If news makes us sick, Twitter must be a cancer
On Friday, the Guardian ran a provocative op-ed by Rolf Dobelli arguing that news is bad for our health and hinders our thinking. The much-discussed article, which the author had first written two years ago, was excerpted from the soon-to-be-released “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” a compendium of essays penned by the self-described “serial entrepreneur, thinker and writer.”*
Dolbelli’s argument is that “news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.” Not only does it distract us from wider issues, but it tells us stuff we don’t need to know, has a toxic effect on our bodies, inhibits our thinking, wastes our time, and makes us passive. Heavy stuff!
Dobelli’s argument is impassioned and somewhat persuasive, if simultaneously reductive. For instance, Dobelli too breezily discounts the importance of news in being the first draft of history, keeping citizens informed of issues that affect them immediately, if not in the longer term. He suggests that news consumption is a competitive disadvantage, because while we are adept at recognizing information that is new, we’re not so good at recognizing what’s relevant. While he correctly identifies an impulse to obsess over, and be distracted by, the new, he doesn’t give utilitarian news – “it’s dangerous to travel there,” “it’s going to rain tomorrow,” “there has been a coup” – its full due.
But that’s an argument for another time. Instead, let’s consider the tech perspective. From a tech point of view, one of the most relevant things about Dobelli’s argument is that you could substitute “Twitter” for “news” in the essay and find that it still makes perfectly good sense. In fact, Dobelli’s argument might be even more relevant to Twitter than it is to news. That’s partly because our Tweet streams are all just a continuously updated “news” page, feeding us morsels of information ranging from the inane to the important that distract our attention all in the name of captivating it. If news is a creativity-crushing attention sap that makes us sick, then Twitter must be like the malarial mosquito that acts a more portable vector for the wider disease.
Take, for example, the news surrounding the explosions at the Boston marathon today. As people rushed to Tweet photos, videos, and messages about the explosions, we got information in fast-flying fragments, but no clear overall picture until the story was later weaved into a narrative by news organizations. Dobelli might argue that even the high-level reported version of the “news” is bad, because it focuses public attention on a single event that highlights the immediate drama at the expense of a deeper, more contextualized understanding of the bigger story. If that’s the case, though, then whatever facts, half-truths, and speculation gushed out over Twitter as the public came to learn more about the explosions could be considered even more harmful.
I am not here trying to make the argument that Twitter consumption is necessarily harmful to us, but I would argue that if you see any merit in Dobelli’s argument about news being bad for us, then you have to see Twitter in the same light.
Let’s consider the points Dobelli makes against news in his essay, except with “Twitter” inserted as the culprit instead of “news.”
Twitter misleads. ... Twitter leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.
We are not rational enough to be exposed to Twitter. Watching an airplane crash on television [or seeing photos of the explosions from the Boston marathon] is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.
Twitter is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories [and tens of thousands of Tweets] you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you... Media organisations want you to believe that Twitter offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of Twitter. In reality, Twitter consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less Twitter you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.
Twitter has no explanatory power. Twitter items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists' radar but have a transforming effect.Twitter is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky Tweets spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress.
Twitter increases cognitive errors. Twitter feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias... We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that "make sense" – even if they don't correspond to reality.
Twitter inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. Tweets are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. Twitter makes us shallow thinkers.
Twitter works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore... The more Twitter we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.
Twitter wastes time. If you read Twitter for 15 minutes each morning, then check Twitter for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you're at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week.
Twitter makes us passive. Tweets are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of Tweets about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is "learned helplessness".
Twitter kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age... If you want to come up with old solutions, read Twitter. If you are looking for new solutions, don't. Dobelli concludes his essay by saying while news is bad, longform and investigative journalism are always relevant. So, now might be a good time to step away from your computer and your smartphone. Go for a walk. Read a book. Spend an hour just rubbing your chin.
And, whatever you do, don’t forget to share this on Twitter.
* I always find it odd when people describe themselves as “thinkers,” as if the act of cognition is a special achievement deserving of memorialization in one’s LinkedIn profile. If Dobelli weren’t lucky enough to be able to write sentences or start businesses, would that mean that he would only describe himself as a “thinker”? That's kind like saying, "Oxygen breather."