your brain trying to distract and trick you into forgetting how beautiful it is to be alive." - Andrew W. K.

Is staying informed overrated?

Maybe we'll never know—yet it seems worth thinking about. Is it possible to be happier and more productive by not staying informed? "Rid yourself of distractions to focus on improving yourself and/or others" sounds rather monk-like. It could be what some people need to hear.

I'd love to hear other opinions on this topic. There are few absolutes in this post—and there are few absolutes in life.

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