The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Conscious consumption

with 6 comments

Late-night sleepy ramblings; please do not read :p

I have been taking a break, and it has helped me gain some perspective. Or so I thought.

Like some who might be reading this, I subscribe to a large number of blogs. Google Reader says 106 subscriptions, but a few of them are aggregators which combine the updates from several blogs.

For about three months (since June 10th, I think), I have not been reading them, nor reading the news. I’m not exactly sure why… it started as a day’s break (which was a big deal), then became four days (which was an even bigger deal), then it got easier and easier. Probably, I thought I was taking a break from (parts of) the internet in order to catch up with (parts of) my life. It didn’t work, of course. I merely found other sinks in which to dump my time. (I spent more time on Wikipedia than ever before, read more actual books than I had in the last couple of years, and so on.)

I did, however, discover a couple of things.

One is that Google Reader stops updating the count of unread items at “1000+”. (It also automatically marks items more than 30 days old as read, and, as I have “only” about 1500 items a month, I don’t know if it counts to “2000+”.)

The other is some general observations about what our lives have become.

It seems that the meanings of words like “recreation” have become somewhat quaint. Now “entertainment” is not always something to indulge in because one requires relaxation, or because it is a rewarding pursuit in itself, but simply “because it’s there”.

This can be traced, if not further, to the 19th century, when economic forces encouraged the publishing of the serial novel — the precursor to the modern-day soap opera. Thus was born the phenomenon wherein we partake of entertainment not when we desire it, but simply to avoid possible future “missing out” on enjoyment — with the pleasure comes the pressure to keep up, to “stay with it”. A periodic stream of offerings promising to entertain us, but also threatening us that if we don’t succumb, all future pleasures from that direction shall be denied to us. Thus are we enslaved by entertainment.

And so-called information we get from our daily blog servings is very much entertainment of the same sort to many of us. As illuminating as it may appear, I think it is not a productive use of one’s time to attempt to gain anything from these superficial nibblings, when there’s no time to think, to chew over the insights, let alone digest them. Thoughts raised and not pursued to a satisfactory (partial) conclusion crowd each other out and are not pleasant to carry around.


There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

(—Pope)

What’s good is all this noise that you get thrown at you? Yes, all your favourite bloggers write well, but do they write better than your favourite authors? Yes, it might be good to know what’s going on in the world, but how much of it is going to have a useful effect on you, and how much of it is going to numb you? Do we really need to sit through all the same shit every time a famous person dies, or does anything? If something is important enough for you to need to know, it will reach you somehow anyway.

Also, if you read too much about something, you can start thinking it’s important. A greater danger is that by choosing predictable sources that only say what we want them to say, we’re only succumbing to homophily, which brings with it groupthink and the usual set of cognitive ills.

The funny thing is, “normal” people don’t have this problem. They do manage to prioritise, to be aware of the effects and so on. Or they simply have less to read. Only we information addicts…

Moral?
So, does simply giving up feeds help? It does seem to help with “deep reading” and the discipline of “drinking largely” (a bit), but does not necessarily help with the goal I had in mind, of “conscious consumption”. Instead of reading articles just because they catch my eye, I’m now reading books just because they catch my eye. Is this more dangerous? I don’t know… the same total amount of time seems to be wasted, but what I read seems to stay with me for longer.

I don’t know what you did last summer
I haven’t been reading blogs of any of my friends either. (Except an occasional one here and there.) I plan to resume those, because in addition to the obvious reason, by a curious coincidence all my friends write extremely well. What about the rest of the ≈3800 unread items? With all this accumulated wisdom I pretend to have gained about life and the way to live it — or with just their sheer unmanageable number — am I going to resist the temptation of skimming through them? Given the fact that I counted, probably not.

Update [2 days later] Catching up
I’ve been catching up a bit (already down to ≈2000 items, or mid-July). Some more observations/confirmations:

  • Most “news” is worthless. The very fact that it already happened three months ago and has run its course seems to diminish its importance.
  • Most observations are worthless. They’re commenting on current news (like sports from months ago). See above.
  • I really don’t need to know of every update that Google’s done to their software.
  • Funny and cute things *can* remain funny and cute.
  • What I love most are mathematics and computer science.

There is one problem:
Lag

Another update [2009-09-14]
I’m still subscribed to feeds (have to be, for course announcements), but can choose to only read from certain folders. I had thought it would be impossible for me to avoid feeling compelled on reading items chronologically, or even to simply start Google Reader and not read everything “new”, but it seems possible now. Perhaps the primary problem is simply to break free from habit occasionally.

Bookmarking
Merlin Mann’s post “Better” is here, and the post announcing his change is “The Week Our Gears Shift”.

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Written by S

Sat, 2009-09-05 at 02:49:44 +05:30

Posted in unfinished

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6 Responses

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  1. “… by a curious coincidence all my friends write extremely well.” Am I one of those friends :)?

    On a more serious note, you raise a lot of points, but I think that if anything the argument can be made even more strongly for things outside the Internet. For instance, was it worth meeting me just because you were neat Chicago? Did you just meet me “because I’m there”? Would your life have been any different if you hadn’t (probably very marginally).

    Or, why do people visit jazz festivals etc. just because those festivals happen to be in those same towns, even though they’re not particularly interested in those festivals? Partly, “because it’s there”, I suppose.

    In contrast, the Internet gives a lot more control over when to read what. Because of the Internet, I don’t feel the need to read the “newspaper” every day because I can catch up with news on a more irregular basis — it remains there, doesn’t go away. Of course, having a feed complicates matters because you feel things slipping away — one reason among many that I don’t use feeds.

    Also, there isn’t anything wrong per se with reading books just because they’re there. In fact, the whole point of reading books in new areas just because they catch your eye is to get out of your comfort zone. If you only read books you “planned” to read, you may be in greater danger of “homophily”.

    For me, blogs etc. have been a great way of getting to know a large number of good books and long articles I wouldn’t have gotten to know of otherwise. May be I would have read other books instead, may be not.

    So, don’t underestimate us information addicts and the value of what we do :).

    Talking of this, you should read “Create Your Own Economy” by Tyler Cowen — it has a fascinating discussion about the autism spectrum and the kinds of skills and attitudes that affect Internet surfing.

    vipulnaik

    Mon, 2009-09-14 at 10:35:00 +05:30

    • Yes, you are, of course. :)

      Those were just haphazardly scribbled thoughts; the thinking does need more refinement… thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure the argument is stronger for things in the real world, because it’s easier to do things on the internet. One can go straight from impulse/curiosity to activity without any planning, and most things require (or appear to require) a smaller time commitment (“I can quit any time I want”).

      Perhaps the problem is not “because it’s there” but about habit or “control”, and learning to not be bothered (not very consciously) about things slipping away, as you say.

      The book doesn’t seem to be in my library, but I’ll look for it sometime soon. :)

      Shreevatsa

      Tue, 2009-09-15 at 00:43:55 +05:30

  2. […] some might argue that the fact that the fact that website owners, by shaving off a few milliseconds of performance time, can make us visit their sites more indicates that users somehow have less conscious control. After all, many people don’t think that they’ll search more if Google’s page loads faster. What does this say about conscious consumption in the context of web usage? […]

  3. “… by a curious coincidence all my friends write extremely well.”

    And hence now it seems very likely that we were never friends and probably will never be.

    booo…hooo…boo..hoo.

    :(

    Anirbit

    Tue, 2009-12-15 at 06:53:54 +05:30

  4. I found this article, on the “Cult of the Somewhat Delayed”, via Karthik’s shared items, and thought of this post. I wanted to link to this when sharing it on GReader, but then I didn’t know how serious you were about the warning on top of the post :-)

    Mohan

    Sun, 2010-01-03 at 03:21:47 +05:30


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