A lot of people have written about the toxicity of news. This idea, that reading news is something to be avoided, might not be new to you. But today might be a great day for a reminder. I needed a reminder, because I'm tempted... very temped.

I could make the case again, that avoiding news is the thing to do, but Rolf Dobelli already did this elegantly. In his article, Avoid News, he discusses fifteen points:

  1. News misleads us systematically
  2. News is irrelevant
  3. News limits understanding
  4. News is toxic to your body
  5. News massively increases cognitive errors
  6. News inhibits thinking
  7. News changes the structure of your brain
  8. News is costly
  9. News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement
  10. News is produced by journalists
  11. Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always
  12. News is manipulative
  13. News makes us passive
  14. News gives us the illusion of caring
  15. News kills creativity

His article was written in 2010 and since then the world has changed. In a world where everything is "Fake News!" and conspiracy theories are becoming normal, complaining about news makes me sound like one of the crazies. The world has become a place where mainstream media doesn't seem toxic anymore, but a breath of fresh air.

Nonetheless, the fact that worse alternatives exist, doesn't make his points invalid. I notice myself craving to know what is going on, on the other side of the world, on an hourly basis, while it will only cause me stress. And none of the information will be actionable. If you currently live in America the case might seem harder to make, but even then a daily update from a friend will probably suffice. 

Dobelli ends with the following advice:

Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey. Make news as inaccessible as possible.

If you want to explore this topic further I recommend the article by Dobelli: Avoid News, and an article by Gwern: Littlewood's Law and the Global Media.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:59 AM

Dunno if this trick will help anyone but me, but here it is anyway: go looking for Really Important news from a few years ago. The more sensational the headlines, the more portentous the tones, the better.

When I tried this, I got a mixture of boredom and disgust. This didn't replace the craving, but it did sort of overwhelm the craving and compelled me to put my attention anywhere else. I think I ended up going for a walk or something.

However, the only sustainable strategy I know of is to put together all the standard habit/addiction things in place. Find a decent replacement (maybe fiction or video games or just journaling), make a personal rule against opening anti-informative media, configure your devices to increase friction around news-reading and lower the reward, take an official break and maybe add some kind of mastbinding mechanism (a week in a cabin without internet access would count), and when you do decide to give in to the temptation, at least try to first spend a few seconds visualizing what it will be like.

Related : I Hate the News by Aaron Swartz.

It should be noted that the linked-to article make many claims that lack nuance and justification (e.g., "News is toxic to your body" and "News massively increases cognitive errors").

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that–because you consumed it—allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business—compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of news.

It's helpful to know some COVID-related things (when is a vaccine expected; what are current prevalence rates) to help make decisions regarding how much risk to incur, how much toilet paper to buy, etc. In a few weeks (once the markets have settled), I'll have made a few thousand dollars trading on PredictIt against people who thought that Trump's chances were better than they were. I increased my charitable donations when the charitable-deduction limit was increased from 50% to 60% of AGI.

The article is right that very little news is of practical use! But overstating an argument isn't the best way of convincing people of this.

The map is to the territory as the corporate media complex is to the Truth.

  • The media used to be history as it was being written, a level 1 simulacrum, a simple descriptor.
  • Then it was level 2, assumed to still be level 1 but from a reasonable perspective with obvious implications.
  • Then it was level 3, promoted as level 1 but known by insiders to be level 2 or 3.
  • Now it is level 4, known by most to be a tool, but still mistaken for level 1 or 2 by those not paying attention.

Why should I believe a level 4 simulacrum of the election results when all the superweapons are both at stake and in play?

The media used to be history as it was being written

When do you think that was?

I think it was at least partly true up through the 1950s (in areas with a strong separation of government and press).  I fear it's true BECAUSE history isn't all that accurate either, and until recently, there has been a pretty strong shared storytelling between historians and journalists.  

William Randolph Hearst not only owned a lot of newspapers was politically active to the point of being elected to congress and running for president. 

I'm not aware of any newspaper owner currently being in elected office at the Federal level. 

Wikipedia writes about his political actions:

He sensationalized Spanish atrocities in Cuba while calling for war in 1898 against Spain. Historians, however, reject his subsequent claims to have started the war with Spain as overly extravagant.

No newspaper owner today would take the credit for starting a war.

Robert Caro's book The Power Broker is interesting in how it recounts Moses interaction with Newspapers like the New York Times and Moses had no problem getting the Times to print what he wanted. 

Level 1 = what you wish newspapers to be -- but it probably never existed

Level 2 = mainstream journalism (they lie because they want you to do X)

Level 3 = political blogging (they describe whatever tribe X believes, as if it is reality)

Level 4 = fake news (they would gladly publish GPT-3 outputs if they believed it will increase ad views)