Online news as “unmindful consumption”

Our experience of consuming news has completely transformed in the space of a generation. What are the effects of 24-hour online news on our attention? Is online news compatible with living mindfully?

In a single generation, the way we follow and consume news has completely transformed. The first 24-hour news television channel, CNN, launched in 1980 in the US, and by 2000 there were multiple 24-hour channels in many countries around the world.

Online news became a realistic proposition after the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, and grew in popularity in parallel with 24-hour news channels before overtaking them. With online news, we could not only read news stories minutes after they were written, but we were now in control, being able to read about whatever we liked, whenever we liked. The rise of social media and smart phone cameras meant we could all contribute to the news too.

Every step we took seemed like progress. We have more news, we can read when we like, we can select from multiple sources, and we can ignore the news that doesn’t interest us.

A few years ago this new age of online news and social media platforms seemed fantastic. Society as a whole felt positive about it, if a little overwhelmed by the possibilities of the new news. Perhaps the high point for this positivity was the Arab Spring in 2011: the narrative at the time being that access to smart phones, social media platforms and online news was leading to democratic revolutions overthrowing the region’s nasty dictators.

In 2018, with the benefit of hindsight, the Arab Spring no longer looks like a positive story of liberation: 7 years of war in Syria, Libya in a state of anarchy, and Egypt ruled by another military commander.

In 2018, the 24-hour online news industry and social media don’t have such a positive standing either.

There are many problems with our news industry and its interaction with politics, including concerns about media ownership, MSM bias, fake news, and the impact of targetted political advertisements on social media and the web. These problems are discussed widely elsewhere.

But a greater concern for me is the impact of news on our time and attention. I read news online almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and this sometimes includes checking what people are saying on Twitter or Reddit. I presume that I am fairly typical in doing this, at least amongst millennials.

There are no doubt people who do not experience news in this way, perhaps because they still get all their news from newspapers or an evening news broadcast. And there are some people who simply have no interest in following the news. But clearly there has been a move towards online consumption of news and there are millions or perhaps billions of people who do follow the news in this way.

My relationship with news

My first memories of the news are in the 1990s in the UK. As a child, I thought the news was either sad or boring. It was either tragic reports of war and murder, or it was grey-haired men in grey suits who seemed to talk a lot but not really say anything.

Later, in high school, my teachers stressed that it was important to stay up-to-date with current affairs. We should aim to be well informed adults who could discuss current affairs and be able to apply this information to our lives, whether it be in deciding who to vote for in elections, managing our personal finances, or in business. More news would make us more successful.

There was never a suggestion from my teachers that more news could be in any way problematic. But then the way they kept up-to-date was completely different to how many people do today. Their news was a broadsheet newspaper or an evening news programme giving a curated and (to some extent) balanced view of the day’s events. It was not a constant stream of just updated articles, live feeds, fake news, and tweets consumed in accordance with one’s own political biases.

As I approached voting age, I started to tune into the news. I used to watch the UK’s Channel 4 News, which as far as television news goes, was excellent (I couldn’t tell you if that’s still the case as I haven’t been watching TV for years). Although this involved dedicating half an hour or more each day to news, I feel it was worth doing, particularly at that age, to learn about politics, develop my own political stance, and get a global view of events around the world. The quality of the broadcasting meant that it was time well spent.

Now, over a decade later, I spend less time on news, but I find my experience of it less satisfying, and more disruptive. I keep up-to-date through online news, but I find myself reading about details which are of no relevance and on which I can have no influence. The level of abstraction in online news is ridiculous: political live streams are featured on the front page of news websites, which feature minute-by-minute soap operatic bickering between never-heard-of politicians.

Less is more

It wasn’t until I read Tim Ferriss’s The 4-hour Workweek that I ever considered that less news might be wise. He recommends tuning out entirely. News (and most other media) is a waste of time. The truly important news you’ll hear about anyway, because everyone will be talking about it. And asking people what is happening in the world is a good conversation starter.

So you can save a whole load of time by cutting out news and other media. In the book, Tim suggests going on a media fast, cutting out news and other media for a week. I’ve tried this, and it takes some discipline, but I didn’t really miss it and was happier and had more time as a result.

News as distraction

It’s not just about saving time. Unless you’re consuming news in one dedicated block, the bigger cost is to your attention. You may be using news as a distraction, to avoid the things that are really important to you. You can quickly check the news in an instant, and you’re instantly rewarded with a nugget of new information. You can do this whenever you’re bored or uncomfortable or finding it difficult to concentrate. It feels good.

But maybe you’d be better off just pausing for a moment, and being aware of what you’re feeling. Why are you uncomfortable? Can you address the source of that discomfort? Or can you just be aware of it and accept it (for the time being, at least)? Perhaps you’re consuming news as procrastination, because what you planned to work on is hard, and working hard can be uncomfortable.

In case it isn’t obvious, I am partly writing to myself! I know that I use news in this way, and I want to improve my relationship with news.

Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh adapted the traditional Buddhist precepts to a modern interpretation, “The Five Mindfulness Trainings“. In the original precepts, the fifth precept refers to not consuming alcohol or drugs. In the modern interpretation this has been expanded to the consumption of “any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations”. Here is the training (“Nourishment and Healing”) reproduced in full:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

When I first heard this, it became clear to me that online news “contains toxins” and was unmindful consumption (at least in the way was consuming it). It might not be toxic for everyone – for example, a politician, journalist, or activist may need to follow the news in detail. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are meant not as strict rules, but a tool for personal reflection. The most important word in the Five Mindfulness Trainings is the word they each start with: “Aware”. Once you have awareness, and you are able to maintain that awareness for long enough, you will see the right path for you, and any necessary changes will follow naturally. I am now aware enough of my consumption of online news to see that it is toxic to me, and that it is time to make some changes.

In my next blog post I will write more about going on a news detox, and explore better, more mindful ways of consuming news.

Is your experience of online news similar to mine, or do you have a better relationship with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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