If, like me, your eyes are dry, your brain is sore and your fingers are numb from clicking and twitching and hitting “refresh”, then it might be time to retire momentarily from the online world and maybe even from reality itself. Take a break. Sit in the park. Have a croissant. While you still can. “But, Viv, these are the most important political developments since the Second World War. I need to know everything that is going on the very second that it happens. I cannot take a break, even to consume a favourite European snack with wistful nostalgia. I cannot.” I know. I feel the same way. But I also feel it driving me slowly mad.
There has never been a moment in my lifetime where I wished I knew far more about politics, economics and international relations than I do. Suddenly we’re all on first-names terms with Mark (Carney, governor of the Bank of England) and Jean-Claude (Juncker, president of the European Commission). This is great news for the game of Trivial Pursuit you might find yourself playing in 2038 while residing in the United Republic of the Remaining English Counties. What it is not, however, is great news for anyone’s mental health. Being informed? Good. Being obsessed? Bad.
If ever there were a significant time to examine your relationship with news, social media and the time you spend online, this is it. I’ve long been a fan of the philosopher Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly and a man who has not read a newspaper for seven years. I like to think of him sitting in his philosopher’s tower in Zurich (he is Swiss), drinking a perfectly-crafted espresso and knowing absolutely nothing about Brexit. He probably won’t find out about it until next year sometime.
News rarely hints at underlying trends, the invisible or the nuanced. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body
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When I met Dobelli, he told me that he does hear about the news, but only from friends who keep him up-to-date about which celebrities have died. He’s not someone who’s uninterested in the world: on the contrary. He reads non-fiction constantly and is a fan of long-form journalism. But he doesn’t believe that anything can be understood up close and in the moment. He sees news as “a toxic form of knowledge.” “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body,” he writes, “We can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-coloured candies for the mind.” He avoids news because, he says, it causes constant spikes of cortisol in the brain (extreme stress) and anxiety over situations you can’t control.
He argues that news focuses on the visible and the immediate. It gives us the impression of being informed and enlightened. But often what is reported today turns out to be wrong tomorrow. (Sound familiar?) News rarely hints at underlying trends, the invisible or the nuanced. “News has no explanatory power,” he argues. “News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.” News hits make us shallow thinkers, Dobelli contends, and prevent us from accessing the one thing we really want: to understand the underlying processes.
I’ve followed his strategy on and off over the years, trying to stick to a “news diet” that is healthy. When I do read too much and over-use social media, at least I do it with an awareness that it’s making me stressed and I need to pull away at some point. Since Thursday, though, I have binged like an alcoholic who’s been told their liver is cirrhosis-proof. The Scottish view? Check. Cameron’s inner circle? Check. The latest on Corbyn? Just one more crack hit, please.
Now the hangover is kicking in. (Actually I probably need my stomach pumped.) And Dobelli’s words are swimming before my eyes: “The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.” What could be more true about the situation we’re looking at now?