The News is a Waste of Time

September 3, 2018

In the continual effort of self-improvement, people come to question many of their habits. For me, keeping up with the latest news was one of these things: is it worth it to spend hours each week reading the Wall Street Journal and wading through an inbox full of newsletters?

A few summers ago, I had an internship helping an analyst write stock recommendations. During the entire summer I followed the every move of e-commerce companies like Amazon, Wayfair and Blue Nile. I still remember a lot of the things those companies did during that summer (Blue Nile, for example, had just opened a storeroom in NYC where customers could look at product samples before purchasing through their online store). But looking back, the knowledge I picked up following the news didn’t seem to build off anything I knew previously, nor did it seem to provide a foundation for further learning.

I’ve since read many more opinions on the topic to understand if it’s a valuable use of time. And my decision is simple: I have cut news out of my life and think you should as well.

Lindy Effect

Older ideas have a longer life expectancy than newer ones. The Lindy Effect describes a phenomenon such that the life expectancy of a concept is most likely proportional to its age. I’ve come to use this as a rule of thumb for deciding if I should add something to my life. For example, we’ve been talking about Plato, Socrates and Aristotle for about 2,500 years – it’s clear they’ve figured out something fundamental to the human spirit. We’ve been drinking coffee for about 450 years – if it was dangerous / detrimental to humans, we would’ve understood that by now.

An analogy to help visualize this is to view a concept as the momentum in a train. When a train first starts rolling, it doesn’t take that much effort to stop it: its momentum is still a small quantity. However, if the train has been gradually picking up speed over time, it takes a ton of force in the opposite direction to slow it down. If an idea has the momentum of 2,500 years’ worth of proof that the idea is valuable, it’s going to take a lot of force to kill that idea. If Socrates was instead spewing bullshit, no one would have read his work. However, when that many people in that many time periods agree on something, it’s going to take a lot to prove it’s not useful.

Once you understand the Lindy Effect it’s easy to apply to everything in your life, not just philosophy texts. This has caused me to be very cautious about social media, virtual reality, college majors ending in ‘studies’, most pharmaceuticals, books written after I was born, and statements about a technology becoming the ‘new normal,’ to name a few. On the flip side, I spend considerably more time drinking wine, reading books written before I was born, taking walks, drinking tea, and picking up old human habits.

Circling back to news, it’s easy to see why an article that came out this morning isn’t likely to last as an idea. It just hasn’t gone through that rigorous test that older material has.

Say you followed politics for one month starting with the 2000 election, reading every news article you could find on the topic. Okay, good, you found the best-case scenario: a historically interesting example of George W. Bush winning the election despite losing the popular vote (not to mention the dramatic Florida recount).

However, say you followed the political news in August of 2000 instead of November of 2000. Say you spent that month meticulously following the debates, predictions and primary results. From a historical perspective, there wasn’t anything notable about these events. So, you end up learning something meaningless in the grand context of American politics.

There is such a strong chance that the current news is irrelevant in the long-term. Even on the largest political scale in America (the oval office), there is still a likelihood that following their every move will prove to be extraneous. Years later, can you name significant accomplishments of Chester A. Arthur, Franklin Pierce, Gerald Ford or Calvin Coolidge?

I especially want to point out that even in the best-case scenario, you still aren’t really maximizing your understanding of the political landscape. It’s true that you stumbled across an interesting event. It’d be even more valuable to ‘stumble’ across all interesting events (which you can do by learning about the things that time has proven to be valuable).

Old pieces of literature have lasted the test of time while new ones have not. It just doesn’t make sense to be reading the news for knowledge accumulation.

(Keep in mind that this argument doesn’t discriminate against all news, just the current news. There is value in going back to read articles from the prohibition area or to learn about what happened during the civil war. The point is that keeping up with current news is a poor filtering mechanism for finding useful information.)

Quality of Writing

When writing a 50,000-word book, the writer must provide considerable thought to the topic at hand. They must become the expert. It’s impossible to write that volume of words and not consider each contradiction, nuance, inconsistency and distinction around the topic. The longer the work, the more time and thought given to the subject (of course accounting for diminishing returns after some sufficiently large number of words)

This is not trivial; writing a book describing your stance on a topic is in a completely different category compared with tweeting 140 characters about it.  Not only must the writer be topical expert, but they must also carefully shepherd the reader through the logic of their mind. As anyone who has tried to write even 2,000 words understands, once you put pen to paper it becomes clear how easily your mind can hold contradicting ideas. High-quality books and essays are not filled with these contradicting ideas.

How does this relate to news? Since most news articles are short, they are less thought out than longer articles or books. Do you want to be filling your mind with content that isn’t of the highest quality? Content that hasn’t been subjected to the highest scrutiny? Following this logic to its conclusion, books should be the preferred medium of reading, followed by longer articles, followed by shorter articles.

One other note related to the quality of writing: think back to the incentives for each writer. For the news reporter, advertising dollars is the metric that the company is measuring. For the book author, the quality of their ideas is the metric they are measuring. By definition news is not created to last very long, which if you think about it like that really puts a dent into it’s value. Reading something that is designed not to last? What’s the point? A great passage from Amusing Ourselves to Death explains this phenomenon in the context of a telegraph (the first medium we created to spread news across the country):

“A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form on anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burns its contents. The value of telegraphy is undermined by applying the tests of permanence, continuity or coherence…Facts push others facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.”

Even if done only subconsciously, humans will be pulled in the direction of however they are measured. Reporters will be pulled towards grabbing short-term attention while authors will be pulled towards “contributing to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past.”

Conclusion

The most common qualm against disregarding the news is “aren’t you worried about missing out on big events?” In fact, I find that I don’t miss out on the big stuff that really matters. Recently, Senator John McCain passed away. I didn’t read about it anywhere, but enough people talked about it enough that I learned this information without needing to waste time filtering through news sites. If news matters enough, people talk about it.

And even if they didn’t talk about it, even if I never learned that John McCain passed away, what impact does that have on my life? I’m so far removed from doing anything related to Arizona politics and senate races that I don’t even need that information in the first place. It’s out of my context and irrelevant to my day-to-day life.

News is a poor source of learning and has suspect incentives that lead to lesser quality writing. The news doesn’t last or compound over time. For me, life is too short to be using my time consuming that sort of content.

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