Back in the spring of 2018 I would wake up with a jolt from an alarm on my phone best described as a siren. In order to stop this early morning torment I would grab the phone, turn off the alarm, and while I am already at it I would open up a few applications to check what’s new. These applications would include Instagram (for my daily dose of jealousy and envy of what everyone else was doing), Apollo (for my daily dose of US politics, world news, and more envy and jealousy of other people’s work), perhaps a news app or two (for my extra dose of politics and misery around the world), and lastly my email or Slack (to see what would stress me out that day).
This browsing would get a quick break as I was commuting to work, because I would read some kind of book during that time, but then continue throughout the day. Not only was I voluntarily taking in information from across the world, but I was also continuously getting messages from friends, work, and other sources. It was a constant stream of notifications that sometimes made me wonder if I was actually wearing an Apple Watch or a vibrator.
I blame the Internet and capitalism
The internet has enabled the flow of information across the world in ways that are both wonderful and horrific. In some of the most remote corners of the world you can still access a website like Wikipedia and educate yourself about obscure topics. You can talk, and share ideas, with a person across the globe—enabling friendships across nations. But you could also end up consuming propaganda of any sort to become enraged and radicalised.
In later years we have learned that anger is one of the most effective emotions to get people to engage with content. Rage-bait, doomscrolling, and toxicity drives clicks and hooks us in; something that is used by media companies worldwide to glue our eyes to their content and consume more. It’s a big reason I was so hooked on US politics the entire term Trump was president. I was angry and more importantly: scared. It made me feel compelled to follow every little detail of what was going on in an attempt to make myself feel less scared, and the more I read the more angry and scared I got.
I had a similar episode with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both the 2014 and the 2022 ones. I obsessed over it all because I was scared. The more I obsessed over it the more horrific acts I saw made by Russia, and the more angry and scared I got. It wasn’t pretty. It’s a similar, and continuous, feeling with the climate crisis as well.
Companies know this and with the commercialisation of the Internet they capitalise on it. Every little piece of us must be monetised and squeezed for revenue. That includes the time we spend looking at their content. CNN 24/7 news report of the Ukraine war will rage-bait us into watching their stream of content and ads for hours. Social media will hook you with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, but keep you scrolling for more. The anger releases adrenaline and we get hooked.
The internet was founded as a free tool to share information. It has turned into a capitalistic cesspool that exploits us in ways our brains have not evolved to handle. We are bombarded with visual and mental stimuli that pushes our buttons to keep our eyes glued to the screen and our minds locked on the content that exists.
Is there such a thing as too much information?
The core of a lot of problems is the amount of information we, as individuals, are expected to consume, process, and act on.
This amount has exploded in a very short span of the existence of humanity. What did a peasant in the 1000s have to digest? Information about their family and friends, their general area, and perhaps a few pieces of news from the outside world. They would have to go outside to check for the weather and worry about their cattle and food supplies.
Imagine yourself in that position today. You don’t know about your friend working from a sunny beach in Bali while freelancing for Apple. You don’t know the atrocities committed in Ukraine. You don’t know that the world may be beyond saving due to our pollution. You just have to worry about those close to you and yourself.
In the last year I have asked myself if there’s a thing such as too much access to information and I think my answer would be: maybe. It all comes down to pairing that information with trust and education. If you have access to information without the means to fully understand it you risk misinterpreting it. If you don’t understand it you might not fully trust it, or those that do understand it. If there is corruption in some aspects of institutions we ought to trust, you might be inclined to distrust all of them.
Having access to information, and not understanding it, can lead to conspiracy theories popping up. Having access to immigration data, but not fully understanding it, can spur on racism. Wilful organisations and individuals that skew information on purpose can inform individuals with a semi-truth that makes them distrust institutions. I believe that we’re at a point where we have access to so much information that we can’t understand or process it all, and this is used to polarise and manipulate the world.
In the words of Tyler1: I’m fucking addicted, so I can’t quit.
Or not entirely true. While I have mostly quit Instagram—I was basically absent there for years—I have now started using it as an outlet for my amateur photography. I do have certain rules for myself, that work for now. I only access it through a browser. I only upload a photo. Then I close it. Not having the app has broken my habit of checking it every five minutes. Reddit did replace that, but now Apollo is gone and that’s stopped me from going there all the time. In this moment I am considering uninstalling all my news apps, Discord, and more. I am reluctant to uninstall Discord due to how much I use it to chat with friends, but I have at least disallowed all notifications.
I recently discovered that I can have a scheduled summary for my phone notifications, and it’s been a blessing. I only really get notifications on my watch nowadays when my wife messages me, or I get a call from anyone, and I am considering removing those notifications as well (sorry).
What I still have is a habit of picking up my phone wanting to do something with it. I open an app or two for that “something new” dopamine kick and I recognise it as being toxic. I’ve even sometimes opened up my work slack at extremely weird hours just to see if there might be something new hidden there. Apple’s screen time rules rarely work for me unfortunately.
Part of me has considered replacing my phone for a Light phone; not fully, but for a time. Perhaps a day or so. I have also found that going on photo-walks has helped, because with a camera in my right hand I can’t pull up my phone easily. Or maybe I buy one of those phone lockers and say that I won’t use my phone for a few hours in the evening.
What I can say however is that by actively avoiding social media like Instagram, Reddit, etc. and limiting the amount of news I digest I am a bit happier and less stressed. I still have ways to go because I access some rage-bait drama on Youtube and Discord. But it’s limited in scope.
So for me, at least, less information is perhaps better. That being said I have always had a fairly high trust in institutions so I am happy to get news I trust from SVT or AP, regardless of what others say about them. They are long-standing institutions that I believe can be trusted.
I'm tired of endless information. I'm tired of my feelings of responsibility for things out of my control. I'm tired of scrolling for dopamine kicks.
Is there some truth in the saying: Ignorance is a bliss? Perhaps. I don't want to be ignorant. But I do want to make my daily life live in a smaller world. It's my duty as a citizen of the world to stay up to date, but perhaps not every day. I need to trust in the institutions that can do something to actually do what's right, so I am not taking on that responsibility.
I need to realise that everything isn't my burden.