While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.
I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.
Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.
But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.
First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.
“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”
Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.
Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.
For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.
A couple of days ago, a video¹ appeared on my Twitter feed of President Trump “trolling” news reporters, by making fun of the fact that social distancing was preventing them from packing into the press room. The guy who posted the tweet and his Republican followers found it hilarious, and I was confused as to why. So I asked.
The conversations that followed were frustrating, hilarious, and in some cases, enlightening. I was called stupid, braindead, naive, deluded, indoctrinated, an idiot, and a sheep. I was also called sinful, humourless, disingenuous, a degenerate, a hater, a troll, a bot, a loser, a snowflake, and a cuck (which I had to Google). One guy said I was Hillaryous. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
When explaining why they found the clip humorous, many of the people I spoke to gave the same reason: the press is a puppet of the Deep State, a mysterious and powerful group of Democrats who are trying to oust Donald Trump. By making fun of them, Trump is exposing them for what they are.
I’d heard of the Deep State conspiracy theory before, but hadn’t looked into it, and given that so many Republicans I spoke to believe the press to be a pawn of this obscure and powerful entity, I thought it would be worth trying to understand why, and to consider the implications.
The term “deep state” is believed to have originated in Turkey, where the government military formed a secret alliance with drug traffickers to wage war against Kurdish rebels¹. It was popularised by former Republican U.S. Congressional aide Mike Lofgren in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which describes a group of highly influential people from government, finance, and industry that governs the United States from outside of the formal political process.
This idea seems plausible, but the theory has been twisted into something different by Trump and his colleagues, who redefined the group as malicious and deceptive Democrats hell-bent on removing him from office. Trump has pushed the narrative constantly since coming to office. At a rally last year, he claimed that “unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” In a White House press briefing a few weeks ago, he referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” to the chagrin of Anthony Fauci². More specifically related to the press, in September 2018 he tweeted that “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.”
Fox News and other radical-right political commentators have helped to popularise the Trump-angled conspiracy theory, and in addition to the President’s countless assertions of “fake news” media, it’s easy to see why so many of the Republicans I spoke to believe in the existence of a deep state that wants to remove him from office, with the press being a key component.
What’s alarming about this is that credible media organisations, for all their faults, remain the best place for understanding our world. They’re composed of trained journalists who adhere to strict standards and ethics, with principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability³. I’m not talking about infotainment organisations like Fox News, who despite their name, are incapable of producing anything remotely close to valuable news. I’m talking about news organisations with a proven history of factual, evidence-based reporting, who use credible, cited sources, and base each story on the most critical information for the reader; the newspapers that have been around for centuries, with cabinets full of Pulitzer prizes—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, to name a few. Despite having corporate owners whose business interests don’t always align with those of the journalists themselves, their stellar reputations position them as the most skilled public informers of the Western world.
Trump supporters don’t see them that way, and in their craving to consume news and understand the world around them, they turn to the Internet instead, a place where anyone can create a beautifully-designed professional website and publish their own version of the news. If they’re a half-decent writer, they can even make it sound credible. But these people are missing two key components critical to accurate reporting: journalistic standards, and the affiliation of a reputable news organisation. The Republicans that I talked to on Twitter sent me links to various different websites, which I’ll list in their entirety
Breitbart News, a far-right news syndicator which according to Wikipedia, publishes “a number of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories³.” In 2017, the website’s editor Alex Marlow admitted that the website skews its coverage to protect President Trump⁴.
RT, a Russian government-funded television network (formerly called Russia Today).
The Western Journal, a conversative news site that is blacklisted by Google and Apple News for its blatant inaccuracy⁸.
Human Events,a conservative newspaper and website, which according to owner Raheem Kassam (former editor of Breitbart News), has ambitions to create a MAGAzine⁷. Wikipedia believes the stories to be “generally unreliable” and doesn’t recommend using them as a source in their listings³.
The Political Insider,a conservative news website which in 2015, to damage Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, published a fake picture of Bill Clinton receiving a massage from a woman⁵. They also base entire stories on quotes from Fox News hosts⁶.
Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left,” and does so by promoting conspiracy theories. Wikipedia won’t use the site for sources under any circumstances, stating its history for “publishing hoax articles and reporting conspiracy theories as fact³.”
The Daily Wire, a right-wing conservative news site founded by Ben Shapiro, which has a history of failing to verify stories, and taking them out of context⁹. Wikipedia won’t allow sources from the site unless “outside of exceptional circumstances³.”
PragerU, a conservative media organisation that creates political, economic, and philosophical videos. The company has a history of conflicts with YouTube, Google, and Facebook over its content. It once posted a climate change denial video that uses a classic data trick to mislead viewers¹⁰.
New York Post, a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Wikipedia cautions against using sources for the paper, preferring “more reliable sources when available³.”
They also provided links from the Daily Kos, Breaking 911, and Powerline, whose credibility was more difficult to confirm.
While the sample of data is too small to be an accurate analysis of a typical Republican’s news sources, the vast majority of Republicans I spoke to provided news sources that were from inaccurate or blatantly misleading media websites, which in their words, could “wake me up” from my debilitating naivety if I gave them a chance. This is disturbing. Our understanding of reality is based on being told the truth, and the small cross-section of Republicans who I spoke to were forming their version of reality from websites that published inaccurate or misleading news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The humour they derived from Trump’s trolling of the press was based on the idea that journalists create nothing but fake news, when almost every single news source they sent me was guilty of doing exactly that. The irony of this would be funny if the implications weren’t so severe—a warped version of reality in which liberals are deluded sheep, the press are the enemy, and Donald Trump is the greatest leader in the history of America. With the free press an undoubtable puppet of a malevolent, Democratic Deep State looking to usurp their beloved President, they get their news from paranoid, right-wing bloggers without the slightest idea of how to be good journalists.
Non-journalists can report the news, but they’re unlikely to report it to the standards of trained journalists who work for reputable media organisations. There’s no question that an article from the New York Times is more trustworthy than an article from Breibart News. It doesn’t matter that the Times is liberal and Breibart conservative—facts are facts. While the Times article may include language sympathetic to liberal ideals, which can influence the reader’s political viewpoint and shift them along the spectrum, it’s still rooted in fact. On the occasion that a reputable newspaper like the Times publishes inaccurate stories (like when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarising), it’s big news because of their stellar reputation. People don’t make a fuss when Breibart News produce inaccurate stories, because they have a history of doing exactly that.
One polite and thoughtful person told me about his mistrust of the press, pointing out that a large majority of the US media is owned by just six corporations, an interesting point if you believe that the media have an underlying agenda pushed by their corporate overlords. This idea is backed by a controversial book from the 80’s called Manufacturing Consent, in which Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky describe a media that is part of a wider ideological framework, controlled by elite interests. While Chomsky still holds this position, he laments one of the book’s effects in a 2018 interview with author Matt Taibbi:
“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts.”
As one of the foremost intellectuals in the world, Chomsky’s position is worryingly close to the traditional, non-Trump-related idea of a controlling Deep State, a group that he prefers to call the “masters of the universe.” A comparison of the conspiracy theory compared to Chomsky and Herman’s position is outside the scope of this article, but if the authors of the book are to be believed, there truly is an elite class who sets an agenda for the press. This doesn’t turn hard-found facts by journalists into lies, but it does have an impact on the stories that they choose to report. For Chomsky, we should still get our facts from credible media companies like The New York Times, but remain skeptical about why the article has been written and chosen by the paper’s editors. Our choice of news remains between credible journalists who report facts, or news websites with a history of deception.
I’m sure there’s plenty of informed Republicans out there who get their news from credible sources, but this wasn’t the case for the people I spoke to on Twitter. They had a deep mistrust of what they call the “mainstream media,” which seemed a convenient way to group every media company together in order to stereotype it, and reinforce their beliefs. For these Republicans, getting a balanced view of the news is impossible because they don’t trust the news in the first place, instead choosing to get their information from shady, dishonest websites. They become trapped in an echo chamber of hateful vitriol, and because of their inherent tribalism and tendency for confirmation bias, escaping seems impossible.
As for Trump himself, pushing the Deep State conspiracy theory is a convenient way to undermine the credibility of a press that exposes his wrongdoing. Every whine of a “deep state” or “fake news” is an attempt to worm away from the uncomfortable facts, and to cast blame when he doesn’t get his way. For his supporters, it strengthens the idea that the press are a malicious and vengeful force of bandits who can’t be trusted. They’d wouldn’t be seen dead reading a copy of The Washington Post.
There’s no firm grip on reality without truth, and in a world where Trump supporters form their opinions from deceitful, inaccurate news, they’re plummeting deeper into dangerous fantasy, where lies are truth, truth are lies, and the rabbit hole is inescapable.
If I catch sight of a dark cloud, I usually check the weather radar for incoming rain. I’m rarely going anywhere—umbrellas and waterproof jackets aren’t a concern, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict. Such is the strength of my idle curiosity, and desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I’m compelled to consume, despite it having no apparent value.
Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, salamanders, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the top of the food chain.
As a Westerner in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. My species evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, so I want as much certainty as I can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information made accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It views information in the same way it views money and food:3 valuable, and worth seeking. Information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), so we’re given a squirt of dopamine to propel us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
“Just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”
Professor Ming Hsu, neuroscientist
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. After god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. Our consciousness allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether your dopaminergic reward system is luring you into the boundless novelty of the Web, trying to make you “safer,” but making you more anxious.
I look up a ton of information to satisfy my idle curiosity. It isn’t difficult to identify—for example:
Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, driving us towards as much information as possible so that we become masters of our environment. But with boundless curiosities at our fingertips, we instead become senseless slaves whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless, unaware that our freedom has been taken from us.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate.
Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. Though mindless entertainment does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.
First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to mindless entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with mindless entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.
Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of mindless entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.
The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.
Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, mindless entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.
Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.
There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the waywe relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in mindless entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.
New Zealand is a country often associated with postcard picturesque beauty, brimming with spectacular mountain ranges, mischievous parrots and locals with unfathomable accents. That temporarily changed this week after the abhorrent acts of a single coward, armed with a hoard of weapons and a brain infected with the virus of extreme right-wing ideology, perpetuated in part by online forum 8chan, a place where like-minded individuals come together and discuss which cross-sections of society should be slaughtered, for the betterment of our race.
A natural period of enquiry usually follows such a tragic event, in an effort to prevent similar occurrences, and given that it is exceptionally difficult to identify potential mass murderers, our attention turns to factors that we can control. Gun reform is already being discussed by the New Zealand cabinet, just four days after the attack occurred, testament to their progressive government and laudable prime minister Jacinda Ardern. The terrorist’s mental health is another consideration. In his rambling, racist manifesto he claims to be an ordinary white man, as though everyday, mentally-healthy people harbour urges of puncturing the organs of innocent people with bullets. As a native Australian, the shooter had access to discounted mental health programs via their Medicare system, providing him with a limited number of appointments with a mental health professional, though it’s unclear whether these were ever utilised, or how effective they would have been in steering him away from extreme ideology.
The third major consideration, and much murkier problem, is how to moderate hate-filled discussion boards on websites like 8chan. These are hotbeds of righteous discontent, loaded with reclusive figures whose pitiful anger can develop into violent, unbridled extremism, occasionally forming a character of such severity as the Christchurch shooter, so psychologically disturbed and miseducated that he considers his actions enough to prevent Muslims from migrating to predominantly white countries such as New Zealand.
The United States, UK, Australia, and many other countries fall under the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty, which includes the prohibition of certain types of hate speech, such as inciting violence against an ethnic group. The problem is one of enforcement — given that there’s no such thing as an internet police force (thank god), is it possible to systematically and efficiently censor lunatics like the Christchurch shooter, so that their violence-inciting ideology is eliminated before it reaches more gullible and mentally-unhealthy minds?
With the failure of self-moderation, one might expect the responsibility of regulating hateful content to fall to a government appointment regulatory board in the country where the website is hosted, which reviews the content of questionable sites such as 8chan, with the power to take them offline if necessary. 8chan is infamous for hosting illegal content, making it a prime target for such a regulatory board. Surely a government cannot stand by while a public, highly popular website that is hosted in their country openly discusses child rape, or advocates the destruction of the Muslim faith? While this kind of moderation will be challenging beyond belief, and probably require much free assistance from the general public, the alternative is allowing destructive, hateful ideas to perpetuate among the most depressed and disillusioned minds in the human race.
Freedom of speech is essential for a democratic, fair society in which ideas can be discussed without fear of consequence. The ICCPR tells us that the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right. This means that platforms such as 8chan cannot have free reign to host disgusting, violence-promoting content. The ICCPR exists for this very reason.
The problem with freedom of speech is that it’s also freedom to be evil. It’s possible to protect freedom of speech and censor websites that repeatedly violate hate speech laws. The difficult part is working out how to do so. Figuring out how to regulate echo chambers of mentally-deranged hate such as 8chan is an absurdly challenging task, but also an incredibly important one, worthy of the extensive time and investment needed in order to remove the soapboxes of senseless, would-be terrorists.
A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I spent the morning touring the Louvre museum in the elegant city of Paris. The museum holds a vast collection of beautiful, illustrious pieces of art, and a portion of history so rich that one feels as though they’ve taken a ride with a loony whitewashed scientist in a DeLorean.
The museum’s most illustrious piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for which the halls of the establishment are peppered with sign posts. As we sauntered ever closer to the famous painting, it became increasingly difficult to swing one’s arms in a casual fashion, and we found ourselves assuming a penguin-like waddle. We finally reached the section in which it was housed, packed to the rafters, to discover that we couldn’t see the painting because the view was almost entirely blocked by arms held aloft, taking pictures with mobile phones.
It’s astonishing to think that the vast majority of the museum-goers standing in front of the Mona Lisa weren’t using their god-given eyeballs to look at it, but instead believed it more important to look at it through the lens of their smartphone’s camera, because heaven forbid they’d miss the opportunity to take a picture of a famous picture. Many of us have become so detached from our own senses, and so obsessed with modern technology, that we’re abandoning the opportunity to actually experiencethe marvels that are in front of us. A smartphone camera is no substitute for a fortuitously-evolved pair of eyes, with capabilities to distinguish the tiniest, delightful details within a painting. Neither does it house a curious brain, the ponderous stirrings of which add fresh colour and satisfaction to an art-viewing experience. It just takes a crappy, distanced picture, which can be trounced by thousands of professional pictures on the internet, and is probably going to be glanced at a couple of times before never being looked at again. Meanwhile, the time that should have been spent examining the picture and appreciating its beauty has been lost. Only through concerted mindfulness are we able to open up our senses fully.
In another section of the museum, we witnessed a middle-aged Asian lady frantically dashing across the hall, taking a picture of a painting before darting to the next one. She seemed genuinely stressed about this arduous task, as though missing a painting would result in her beheading upon reaching the museum’s exit. It was hilarious to witness, but also quite depressing. She was so desperate to capture her experiences that she failed to experience them. This is like visiting one of Paris’ mouth-watering restaurants, taking a picture of the menu and then leaving. All she seemed to want was a record of the moment; a far-cry from the magnificence of the real thing.
This behaviour isn’t limited to museums. The digital age finds us consistently immersed in a hypnotising world of bits and bytes, at the expense of just experiencing the exquisite world around us. Our phones cannot tell us what the local park smells like after a long-awaited rainfall, or convey the sweet crispness that permeates the air. They’ll fail to transmit to us the feeling that emerges when looking up at the magnificent dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a heavenly beam of light illuminating the exquisite carvings below. A digital recording of your child’s first steps, in which your eyes are fixed onto a small screen to make sure you’re getting the perfect shot, is a dismal travesty.
The only way to fully experience these things is to put our devices away and pay attention. It makes no difference how many pixels our cameras can capture, or how high the frame-rate of our video. When our attention is focused on recording the event instead of experiencing it—so anxious to freeze the moment in time for eternity—we’re relinquishing what’s valuable about it: the experience itself. This might be considered a kind of meta-existence, in which we’re stepping outside of the real world in order to capture and record information about it. This reality seems unbelievably perverse, and yet, so many of us exist in this way, unaware that we’ve become record-keeping spectators in our own lives.
Our only hope is to resist our unrelenting desire to capture our experiences, relinquish the absurd virtual likes that we’re addicted to, and look a little closer at the world around us. Our lives are enriched through mindfulness, and impoverished through obsessive record-keeping. Our blessed senses open up a world of marvels, which can only be properly appreciated by paying attention. How can one even consider prioritising a virtual Facebook like over the sensual delights of the Niagara Falls? Or witnessing an American bald eagle soaring above your head, instead of fumbling to open your camera app?
The Mona Lisa is ruined when viewed through a digital screen. If Da Vinci painted her in our time, one might argue that her half-smile is one of mocking condescension, in response to the knowledge that most of her audience are living a hollow, ghost-like meta-existence. If we put away our cursed phones, her smile might broaden into something wondrous to behold.
Ask someone how their work day is going, and they’ll probably tell you that they’re busy. It’s the default small-talk answer; a less boastful way of saying that they’re a productive, valuable employee, despite the fact that they constantly have Messenger discreetly open on their screen. The busyness claim isn’t necessarily a lie, many of us genuinely feel this frantic sense of rushing throughout the day, as though there aren’t enough hours to accomplish what’s important. We often leave the office with a frazzled brain, with Netflix and the warmth of our partner as the only remedies that can haul us from the brink, until morning rolls around and we have to go through the same stressful process again. If Sisyphus happens to be a colleague of yours, he’ll be watching on with mournful, comprehending eyes.
Busyness does not equate to productivity, not by a long shot. We’ve all had unquestionably busy days, and felt like we’ve achieved nothing. Productivity is burdened by a nefarious snake lurking in the shadows, which strikes regularly and with great force – distraction. It’s a defining 21st century problem, with entire industries dedicated to seizing your attention and holding onto it for as long as possible. We have smart phones; smart TVs, smart watches; flashing and buzzing with alluring notifications that are almost impossible to ignore. How can you be expected to maintain your focus on what’s important when your wrist is constantly purring at you? Forget about holding an engaging, valuable conservation with another human if you both have your phones on the table – you’re communicating that the most important thing in your bubble is the sinful black device that you’re secretly praying will light up, to distract you from the uncomfortableness of human interaction. Reading a message on your phone is less awkward than trying to adequately communicate with the person sitting opposite you, but the latter is a profoundly more effective way to interact, because it includes vocal tone, and body language. Not only are the technological distractions of our era making us less productive, they’re fucking with our ability to communicate as well.
If you’re exhausted from having your attention constantly and selfishly yanked away from you, try some of the following tips.
Do just one thing at a time. The more you task-switch, the more tired and stressed you’ll feel, in addition to being a great-deal less effective throughout the course of the day. Do whatever it takes to maintain your focus on a single thing, then move onto the next once done.
Turn off your notifications. This isn’t as traumatising as you might expect – whatever your colleagues are messaging you about can probably wait for a few hours, and your Facebook notifications can wait for a fucking eternity if you know what’s good for you.
Be proactive, not reactive. You don’t have to read every notification or respond to every message instantly. Your colleagues and friends aren’t going to cast you out like the heinous village rapist. Be proactive by taking some time at the start of each day to write up a list of what’s important to you, and set allocated periods for stuff like emails/messages. If you’re brave enough to resist the dopamine-fuelled buzz of distraction, you’ll likely achieve many great things.
Invest in some good quality, noise-cancelling headphones. People are fucking distracting, and we’re just as blameworthy because we often want to be distracted. Drown out your pesky colleagues with some beautifully ambient sounds. Personally, my favourite is Rain on a Tent, it’s like camping and working at the same time. While you have your headphones on, politely ask your colleagues not to distract you.
Practice mindfulness. This may as well be a technique from the gods, it’s espoused by medical professionals, productivity gurus, health coaches, and every other well-being related profession the world over. All you really need to do is sit still every day for 15 minutes, and try to retain your focus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognise when your brain has wandered off, and to bring your focus back to what’s important. Meditation isn’t some mystical practice performed by orange-clad ninja monks, it’s a fantastically useful tool for everybody to use. There’s a solid reason for its popularity of late.
You can reclaim a good chunk of time that has been stolen by distractive task-switching, and become a much more efficient and fulfilled chimp. Hold a steady hand up to all those who would distract you, and take your happiness to new heights.
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