- Do news networks still give us “news” or just entertainment?
- Can a 2-millennium old book be more useful for life today than a current New York Times Best Seller?
- Does changing the format of the media we consume modify the way our brain functions?
Everyday we’re consuming media.
This article tries to help us evaluate that media consciously. To help us acquire more real knowledge, avoid nonsense, improve the clarity of our brain function, and generally live better as a result.
To not be slaves to our media.
In this article, we’ll explore.
- A conscious look at what is media, and why we consume it
- Why high frequency sources like news networks are mostly just noise
- Why older sources are generally higher quality than newer ones
- The effects that different media formats have on our brains
- The practical applications and how to improve the quality of our media consumption habits
What Is Media and Why Do We Consume It
Media is an information carrier. Plain and simple.
From stone tablets and scrolls to books and movies to Facebook and CNN.
It delivers us information and comes in many formats.
We consume media for ONE or MORE of the following benefits…
- To be entertained
- To get information
- To get instruction
- To transform ourselves (rare)
- We’re bored and need to kill time
All of these can be valid reasons to consume.
But if I asked you which media sources provide which benefits would you have a clear answer?
Which benefits do you get from the media sources you consume?
If we don’t pay attention, in many cases we’re sold (and believe) that we’re getting one benefit but we actually receive something completely different.
Let’s look at one key example.
Is what you see on news networks or Facebook newsfeeds legitimate information? Or just entertainment to laugh at?
Why 24-Hour News Networks and Social Media Are for Entertainment Only
I’m not going to lie. I watched a good portion of the 2016 Donald Trump presidential debates. I thought they were hilarious. I enjoyed watching almost as much as if I had been watching a standup comedy or TV show.
I didn’t take it seriously. I knew it was entertainment. Because I know that news networks run entertainment at least 99% of the time.
News networks can’t always give us “news” for the simple fact that they run 24 hours per day and need to fill air time. They have advertisers that pay them for eyeballs and clicks.
If they were operating ethically, they’d shut up most of the time and only report when something of significance happens.
Newspapers should be two pages on some days, and two hundred pages on others. They should report in proportion to how urgently we need to know what’s happening. But they don’t.
Can you imagine a CNN anchor coming on to say, “Not much to report on today. No wars, or breakout viruses within 3 countries of where you’re at. If anything happens that you need to do something about I’ll let you know.”
Now that’s a terrible business model. How can you make money and sell junk operating like that?
If you look at the news too frequently you are essentially filling your brain with noise, instead of getting the occasional (once per quarter? once per year?) story that’s worth reading.
I remember in 2014 when everyone was scared about the big Ebola outbreak in Africa. Even that wasn’t real news. People continents away were terrified. I was working in Africa. Not one person was sick within hundreds of kilometers of me. I thought, “Wake me up if it gets relevant. Like maybe if somebody gets sick across the street.”
Watch the News and Social Media Less Frequently to Lower the Noise-to-Signal Ratio
The more frequently you look at any data (stock prices, news networks, Facebook feeds) the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part, called the signal); hence the higher the noise-to-signal ratio and more of your time wasted looking at it.
The same is true for reporting. The more frequently the reporting the more noise being reported on.
Do you know someone who posts on social media several times every day? When was the last time they posted something valuable?
If you check up on any information source on a yearly basis you might get a ratio of signal to noise of about one to one (half noise, half signal)—this means that about half the information you get is based on important events, or real improvements or degradations, the other half comes from randomness. This ratio is what you get from yearly observations.
But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95 percent noise, 5 percent signal.
And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news, stock market, and social media do, the split might become 99.5 percent noise to 0.5 percent signal.
That is two hundred times more noise than signal.
Social Media worsens the problem as people read “scare tactic headlines”, click share, and all of a sudden it feels like the world is ending from all directions. Combine this with the number of highly distorted or even 100% fake stories floating around and your noise to signal ratio becomes astronomical.
The solution. Treat news networks and social media as pure entertainment. Just as you would a movie or video game. Realize most stories you see are made up, and go about your day.
I’ll sometimes watch the news at the end of the year for the “Year in Review Episode”. Even that’s a difficult hour to fill.
Trust that if something truly important happens you’ll hear about it without the news.
If high frequency information is mainly noise, what should that tell us about information that has been around for a long time?
Why Old Stuff Is Usually Higher Quality Than New Stuff
“Time has sharp teeth that destroy everything,” Simonides of Ceos circa 600 BC
Time destroys noise.
Whether we´re looking for entertainment, or instruction. If something non-perishable like the information in a book, or a well-being practice (yoga) is old and still around it probably has value. Because it’s passed the test of time.
There are thousands of books being published every day. Most of them are shit. Most try to take advantage of a current trend, were rushed to production, or are just plain wrong.
Most news books are or will become unusable and forgotten. How much time should I spend reading irrelevant work?
On the other hand. Homer’s Odyssey has been with us for 2700 years. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations since 180 AD. Shakespeare for 500 years. These works have stood the test of time. Do you think they’ll be obsolete any time soon? Will the lessons they teach us and the deep narratives they weave become less valuable with time?
Make a bet. In 100 years, will we still be reading Romeo & Juliet or 50 Shades of Grey?
As I read Seneca’s 1900-year-old work, “On the Shortness of Life” I’m struck by the timelessness of his wisdom. And the applicability it has in today’s world.
Take this passage for example.
“In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.”
Not only is the work infinitely applicable but it enters deep into your psyche. Like most older works.
In his 2012 book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb explains,” For the perishable (people or physical objects), every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. I.e. Grandkids will likely outlive their grandparents.
For the nonperishable (information or practices), every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy. I.e. Yoga will likely outlive CrossFit.”
Whether it’s movies, music, or books, if it’s still being published today you can make an easy bet. The older it is the more likely it’s good. The more likely it might be transformational. And the more likely it’ll be useful and relevant in the future.
Takeaway: Some new books are really good, but most aren’t. To get the most value from your reading try to at least read some old stuff while carefully selecting among the new.
And to end with one more Seneca quote…
We’ve discussed a little on WHAT to consume, now let’s look at the effects of HOW we consume.
The Effects That Different Formats of Media Have on Our Brains
From Storytelling to Books to Television to The Internet. The media format we choose to consume plays a massive role in both how we absorb the information it carries and the lasting effects on our brains.
In his 2011 book, The Shallows -What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr started by asking one simple question.
“Is Google making us stupid?”
Human brains have been shaped through the centuries by our “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer.
With the invention of writing we lost our ability to tell stories with the incredible passion and effectiveness that our ancestors could.
The invention of the mechanical clock redefined time as a series of units of equal duration, and our minds began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement.
With the invention of books and hence the practice of prolonged, undistracted reading of a book. People learned to make their own associations, draw their own inferences and analogies, and foster their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.
Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.
Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
The printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources.
The format of media we choose to consume has a drastic effect on us.
- The rapid 3-second frame switch used by TV shows and music videos to keep our attention has shown to increase the rate of ADD in children.
- Heavy social media use has shown to have similar addictive properties as alcoholism and gambling.
Obviously, the internet and screens we use bring many advantages to our modern lives along with the negative consequences. Without apps like Groupon, I’d still be paying way too much to eat at a good steak dinner restaurant.
However, we should be aware of how much time we spend with each format of media we consume. And take this into consideration when to deciding whether to spend an hour reading a book, or watch another video.
Consciously Choosing the Media We Consume
Let’s return to our initial question.
Which benefits are we actually getting from which media sources?
Why am I consuming this?
- We’re bored and need to kill time
Being as objective as I can be. The following table is an attempt to answer the question we started this article with. If you have time, take a minute to consciously evaluate each media source you consume and feel free to complete your own table.
When we’re aware of which benefits we’re actually getting (or not) from a specific media, it makes it a lot easier to spend our time wisely.
How much time do I want to spend gaining practical knowledge? How much time do I want to spend being entertained?
When we realize that social media and news networks are pure entertainment do we still choose to spend so much time on them? Or do we watch higher quality entertainment like stand-up comedy instead?
Analyzing Our Weekly Media Consumption
As an exercise, I decided to analyze my current media consumption habits. In the process, I noticed that I wasn’t reading as many classics as I would like to. I also think I can cut my social media usage down even more.
Feel free to do the same exercise by clicking the table below to download the excel sheet and fill it out.
Quick Tips for Changing Your Media Consumption Habits
These are a few things I’ve implemented over the years to try to take control of how media impacts my life. Feel free to try some of them if you like.
- Cell phone on Do Not Disturb mode 24 hours per day. (custom setting: allow certain callers like boss & clients).
- Cell phone on Airplane Mode as much as possible (absolutely 30 minutes before bed, and until 30 minutes after waking up).
- Keep a couple of physical books in the house to read before bed instead of using Kindle
- If the book is instructional prefer to read it on Kindle over listen to the Audiobook (easier to stop, think and take notes).
- If the book is informational prefer to listen to it on Audible over read it (faster consumption).
- Treat blogs, email newsletters, podcasts, YouTube videos and documentaries as good introductions to a subject but not the whole picture. Go deeper with books if I want to know more.
- Delete all social media apps from phone and use News Feed Eradicator App on computer to avoid unconscious social media use.
- Watch more classic Standup Comedy for entertainment.
- 50% of the time try to read books that have been in print for more than 20 years.
Whether we love TV series and Facebook, Standup Comedy and Documentaries, or want to dive a little deeper into Classic Literature the only thing that really matters is that we always remain conscious of why we’re consuming what we’re consuming.
To not get seduced by what’s popular in the moment, or force fed whatever the mainstream media is rambling about.
Ask, “What is the benefit I’m getting by consuming this?” And choose wisely.
I hope this article has helped you to think a little deeper about your media consumption habits.
As always if you have any questions or comments feel free to comment below or send me an email any time.
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