Beyond Influence, VI: Too Dumb to Read the News

[Editor's Note: Today we have a long-overdue episode of the Beyond Influence series from my good friend and Aion Media cofounder, Benjamin George. Enjoy!]


I was having a beer the other day, and someone asked me about some current event. “I have no idea nor any interest, to be honest”, I answered.

“What do you mean you have no idea, it’s all over the news!”

“Exactly, I don’t follow the news, I am wilfully ignorant”, I replied.

“And you are proud of that?”

Yes, and I will explain why.

To be able to fully understand my reasoning behind not following nor being up to date with the news, we need to go through how ideas “work”. Luckily, as Master Self speaks extensively about memetics, I assume many of you already know the intricacies of the world of ideas.

However, let’s go through a short introduction to tie in together all of the ideas I want to entertain in this article.

Let’s imagine ideas as living organisms who, like the rest of all living organisms, live mainly to reproduce and spread. Ideas aren’t exactly a physical object, they are abstract concepts; and as such, they need to exist somewhere: us.

It is a common joke on our corner of Twitter to reply to others with “your ideas are not yours”, and it holds more truth than a mere joke would. We are containers for ideas, hosts which they live off and need to reproduce.

(The core idea of memetics is to apply the concept of genetics to ideas, by replacing the gene with the meme, to further understand how ideas evolve and spread)

Ideas enter us as inputs and leave us as outputs, and as a black box system, we can only infer or estimate what happens on the inside.

Due to us not knowing exactly what we do with ideas, it is preferable to hold back, analyse, study and apply some heuristics and mental models to the ideas that enter us. To merely let them in and out is to become a canal in which water flows uninterrupted, we need to apply barriers to sort what comes in and out.

If we let ideas come in and out with ease, we are merely people who relay information, and not people who have any original thoughts or capacity of critical thinking (remember this article is about not following the news).

As of now, ideas seem like parasites that use us, and this isn’t exactly the whole truth. Ideas are more like symbionts, in which they need us as hosts to be passed onto others, but we also gain benefit from them.

To put it in simplistic terms, ideas can be beneficial or harmful to their hosts, depending on how we measure success or failure.

Applying the view of genetics and evolution, beneficial ideas are those which further the chance of survival of their hosts, us. A good idea helps us survive, a bad one gets us killed.

Historically, ideas which were beneficial to us would have a larger chance of spreading onto others, as ideas that get you killed die with you. “Do not eat this poisonous berry”, for example, is an idea that has survived for millennia, as it improved our survival and it was passed down from generation to generation. “Eat this poisonous berry” is an idea that has lost all traction, as those who ended up eating the berry would die due to poison, taking their ideas with them.

Up until the recent few decades, human communities have been closed off and poorly connected to others. Bound by geography barriers, language barriers and cultural barriers, ideas were tied down to their local communities and would spread much slower than in the present.

This is what is coined a vertical strategy. Ideas took a longer time to spread, due to the aforementioned barriers. This would ensure that ideas that did spread were mostly beneficial for the host.

In the present, the whole world is ever so connected and ideas have almost no barriers that can prevent their flow. I can write this article full of ideas from Spain, and it is reaching people from many countries all over the world, something which I couldn’t have done a decade ago.

However, this precise fact is where the trouble starts.

Up until recently, ideas spread much slower, meaning they had to be beneficial to their hosts (us) to ensure that they would get passed onto others. This meant that, usually, most of the ideas that would flow were “good” for us.

These days, due to there being no limitations to the spread of ideas, they do not need to follow a vertical strategy, and they can follow a horizontal one.

A horizontal strategy is one in which the spread of the idea is much farther in terms of number of individuals, but it is on the surface and not as deep.

Instead of ideas being beneficial for the host, the absence of barriers means that ideas can spread much quicker than before, meaning that the benefit or not to the host loses importance in favour of speed and reach.

Whereas ideas had to compete in terms of benefits for their hosts, ensuring that mainly the best ones for us would survive and spread, in the present ideas compete in terms of speed, reach and spread, leading the benefit for the hosts out of the question.

Now that we are familiar with how ideas spread and what has changed in relation to said spread:

Clickbait, Fake News, polarization, the ‘breaking news’ cycle, echo chambers, etc. are all consequences of the above.

We all can agree that Fake News, clickbait and other modern media creations are of low quality, polarising, exaggerated and biased, especially when compared to the past. Traditional media couldn’t spread information as quickly as we can today, so ideas had to go through (some) hoops via writers, editors, distributors, etc.

This process would weed out most of nonsensical information due to ideas following the aforementioned horizontal strategy, ensured by fact checking, distribution channels and reputation.

However, the proliferation of clickbait and Fake News, the ‘breaking news’ cycle, the creation of echo chambers and the further polarization are all products of ideas being able to follow a horizontal strategy, ensuring maximum reach without any care about benefit to host or not.

Everybody knows clickbait is rubbish, yet it still gets printed onto all of our screens instead of more nuanced and researched articles. Why? Because we share it.

Fake News is also popular, no matter how true or untrue, no matter how lacking of any fact checks, because we also share it.

There may be a pattern forming here, just saying…

We need to start holding ourselves accountable and responsible for being part of the problem, because Fake News, clickbait and polarisation are a problem.

Ideas that haven’t had enough time to prove themselves worthy of using us as hosts are allowed into us because we are being played into sharing them, without selfishly looking out for ourselves in a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. We are furthering the feedback loop by sharing them, we are adding fuel to the fire nobody claims responsibility for.

All because we over estimate our intelligence.

We are being taken advantage of due to a really simple fact: we are not physically or mentally ready to cope with such an avalanche of ideas brute forcing their way into our field of attention.

The abundance of information is rendering everything that we hold true as useless and paralyzing us into eternal analysis.

Let me repeat this again, because we all like to think of ourselves as geniuses: our primitive chimp brain is not ready biologically to handle such an excess of ideas. It is impossible for us to discern what is true and what isn’t, and common sense is increasingly becoming not so common.

There are two things that I love about evolution:

  1. It is slow.
  2. It does not care about our delusions.

Us Homo Sapiens have been around only for a few hundred thousand years (don’t quote me on this, I did not check). We have back pain because for the last few decades we spend all day sitting down, or for the last few centuries we have been walking on hard floor. We will continue to have back pain for hundreds of thousands of years, because our bodies will catch up very, very slowly to the new changes in environment.

While this is a simple example I just came up with, it applies to many ideas, behaviours, culture aspects, etc. Nobody fully knows the extent of what being connected all day to an endless supply of information does to us.

And we won’t be able to figure it out in a long time.

Our primitive chimp brain isn’t made to handle and to be exposed to a constant flow of ideas, and especially not to ideas which do not compete to provide us the most benefit. They come at us so quick and fast that they brute force their way past our common sense and critical thinking barriers.

Due to the elimination of all constraints to the spread of ideas, there are many, many harmful ideas for us that enter us. More than ever before.

This thought alone scares me immensely.

As of now, there is no other way to confront this endless stream of ideas and information other than by ignoring it. The same way as how abstinence is the only 100% method against unwanted pregnancies, ignoring the news cycle is the only way to protect oneself against everything mentioned throughout this article.

When subject to this endless supply of information, we end up numbed down. We cannot differentiate good ideas from bad ones, we cannot differentiate signal from noise, we cannot make decisions and we end up paralyzed in constant analysis of new information.

It is impossible to sort out through the signal and noise unassisted, and we do not know yet the true extent and consequences.

I do not follow the news because there is a limit to how much can go through me until I cannot make any decisions anymore.

If the endless stream of information renders us useless when it comes to decision making, what is the point of said information?

I cannot process all of the mentioned above, and neither can you.

“It is important to be informed”, you may say. Well, I’ll have you know that that’s the prewritten answer everybody else says, so please come up with some other reason to justify being exposed to the “news” 24/7.

However, due to using the analogy of abstinence, it is stupid and unrealistic to stay completely uninformed. It is impossible, and however much I refuse to be in touch with the present news, it still finds a way into my attention span. But at least it takes its time to reach me, and I am fairly away from the worst of the crop.

It is a consolation prize, but it is better than nothing.

I’m not going to go through the conspiracy route in saying that they want us confused, but I will say that constant exposure to information has us confused, paralyzed and polarized.

Honestly, when was the last time ‘breaking news’ ever changed your life?

“Bro, you have no concept of how macroeconomics, politics at a grand scale and policy changes affects your daily life”

Of course it does, but as any complex system, nobody knows exactly how they affect you.

You must prioritize ideas by importance, and while you are worried about the smallest detail which will have an infinitesimal effect on your life, because “it is good to be informed”, you are confusing your priority list.

Fact is, we are all losing control of our priority lists when it comes to attention. The latest celebrity drama shouldn’t be as high in your priority list as, say, whatever your local politicians are up to and getting away with, or your relationships with family and friends.

We all know other people fall for Fake News, we know others are brainwashed by the media and we know others are living in echo chambers and filter bubbles. What about us, though? The other people who fall for “such obvious lies” think the same about you. They think that they see the truth and that you are oblivious to your programming.

My rejection of being up to date with the news may be ignorance. I admit my poor and old chimp brain cannot handle all of the above. I am not ready for it nor will I never be. Maybe in a few hundred thousand years we will be a bit closer to it, maybe.

We are living in the Wild West of ideas at the moment. Everything goes, everything is valid and everything is up for grabs. Traditional media has lost its place as a trusted party over information and have fallen for malpractices.

Ever trusted sources have lost all credibility and authority due to the advent of social media, which has left us confused while everyone tries to fight over establishing themselves as the new authority.

I, Benjamin George, am doing the only thing in my power: removing myself from the game as much as I can.

I am taking a step back, reading the news once a month once the dust has settled and the new rage is focused on some other topic, reading articles which have been researched and written with a long time put into it, with at least some decent fact checking done.

It is wise to know what one is capable of, to be able to strive for dreams and ideals. It is also as equally wise to be aware of what oneself isn’t capable of handling.

I am not capable of handling an ever constant stream of information of ideas. Are you?

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