October 12, 2009

News is the new sugar

Human beings spent most of their time thriving on a diet that had very little sugar, aside from the occasional in-season fruit -- and these were more like berries, not mangos or bananas -- or the odd glob of honey. Even when refined sugar became available, it was too expensive for most people to buy. But today sugar is incredibly cheap (tariffs on foreign sugar notwithstanding), and as a result the average person consumes a lot more of it than they used to.

Does it make sense to say, then, that "the cost of sugar consumption has gone down?" Only if we're talking about the monetary cost. There are myriad non-monetary costs to our health because we're consuming so much more of it now, and our bodies were not designed to cope with that much of it. (In general, our body wants there to be about 1 teaspoon of sugar in our blood, not 1 cup or however much gets in there when we eat a bagel with jelly, banana, yoghurt, granola, and fruit juice.)

And of course there are the opportunity costs -- that is, what do we give up by eating sweets instead of the non-sugary foods like eggs, steak, and liver? Again, plenty: sweets provide basically no nutrition, while the less saccharine foods give us vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids -- and above all, the feeling of a full stomach!

So, when we count up all of the costs -- and not just the monetary ones -- our consumption of sugar actually costs us a lot more than it used to, given how much we now consume and how outta-whack that is with our ancestral diet. (Natural selection is always at work, of course, so if we leave sugarholics to fend for themselves, a rare mutant might arise that doesn't get so screwed up by the stuff. Perhaps 100,000 years from now, that mutant's descendents may inherit the Earth, and human beings of the future will thrive on granola bars like cows on pasture.)

If the average person instinctively took account of all costs, especially if they had to work out a disillusioning calculus of what else they could be doing with their time, money and effort, then sugar might not be such a problem. So what if its monetary costs fell? -- we wouldn't be suckered into downing the stuff by the pound, since we'd see the far greater hidden costs. But most people aren't tough-headed accountants, and so sugar is a problem.

There are lots of similar examples where the monetary cost to gain access to something has fallen dramatically, perhaps to almost nothing, our consumption of it shoots up accordingly, though to such an evolutionarily new level that we're harmed. And because we don't attend to the full range of costs (especially what we could be doing instead), we have a tendency to keep harming ourselves, fooled into thinking we're on top of the world because this great stuff is so cheap.

The obvious examples are other chemical substances like cocaine or tobacco or alcohol, but I'm not really worried about these. Hardly anyone does hard drugs, drunkenness is way down, and there are no replacement smokers. The same is true for the other major worry of cultural conservatives -- porn. Young males will spend lots of their time masturbating or thinking about or looking at representations of naked girls. With lower monetary costs and higher quality, downloaded porn can make the young male demographic worse off. But again, people whose lives are made noticeably worse off by a porn habit aren't that numerous.

What's far more troubling is our addiction to news, broadly construed to include what newspapers traditionally covered (and so what blogs and internet forums now cover too), as well as the news or gossip in your social circle. Back on the African savanna, after all, shit didn't happen. On the rare occasion that it did, it was big news -- "Look out, there's a lion!" or "Hey, I found an abandoned honey comb!"

Even most of what was newsworthy you never heard about because it was too costly to find out, let alone to relay to paying consumers (remember, no advertisers back then). Thus, there weren't many sources to tell you the news. The upper limit on your daily dosage of news reflected the frequency of local social intrigue -- "Dude, did you hear that Thundarr's cheating on his wife?!"

Now, that has changed quite a lot. For one thing, a lot more shit happens today. But more importantly, the monetary cost to consumers of news is minuscule: you just go to the New York Times website, a blog, Facebook, email, or your text message inbox. That's a lot cheaper than corresponding by post or schlepping out to a news-stand to buy a hard copy of a newspaper. Given how thirsty we are for news -- that extra bit of information about which direction the lion was headed could have saved your life -- and how incredibly cheap it is now, we spend most of our waking hours consuming news of one sort or another. (And then spend most of our sleeping hours dreaming about deleting all of our unread emails, or telling people who barely know us to stop leaving retarded comments on our Facebook wall.)

Of course, this isn't a quantum leap, since there have been other cheap forms of quick printing and mail couriers. Still, even with those technologies it would have been prohibitively expensive to ask someone to update you with all manner of news every five minutes. But that's no problem at all now -- just keep your cell phone on and a bunch of tabs open in your internet browser for each source, and you can get your news fix all day, every day, without having to pay a red cent.

So we're binging on news, but is it as bad as sugar? After all, knowledge is power, right? Yes, but you hit diminishing returns very quickly. Most of the shit you're reading about won't help you in an absolute sense -- knowing which cave the bear went into -- or even in a relative sense -- knowing where a good water source was discovered. You'd squeeze most of the power from the knowledge you'd gain by simply reading the morning news, as opposed to re-visiting the newspaper's website for a total of four hours per day. And you'd know all the really important social gossip from your daily face-to-face interactions plus some time talking on the phone, as opposed to spending an additional two hours cumulatively per day checking your text messages, email, and Facebook. For most people, a daily news report and an hour on the phone each day is about all that's needed, and many could get by with a weekly news report and an hour on the phone per week.

Compared to previous patterns of news consumption, we're not benefiting a whole lot more in terms of learning stuff that will help us out. The only additional benefit we're getting is the purely hedonic one, like the rush we feel when we eat a chocolate brownie. The monetary cost of taking in the news is obviously way down, but the other costs are enormous. Remember that these technologies only speed up the transmission of information. We still have to search through the endless lists of headlines, Facebook profiles, email subject headers, and so on, to find a bit of news to consume. Then we have to actually digest it -- and reading takes just as long as it used to. When we respond, it takes just as long to think of our own news, how to phrase it, and to set it down in discrete form.

If we were only as plugged into the world of the news as we were before, clearly our total cost would be lower. But because the monetary cost is tiny, we're consuming a lot more news and reading and sending a lot more messages to people in our social circle, and the price we pay to participate in those processes is scarcely affected by the internet, cell phones, etc. Only the transmission costs have gone down -- composing and processing are still as costly as ever. As a result, most of what we're doing with these technologies is a waste.

Many people already see this -- aside from the vice of writing in blog comment sections, I've always worked to abstain from all this pointless bullshit. But others will claim that we really are better off with all this extra news -- again, knowledge is power, they'll say. It's really the opportunity costs of staying plugged in that no one thinks about, since it isn't very satisfying to dwell on all the even more pleasurable things you could be doing with your brief time, other than "making the rounds" yet again through your motley group of news providers and corresponding with people about nothing important.

The self-appointed cool people are eager to remind you that they don't watch TV (and probably don't even own one), but being hooked into the news stream is far worse. At least with TV, there is a predictability to what there will be today. Indeed, if you just remember back to the days when you missed school from sickness, most TV programming is unwatchable. The remotely good stuff didn't come on until 3pm and only lasted until 11pm or midnight. That still sounds like a big fraction of your waking hours, but most didn't watch eight or nine straight hours of TV, compared to far more people now who get little done for work or for play because they're hooked in for that long.

In fact, you have to keep searching your news sources all day because you never know when something will pop up. It starts right after you wake up, continues through much of your work day if you have a computer at work and don't have a boss constantly over your shoulder, persists through much of your so-called free time, and only ends right before you go to bed. At least with TV, you know that it's not even worth turning on before 3pm -- so let's do something fun until then. And most of the good stuff is done by 10 or 11pm, leaving plenty of time afterward (for night owls anyway) to catch up on work or have some more fun. Can you imagine most people blacking out such a long stretch of time as a "no internet, no cell phone" period, day after day?

Three consecutive hours of TV is much better than three hours of news-checking spread out across the day. With TV, you can concentrate your feel-good, mind-atrophying stuff into a three-hour chunk and get on with life outside of that timeframe -- it's like getting a solid night's sleep. Checking your news sources and corresponding are more frequent, if briefer, interruptions, like suffering from narcolepsy. We all need to sleep, but don't count on getting much done if you keep fading in and out of consciousness all day.

Our desire for following what's new in the world in understandable given the world that natural selection adapted us to, no less so than our desire for sweet stuff. But now that the cost of accessing it is negligible, we consume a lot more than we were designed to. The additional benefits either are not there or are at best small, while the other costs of our consumption have skyrocketed. We pay a huge price to process all that sugar we can now buy so cheaply, and we waste too much time staying abreast of nearly free, abundant news. Fortunately for our egos, the deus ex machina of self-deception will swoop in and reassure us that we really are gaining more power over our lives by staying plugged in for so long, and that we aren't doing those other so-called fun things because they aren't actually as pleasurable as refreshing the NYT's homepage for the fifteenth time in three hours.

But just as you'll naturally lose your sweet tooth after going on a low-carb diet, you'll find it pretty easy to unplug yourself from the news after awhile. I read the WSJ through my library's journal subscription, so I can only read what's in today's newspaper, not whatever else they've added to the newspaper's website in the past minute. I only turn on my cell phone a few times during the day. And for the most part I only look through my email when I get up and before I go to bed. No doubt I find this easier than others will because I have a lower opinion of what everyone else has to say, so that my typical response to a news item is "Who cares?" rather than "Omigod, I like totally have to share this on Facebook!!!"

That's the best practical advice I can give to the more caring souls reading this: each time you come across a headline or whatever, just ask "So what?" And whenever someone sends you an email, just say out loud "Oh shut up." It doesn't matter whether it's one of the few interesting news stories or an urgent message -- you have kick your habit of caring about what's going on cold turkey. After you've hardened yourself, then you can gradually re-introduce the limited amount of news and correspondence that you need. In the meantime, you're just going to have to be more cold-hearted.


  1. This post is right in line with Sisson's Primal Blueprint, which I endorse strongly.

  2. it does amaze me to see those who eschew mainstream tv, news networks, media...but have an iphone to which they are perpetually plugged in and always texting away on, or reading up about news on the latest "obscure enough" band that hasn't become mainstream yet....et cetera.

  3. Briliant!

    I've vaguely been thinking this for some time now, but you've helped me clarify my thinking on this issue and brought it into greater focus.

    Problem for me is, I only work around 8 weeks out of the year, and the rest of the year I travel, read, socialize, but this still leaves huge stretches of empty time for me to fill.

    I also crave stimulation and excitement on an ever increasing basis, and news consumption (including blog reading) provides the illusion of excitement. I remember describing TV as "the promise of entertainment without the actual delivery of it" - all those channels! There must be something good on, right? But there almost never is! It's the same with the net and news sources - surely there must be something exciting and fascinating going on there! Then you troll the net for HOURS and come up with maybe one or two (vaguely) worthwhile nuggets. What a scam!

    Unfortunately, the alternative for me is not doing something more fun or enriching with all my free time, but learning to tolerate inactivity - boredom? - and letting feelings and ideas slowly grow and coalesce in me. Nietszche said that an inability to tolerate inactivity or boredom even in small quantities was the sign of a small mind and uncreative spirit. Maybe he was right.

    But if not news and blogs, what do YOU suggest I do with all my free time?

  4. Agnostic really has a point here. Especially when it comes to tabloid-ish news.

    However, if one is going to read for an hour-a-day, it might as well be the news or blogs rather than silly novels or tabloids. Actually reading non-fiction about subjects you want to learn about/master would probably be the very best, but technical reading (like how to build that solar cell or wind turbine in your backyard) is pretty doubleplus unfun stuff.

  5. "No doubt I find this easier than others will because I have a lower opinion of what everyone else has to say"

    Thank you for proving my earlier point.

  6. I recently realised I was addicted to internet forums and political blogs and I am trying to get them out of my life and focus on important stuff.

    If Anon number two is looking something to read then read Shakespeare, or one of the classics, something that is both useful and enjoyable. Something that reflects human nature or inspires you.

    - Breeze

  7. This was brilliant, almost Sailerite in its ability to make me think of things in a new way. I think your spot on. The opportunity costs really creep up on you slowly, without you realizing what is happening.

  8. Sweet, there's an evopsych explanation for why I can't drag my ass off the internet. Thanks science! Maybe knowing the reason will make changing the behavior change easier.


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