People are very serious about what they eat. For many, it’s more than just nutrition. It’s a social ritual. And there are a lot of them. A quick check of Wikipedia shows many. There are people who only eat vegetables. There’s people who only eat meat. There’s people who avoid carbs. There’s people who only eat like cavemen did. There’s detoxes and cleanses. Medical diets. There’s religious restrictions, both ancient and modern. To some, eating well is more important than eating enough. People take their dietary health very seriously, and there’s no end to the things they will try to figure out what works for them.
Two of the most common diets people will uphold are the local food and slow food movements. Both are fairly straightforward. The idea behind local food is that it is healthier for one’s community. When food comes from far away, you are mentally disconnected from the processes that create and deliver food. It becomes abstract, a far off thing you can ignore, and this allows a complacency of thought that can let negative and pathological systems take hold. By eating local, you are forced to think more intentionally about your food choices, and this drives better and healthier choices.
Slow food is a similar idea. It frames itself in opposition to fast food. You go to a fast food restaurant, and absent-mindedly order something unhealthy, because it’s quick and easy. Food supply chains strive for faster, more efficient production, resulting in food that is unhealthy, but easy to transport and prepare. Finally, food that is prepared fast will be consumed fast, again allowing people to quickly make unhealthy choices, without thinking. By slowing food down, you short circuit these negative tendencies, resulting in better food and healthier choices.
Ultimately, both of these boil down to the idea that we don’t think enough about what we eat before we eat it. We drive on autopilot, and take convenience and enjoyment over nutrition and health. If only we would all just stop and think, be more intentional about or diets, so many problems would be resolved.
Just as we have concerns about consuming healthy food, we should have concerns about consuming healthy media. Samuel told us the other day about our modern media environment. Today, people are quickly and without thinking, consuming delicious morsels of media that have been painstakingly designed to be addictively bite-sized. The result is unsurprising to any locavore. By mindlessly consuming the latest juicy gossip, our anemic diets have landed us with a host of new health problems. Facebook depression drives people to therapists and medication. People stay alone at home, racked with FOMO. Internet addiction is so pernicious, people are debating adding it to the DSM. But what if there were another way? If consuming fast media is as unhealthy as consuming fast food, why not a slow media diet?
Our media is not slow enough, and not local enough. People bemoan the 24 hour news cycle, but in the world of Twitter reporting, being first is more important than being right. In our race to have the scoop, to be the first to write (or read) about an event, mistakes are made. And these mistakes can cost people dearly. Incorrect details can focus outrage on the wrong people, ruining lives when someone reports the wrong name. More often, such haste gives openings to people who make a business out of exploiting such errors. The stress, the pain, the mistakes, are they really worth it? Is being first more important than being right? Let’s slow down, and short circuit these negative tendencies.
Just as technology has sped up our media, it’s broadened its reach. We can see news from all across the world, as if we were there. Two years ago, we had front row seats to a war in Crimea. And, closer to home, even the smallest details of far-off lands don’t escape our news feeds. But is this a good thing? While we’re distracted with tales of faraway places, we ignore more and more our local communities. People will pay attention to the most meaningless of details in a presidential election, while blatant corruption in local politics passes by unnoticed in broad daylight. At the end of the day, what’s more important to your life: the tears of a president two thousand miles away, or the unanimous budget vote in city hall for a thousand tear gas canisters? When we get our news from a globalized supply chain, instead of a local one, we make the wrong decisions. Our abstracted understandings let trivialities dominate, while we ignore the things that daily stress us out.
In 2014 I met up for lunch with some former coworkers. Trying to make conversation, I made reference to a current national controversy. My friend’s response was puzzled. Despite this controversy involving his employer, he had no awareness of it. After we caught him up to speed, his response surprised me. “I try not to read about things like that. There’s nothing I can do about it, and there’s enough depressing things in the world. I’d rather focus on the people and things important to me.” This resonated with me. Since then, I’ve turned a critical eye on the things I let dominate my attention. I’ve cut out all of the news from my life, save a few local sources. Like he said, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. It’s not actionable. It’s just taking up mindspace. I’ve stopped paying attention to social media. Twitter, Facebook, etc., it’s all just ways to keep in touch with my friends and family. I’ve been slow to respond to the latest two minutes’ hate, preferring the moderated affect of the Taoist farmer. I’ve made sure that when I pay attention, it’s to things that matter. Who cares about the latest outrage on salon.com; what have they ever done to make my life better?
Slow media. Local media. Unlike their dietary counterparts, these aren’t movements. But maybe they should be.
I like this idea, especially of slow media. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with every small controversy, and most of the time, they don’t matter. Perhaps a corollary to this point is that we shouldn’t just ignore the small things, but try and focus on the large things; I really enjoy good pieces of media that look at problems that have existed for a long time, because we have much more data and information and can see much more clearly what the issues are. I firmly endorse not posting an angry blog post right after something has happened, and instead letting things work out for a few months, and then see if your level headed response even needs to be said. Another benefit is that you aren’t responding to things, but you are setting the agenda. But, of course, sometimes I can’t restrain myself and I do write things quickly because it is the built-in human response, and it’s very difficult to overcome.
“Read not the /Times/, read the eternities.” – Thoreau
I think that everyone would be much better off if the news had to be reported with a 24 hour delay, as this would remove the worst excesses of the Twitter news cycle, as would have been most obvious with the San Bernadino shooting.
However, just as diets haven’t succeeded in getting rid of Oreos, the problem that slow media faces is they’re inferior to fast media for the people who are their biggest customers. This is most obvious in the case of business news, where companies will pay millions of dollars to get the latest FOMC statement or other data dump seconds before their competitors.
I’d go a step farther and say that, if you don’t live in Southern California, the San Bernardino shooting is utterly irrelevant to your life, and there’s no value (outside of entertainment) in reading or hearing about it at all.
I don’t entirely agree. I think that keeping at least somewhat abreast of what’s happening in the world or the country has some value. Perhaps if it could all be condensed down into something like The Week, it would be a decent compromise.
I’ll concede a social value to it: it’s important to keep abreast because other people expect you to keep abreast. But I believe that there really is no value in it that is intrinsic to the news itself.
Take San Bernardino as an example. Say you live 1500 miles north of there. You have never met a person from southern California. Nothing that happens in California can effect you, except as unpredictably intermediated through other institutions, institutions that are more local to you.
Some guy shot up some building in San Bernardino. Does this change your priors regarding your own safety? It shouldn’t; given the much higher base rates of other risks, this is still negligible, and that’s before factoring in that something happening there isn’t happening where you are.
Should it change your priors about terrorism? Maybe. But terrorism is not actionable to you. Terrorism is a concern to law enforcement, to the state department, to the military and intelligence services. To you, terrorism is not actionable. It’s simply a thing that might happen, but probably won’t. You can do absolutely nothing to prepare for it.
Does it change your politics? My opinion on this is out of scope for this blog post, but I say it shouldn’t. Defining your politics based on emotionally charged outlier events leads to very, very bad policies. If anything, “X mass shootings were committed last year” is a more significant fact than any detail regarding any one of those shootings.
Of course, one can come up with all manner of details that would make any individual event important to them. But, all else equal, these events are not relevant. For most of these events, they happen in times and places you’ll never be, to people you’ll never meet. They are caused by things you cannot defend against, and do not drive any conclusions you can act upon. But they take up your valuable time and attention, time and attention that could be spent on other things. Things that might affect your life. Things you might be able to exert real agency over. Things you can change for the better.
Is your Google-employee friend saying he is truly powerless to do anything about the private Google buses in San Francisco? That is kind of an odd example.
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When you live halfway across the country from it, what would you do?
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I really like the idea of a “slow media” movement and have wanted to join such a movement for a while. I’ve made some steps in this direction, reading magazine-like sites more and avoiding blogs updated daily or more frequently. I’ve tried to temper media consumption over all, asking myself whether what I’m reading will be worth having read in a year, and whether there’s a chance I will given how much else I read. But I’m not sure what else to do, and everything about the modern internet and social media platforms seems geared against slow media. For example, I post this now wondering if I should have written this sooner because shortly your post will be buried under others and as a result no one will read let alone respond to my comment. There’s a real pressure to jump into the conversation in the fleeting moment it’s still going on, even when talking about a subject like this that isn’t particularly newsy/time-specific.
Local news I’m a bit more ambivalent on. Certainly the internet has also favored national news over local — you need a large potential audience to have a good shot at going viral, and you need a large actual audience because it’s very hard to make money online. So it’s good to resist that. At the other extreme, the internet has provided a wealth of hyperlocal amateur news sources such as neighborhood blogs. What is most poorly covered in my experience isn’t really the local but everything between that and the national. People hear less than ever about what their state governments are doing, which is a problem given that they are quite powerful compared to provincial governments in other countries.
Although there’s a small crowd of us here, our pace so far has been a post about every five days since the start of the year. I’m fairly close to having another piece ready, but it’ll be done when it’s done; I don’t want to speak for my co-bloggers, but I think one thing we all have in common is preferring accuracy to speed, holding all else equal.
I like the analogy between consumption/digestion of food, and of media; especially with the extension of “it’s common for people to really care about what food they eat”.
It’s easy to believe that the way people are consuming this fast-food media is grossly unhealthy. (If we don’t mind beating the metaphor a bit more, I wonder what ‘exercise’ maps to..).
Can’t say I agree with the razor of “if there’s nothing I can do about it & if it doesn’t involve me, it’s not worth reading these things from the fast-media”.
There’re various petty points to try to endorse that; like it’s good for the well-off people to be aware of how well-off they are compared to others, so that they’re less bratty.
I can agree it’s not worth worrying over something I can’t do anything about, if it doesn’t involve me. (And not worth bickering with people about such things). But some things need to be changed; and change is going to happen only when people put in the effort of ‘worrying’, trying to change these things.
The razor seems a bit strange to me, also, in that I can’t think of any area where “knowing more information” is a bad thing. The adage being “It’s not ‘content overload’ it’s ‘filter failure'”.
Personally, I serious cut back on media consumption quite a few years ago. I went from someone who used to have the ‘news’ running in the background constantly to not even owning a television. If you aren’t an activist, a day trader, or in some other profession where you need to be on the bleeding edge all the time, there generally isn’t much value difference between knowing the news now and knowing it 3-5 days from now. In that time, the truth gets a chance to worm out from under the mountain of lies and bullshit. So I only pay attention to few things that I think are important and let the rest filter through a carefully curated list of secondary sources.
Gah. ‘Seriously’. That was an unfortunate way to find out that editing your own comments has been disabled.
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