As a younger adult I was generally unaware of current affairs. I never read the news and had no inclination to. Sure, I'd see headlines and sometimes see the news on TV or hear it on the radio, but for me it was unimportant, and mostly ignored. I can't say I was engaged in nobler pursuits or anything, but the point is that whatever was going on in the wider world wasn't a big part of my day to day life, and that suited me fine.
It changed with 9/11. In the days and then weeks after, I would regularly visit news sites to see if there were any new developments. And then even when things quietened down, I kept going back. I have a distinct memory, where I found myself doing the news equivalent of what had been an old internet joke about email: you hit refresh, there's nothing new, so you hit refresh again.
Then came blogging, and current affairs became even more topical. And then we moved to the UK, and politics here wasn't as dysfunctional as it was back home, and it was interesting, and soon I was better informed about UK politics than I'd ever been about SA politics. I liked the idea of being well informed, of being able to weigh in when people were discussing matters of the day. I had a bunch of news links I'd rotate through, and blogs with opinions and discussion and links to even more news.
None of it was good for me. Wasting time on news sites and blogs was one part of it, but the other was just the negativity of it all. I'd be annoyed by the partisanship I'd see from most people on social media, or in life generally, and I made a point of reading both left and right-leaning websites, for "balance". I'd joke that this just made me twice as angry - which was true. And I mean true. The news just made me angry.
That was mostly politics, but even non-political news isn't great, because bad things get reported far more often than good things. So politics or otherwise, following the news boiled down to me expending time and mental energy on negative and depressing things.
Why do it? Whatever the benefits, the detriment wasn't worth it, and part of me knew this. A good few posts on this blog have been variants on "I should just give up the news."
Last year, I read a blog post by Australian academic Jason Collins, entitled How I focus (and live). He wrote something which stuck with me:
I used to apply a filter to political news of "if this was happening in Canada, would I care?" That eliminated most political news, but I have found that after a few years, I have become so disconnected from Australian politics that most of it flows around me. I don’t recognise most politicians, and I feel unconnected to any of the personalities.
There was something about this idea of disconnecting, of not caring about things that weren't really that important to me, of instead being preoccupied with things I valued more, of being free of the news, which appealed to me.
No surprise then, that my digital declutter started with me intentionally avoiding the news one day, and when I put together my declutter list of things I'd stop doing, it was right at the top.
The strange thing is ... I'd expected giving up the news to be difficult, especially with all the excitement that's been happening in the country this year. But it wasn't. In fact, of all the things I did as part of my declutter, it was probably the easiest. It was as though having committed to doing it, a switch flipped inside of me, and I very quickly lost interest.
For the most part, I still know what's going on. Headlines are everywhere, I occasionally scan the Bloomberg front page at work to see what's going on in the markets. And if big things happen, people talk about it.
But since starting the declutter, it isn't so much that I don't know, as that I don't want to know. No longer following the news, I've developed something of a Pavlovian aversion to it. Faced with a newspaper or the prospect of visiting a news site, my thought process now is something along the lines of: likely to make me unhappy; avoid.
Digital Minimalism suggests giving up low-quality news sources, and instead consuming higher-quality news, less frequently. Which is to say, the book doesn't say you shouldn't follow the news, just that you should "optimise" how you consume it. I started the declutter expecting to re-establish some form of optimised, higher-quality news intake once it was over, but it quickly became clear to me that my personal, optimal level of news consumption is around zero.
In this respect, my sense of identity has changed. I'm no longer the well-informed dude who can hit the ground running in political conversations. Now, my first question is invariably to ask what's happened. ("Oh, there's going to be an election?") Then maybe I can still say something useful based on my background knowledge and first principles, if you will, but that's it. If I'm still newsless in a year or two's time, will I have even that?
I consider it a small price to pay, though. In the past few months I've gotten back whatever time I'd have devoted to following the news, and I'm far and away happier without it. Much like my younger self, whatever's happening out there just isn't that important to me, and it's hard to believe I ever thought it was.