The Obesity of the Mind

Being a good citizen today is exhausting. Being a good American citizen is a whole other level of exhaustion. Everyone around the world has been hit by the #$I*% storm that is American politics. Every news site and media outlet are dedicated to covering every aspect of the new presidency. If you consume media, even entertainment, it’s very hard to avoid it.

After the last several months using Facebook, in particular, I just got overwhelmed. The concept of “you are what you eat” flooded my consciousness. Facebook’s awful filtering and algorithms are worse for your brain than a Chuck E. Cheese pizza. I was feeling bloated and queasy. Almost everyone was sharing their opinions coupled with some reference to another story that was written to foster controversy at best, hate at worst. I just had enough. Scrolling through various news channels in my hotel room one night, I had come to the same conclusion. I just needed a break. I wondered, is it possible to be over informed?

As someone who advocates for and presents often on the value of citizenship, this might seem somewhat incongruent. I do a number of presentations designed to help teachers help their students navigate online safely and more importantly smartly, in order to be the kind of citizens we need: Thoughtful and active.

However, I began thinking about the analogy between information and food. Like access to cheap, nutritionless food, we have unprecedented access to cheap tabloid style information. Too often it’s disguised as truth but like food, sometimes folks have difficulty realizing there’s little value in it. Also true, almost all the food we consume today has some kind of chemical and toxins that aren’t healthy. Many consciously try to minimize the damage but even buying fruits and vegetables in the grocery store aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Unless you’re growing your own food, it’s very difficult to assume your food is pure as you’re likely being promised.

Some gorge themselves on media because they can’t help themselves. Like the addiction of sugar, once you start, you can’t stop. Finding one more demeaning article about the other side gives you a buzz and you want more. Reading a post from the other side that is just begging for a response and you can’t leave it alone. Others may be trying to temper their consumption with a never ending search for high quality, accurate reporting. The problem is you have to sort through a lot of junk to find the good stuff. It’s like saying “I’m going to eat lots of food because overall, I’ll get my nutrition by volume.” If you only follow one source because you think they are the only ones telling the truth, I’d argue you’re not very literate.

In the end, many of us are getting obese on information. I know some would argue that’s the price we have to pay. We are forced to stay informed. But staying informed today with being somewhat misinformed is extremely challenging. I’m not saying we be like ostriches and stick our heads in the sand but I don’t think the way most are consuming information is any better.  I don’t really have a great solution at this point but if your solution includes reacting to Facebook posts or sharing links on twitter without context I’m going to disagree with that approach. This excellent article explains how we broke Democracy. It offers some useful tips as well. But a major takeaway for me was “Facebook still sucks”.

There are very few if any news sources out there who aren’t willing to add bits of “sweetener” to make their content more appealing. The sweetener is the use of inflammatory language and click-bait that is so tempting to take in. Trying to remove it to just learn what you need to know is very difficult. I still enjoy having meaningful dialog with smart people who think differently that I do. That’s where I learn the most. The media right now just isn’t the place for me right now.

Maybe my analogy isn’t working for you. Analogies often fail and so might this one. But it’s been somewhat helpful for me in realizing I need to fast.

Another thought I have deals with our history. How were people good citizenships before the internet? According to the book Bowling Alone, civic engagement was at its highest after World War II and has been declining since 1970. I doubt people spent anywhere near the time-consuming information. Partly because it wasn’t available but also because people believed in the democratic process. You voted for who you voted for and you let them do their job for four years and got to decide how well you think they did. Trust was given. Was trust deserved? Probably not always but I’m not sure people’s concerns were so much directed at one another as it was to their representatives.

When I think of the plethora of serious, important issues in the world from racism, climate change, global economics, foreign policy to name a few, I’ll admit I’m pretty ignorant. I’m also comfortable in saying most people are as well but many act and speak as if they aren’t. With limited amounts of time, I have to decide how much I am able to learn and at some point have to make a choice to opt out. People’s trivial level of understanding of important issues, masked with an appearance of authority is at the root of this problem. Combined this with news and media outlets anxious to feed every possible bias and we have a snapshot of insanity. We have to get better at filtering but at this point, we may be fighting a losing battle.

I would love to hear any thoughts or strategies you have in staying healthy in a world of crappy media. Right now my brain is getting bloated with garbage.