We have an incessant need to consume information.
As I ruminated in a recent off-the-cuff video on the topic, I think part of the answer is in creating as much or more than we consume - however that's not easy. The tension between these two modes of acting in the world (consuming vs creating) is in itself a topic for another time. For now, I'd like to drill down on the specifics of how one might go about consuming information while making use of our meta-cognitive faculties. In other words, self-aware consumption of information.
Perhaps I'm an outlier, maybe it's just all the meditation and reading I've been doing, but I often find myself noticing when I get distracted by online information sources. I tend to extend this to physical books too since I'm an avid old-school reader, but for simplicity, I'll restrict myself to the digital case.
You know, lots of tabs open. Lots of apps running. One's internal commentary working away in the background. A little hungry. Interested in this or that. I should google this...
Perhaps this low-resolution snapshot to my personal, first-person view of the world is indicative of my partial insanity, but I have a feeling others probably feel this way to some extent, even if they wouldn't put it in those words. Meditation can, of course, open one's inner eyes to internal processes, such that these observations are far more relatable than they otherwise may have been. Nevertheless, I hope I can elaborate on some general ideas as to how we can begin to tackle the issue of what information we should allow ourselves to consume regardless of whether you have had experience with meditation or not.
There is more information available on the internet than we can ever hope to consume. Now, I'm aware that "consumerism" has a bad rap, and perhaps rightly so, but I don't want that to colour our notion of "consuming" in this article; it's necessary to consume information in one way or another. I also can't think of a satisfactory word for it. We consume not only in the ravenous sense (desire for entertainment) but also in the sense that information fuels creativity. I'd argue that ideas cannot come ex nihilo, metaphysics and infinite regress to the question of where the universe came from aside. There are also infinitely different forms and variations of information content we can consume. Forms like listening, speaking and viewing. Variations in editing, style, aim. The zoology of information content available at an instant is genuinely something to behold.
Indeed capacities for abstraction, entertainment, rumination and discussion are a massive part of what I believe makes humanity special. So consuming information - which is a necessarily big part of all of those things - is neither intrinsically good or bad, since all of these capacities are used for either, equally. Here I use the term "consumption of information" in the most straightforward digital sense possible - in front of a screen, reading words/watching videos/listening to podcasts and storing, processing and experiencing information as a result. You may or may not act on it. You may use such information to build upon previous ideas, to refine, to inspire, or simply to amuse. In any case, it seems we can't escape from the fact that we consume information for some use, a purpose, a telos - even if it's for pure artistic appreciation. I think this is where we should earnestly start on our quest to understand how to responsibly and consciously engage with consuming information.
It would be fallacious and naive to begin with a single telos, however. I cannot make any reasonable assumptions as to what people's goals are in life, what the ideal is they may be striving for, or even if they have or think about such things and naturally want to enjoy themselves watching funny videos on YouTube. Extremes such as the productive stoic vs the lazy gamer; the creative to the intellectual; realistically, single-minded monolithic human minds are rare. Perhaps by conceptually averaging across humanity, I'd argue the answer is somewhere in between all these possible things. The slob may be interested in the occasional science video. The intellectual might watch a mindless reality TV show, and even the stoic probably gives himself some downtime. As such, I won't try to make the case that we should keep in mind a single goal when consuming any and all our online information.
Instead, to keep things simple, I'll only assert the importance two things: self-awareness of contextual telos, and self-awareness of state. Let me unpack those.
Self-awareness of Telos
Telos is Greek for "purpose", "goal" or "end". I don't like to use uncommon words too often, but with such a significant topic (information consumption) in mind here, I feel it's justified to consider a new way of approaching our habitual information consumption. In my mind, telos suggests a way of seeing our actions, our thoughts and the world with a goal and an end in mind.
With that clarified, perhaps it may be too much to ask of an average person living today to consider their telos, whatever that may be, whenever they consume information. Is it too dramatic, too serious, too "intellectual" to suppose one should take a second and remember their teleological purpose when clicking on a suggested YouTube video, a shared article, or a new podcast? For some, perhaps - and fair enough.
For those who tilt towards such modes of thought and self-awareness, the next challenge is how to deal with those moments when you pause, think whether to click or not and are genuinely unsure. Surely now would be the time to take a further step back and realise how absurd it is to ruminate so seriously on clicking a link - it's only a 5-minute video after all. Just like those other 5, 10, 20 minute videos you watched today, and yesterday ... and every day of the week.
"We are what we repeatedly do",
as Will Durant summarises from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.
Then perhaps if that resonates with you even slightly, it may make some sense to take such self-awareness of otherwise habitual actions seriously.
Let's go back to the problem of what if you seriously can't make up your mind whether this 5-minute video or 1-hour podcast is worth the time? Well, then I'd say it's time to use the marvel of internet-based outsourcing. Whether it's a 3-hour movie on Netflix, a 30-minute podcast, or 5-minute video, there is probably additional information (ironically enough) that can be utilised to make up one's mind. Reviews, comments, previous knowledge of the creator, further consideration of the topic, descriptions, blurbs - all taken with adequate amounts of salt of course.
Hopefully, such a control mechanism is automatic; like when one is considering to buy a book in a bookstore, you'll probably look at the cover, read the blurb at the back and rifle through pages to get a "feel" for it. We want to make sure our investment is worth it. But if the investment is not via hard-earned cash, then it's our time - which can often seem too intangible to put in the same category of "a valuable resource" as we do with money. Consequently, I argue we should make the conscious choice to use the wonderfully intuitive aggregation systems of our minds to "get a feel" in whatever way we can of what we're about to invest our time into, and make a decision.
There is an essential two-fold addendum to such a claim though. Firstly, once you make the decision, you ought to stick to it and be immersed in the experience. Secondly, keep in mind your telos while making your judgement. For the former, I'll point you to other sources on why multitasking is both impossible in the naive sense, and ultimately detrimental - if you so feel that it's worth the time to consume and confirm. For the latter, it is a case of personal, momentary consideration: "Is this worth my time?" By which the question implies - "worth it for what?" To what end? For entertainment? For understanding? Whatever it is, consciously factor those into your subconscious choice process, and maybe you'll find yourself spending time on genuinely worthwhile content. Your telos need not be as dramatic as an ultimate life goal, nor as singular, so it is essential to keep in mind context. This is where the second kind of self-awareness becomes relevant.
Self-awareness of State
All else being equal, we could rightly restrict ourselves to a teleological heuristic. But, what about the "all else" bit? Immediately, the following possible internal and external factors come to mind:
Time of day, other priorities, exhaustion/vitality, personal attention span, emotional state, etc...
A non-exhaustive list, of course.
Any of these factors, if taken genuinely into consideration, could potentially change what information you decide to spend your time consuming. There's a strange switch that can be flipped by merely being aware of such factor(s), in my experience. But it's probably too much to ask of even the most disciplined internet stoic to require a checklist of internal/external factors before clicking on a damn news article. Which is why I'd suggest the compromise of delegating such a task to your subconscious and simply ask: "How am I feeling right now?". For some (including myself), this is a profoundly tricky question to answer. Nevertheless, it's important. One could also take the question as an implied factor of the teleological question: "Is this worth my time?".
How much time could we be talking about anyway? Well, are you willing to sit and dedicate your attention to a teleologically valuable 20-minute video? How about a one hour video? Two hours? What if you split it up over a while? You'd have to compromise and not watch as much mindless entertainment...
The overwhelming majority of people I've recommended check out a particular Canadian psychologist's lectures on the Bible indicate that although they are interested and want to, they can't seem to imagine themselves sitting down, and watching such a long talk. Especially on a medium which is otherwise mostly used for entertainment. A significant time investment, of course. In which case, your teleological self, and emotionally-aware self might need to have a quick chat about what is worth your time.
Perhaps there are compromises you could make if your telos is to be disciplined (in and of itself). Maybe a moment's introspection would reveal that you don't need to start binge-watching another Netflix series. Conversely, perhaps you're utterly exhausted, not in the mood to do any work at all, and just want to relax and watch something mindless and fun. Fair enough. Unless the spirit of your telos comes knocking on the door - but that's for you to contend.
It's worth noting that the first 2.5-hour lecture in that Bible lecture series has over 1 million views... so it's possible.
All else being equal, our subjective, personal state, and our present telos must have at least a moment's mutual, simultaneous consideration before investing time in information consumption.
I'm profoundly self-aware of the fact that all of the above may seem like an unnecessary overthinking of what is ultimately the mindless wanderings of the human brain on the internet. But it is precisely this "mindlessness" that I am concerned about because it propagates only surface-level experience. It's why I'm such a huge advocate for mindfulness and meditation. Even for entertainment purposes - you might as well fully immerse yourself in the experience to get the most out of it, rather than checking your phone, swapping tabs and scrolling through comments. This article is only meant to provide a potential scaffold for how to tackle that issue as far as it concerns digital information consumption, with the details and compass directions ultimately left up to you.
Thanks for consuming.