News in the Age of Abundance

I recorded a behind-the-scenes video of writing this essay, which you can watch here.

The news is just like cereal.

Even though cereal is now viewed as over-processed and sugary, it was once viewed as a health food. Americans heard about the health benefits of cereal and ramped up their consumption. From the beginning, companies made heavy investments in advertising cereal because most people eat the same breakfast every day.

Thus, just as readers are loyal to news sources, consumers are loyal to their favorite breakfast cereals. And like news, consumers inhale cereal during the frantic rush before work. Even if they aren’t the healthiest options, they’re cheap and easy to consume.

Marketers promoted the benefits of cereal with slogans like “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Similarly, news organizations position themselves as an irreplaceable daily habit and with slogans like “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” While the Romans believed it was healthiest to eat only one meal per day and our ancestors only heard about major events, but we have been trained to be constant consumers, so we eat too much food and read too much news.

In addition to advertising how fast you can consume their newsletters with headers like “all the news you need in three minutes or less,” they promote the benefits of making news consumption a routine. That way, you can be “well informed.”

Both cereal and the daily news began as well-intentioned efforts to improve American lives. But just as cereal turned into sugar for the body, news turned into sugar for the mind.

The Roadmap 

My question: Why can’t the news keep us informed, and how should we respond?

I’ll answer this in the following structure: I’ll start with the history of two mediums: newspapers and television. With newspapers, I’ll discuss the rise and fall of geographic monopolies, and with television, I’ll discuss the shift from broadcast television to cable. I’ll highlight the three most important lessons from both mediums. Then, we’ll turn to Internet news. I’ll talk about the Triangle of Information Flow, the relationship between amateur bloggers and professional journalists, and the problems with subscription media. Then, I’ll turn to the problems of constant consumption across media platforms. And finally, I’ll introduce the Paradox of Abundance and tie the threads of food, news, and information together.

Pillar 1: A History of Newspapers

  • How Newspapers Built Their Geographic Monopolies

  • How Newspapers Lost Their Geographic Monopolies

  • Three Lessons from Newspapers

    • Business Models Matter

    • Distribution Shapes Coverage

    • Fact-Checking and Russell Conjugations

Pillar 2: A History of Television 

  • Rise of Cable Television

    • Television’s Grip on Opinion and Advertising

  • Three Lessons from Television

    • The Overton Window

    • The Explosion of the Soundbite

    • Common Knowledge and the Benefits of Advertising

Pillar 3: News on the Internet 

  • The Triangle of Information Flow

  • Friends and Enemies

  • Problems with Subscription Media

Pillar 4: Problems of Constant Consumption Across Mediums

  • Pseudo News Fills the Cycle

  • The Negativity Bias

  • False Urgency: 24/7 News

  • Result of False Urgency: Noah Effects vs. Joseph Effects

  • Information Overload: The Illusion of Knowledge

  • Information Overload: The Paradox of Abundance

Healthy News Consumption Is Possible

  • Track What You Consume

  • Focus on News That’s Close to Home

Information Is Food


Pillar #1: A History of Newspapers

How Newspapers Built Their Geographic Monopolies

Information was once expensive to produce and distribute. Text was always cheap and easy to produce, but until the Internet, writers couldn’t easily distribute those words.

The cost structure of a traditional print newspaper has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The high fixed costs come from paying salaries, building the brand, and setting up the manufacturing line. But once the system is set up, purchasing the paper and ink required for an additional newspaper is cheap compared to the cost of building printing presses, purchasing delivery trucks, and hiring local reporters.

In the market for words, local newspapers had little competition for the majority of their existence. Most cities had one or two major newspapers, but big ones like New York and San Francisco had a few more. Small-town families who subscribed to national newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times also read their local newspapers¹

And yet, some of the intra-city newspaper battles were ferocious. At the end of World War II, New Yorkers didn’t know if The New York Times or International Herald Tribune would emerge as the city’s top newspaper. In the heat of rivalry, the Times added commercial listings to the front page of its newspaper with a focus on New York City garment merchants. Ultimately, the Times won because it built a healthier advertising business.

Newspapers solidified their brands by building trust with readers and local power players such as business owners and government officials. From 1950 until 2000, newspapers operated with a level of financial security they’ll never have again. Even when newspapers struggled, they consolidated into conglomerates such as Gannett and Knight Ridder, both of which were publicly traded and operated with 20-40% margins for the majority of their existence.

The New York Times’ famous slogan — “All the News That’s Fit to Print” — flowed from the way news was shared and consumed. Newspapers were delivered by hand to a subscriber’s door every morning. Space was limited, so newspapers had a set number of story slots each day and editors-in-chief determined which stories made the cut. On some days, newspapers cut important news, and on other days, they filled the space by printing unimportant stories.

Each edition of the local paper packaged news, opinions, sports, and entertainment. The fun and widely read sections in the back half of the newspaper funded the important but less profitable ventures in the front half. Without the newspaper bundle, journalists wouldn’t have been able to conduct original investigative reporting. But backed by the security of its business model, journalists acted as the Fourth Estate, defined as the group with the explicit power to advocate for policies and the implicit ability to frame political issues.

How Newspapers Lost Their Geographic Monopolies

Since 1950, the news business consolidated into a series of chains. In addition to lowering market competition, consolidation helped newspapers save money on basic expenses, which raised profit margins. The average newspaper made roughly 80% of their revenue from display and classified ads and 20% from subscriptions.

Other papers skipped the subscription strategy altogether and made 100% of their profits from advertisements. By giving away their newspapers, they increased reach, which raised the value of each advertisement. One of my earliest childhood memories was watching newspaper distributors hand out the San Francisco Examiner for free. As an elementary school student, I couldn’t understand why a company would do this. One of my teachers told me that since the newspaper made money from advertising, they wanted to distribute the paper to as many people as possible even if it cost them cash upfront. As more people saw the newspaper, profitability increased so it was worth distributing for free.

Newspapers such as USA Today, the most popular newspaper in America, enhanced their words with images and mirrored the television aesthetic. The USA Today was founded in 1982, and grew into the third largest daily newspaper in the United States by 1984. Like television the stories are delivered in snippets and its colorful design is built upon pictures, charts, and other graphics.



USA Today.png

Source: The War Eagle Reader

Free or for-pay, communities need their local newspapers. Investigative reporting exposes corruption and kept politicians in check. But the eye on corruption disappears without a local newspaper. People can’t keep tabs on everybody in a big community. Gossip spreads too slowly, and misinformation is too hard to identify. Journalists have historically helped cities and countries solve the problem. When the system works optimally, bad actors are exposed strongly enough to incentivize people to cooperate.

Corruption tends to increase when a local newspaper goes out of business. Between 1996 and 2015, small cities who suffered the loss of a local newspaper suffered from increased long-term borrowing rates.

According to a 2018 CityLab article written by Kriston Capps:

“Without investigative daily reporters around to call bullshit on city hall, three years after a newspaper closes, that city or county’s municipal bond offering yields increased on average by 5.5 basis points, while bond yields in the secondary market increased by 6.4 basis points—statistically significant effects.”

Borrowing rates are influenced by the amount of trust in a society. When trust is high, the cost of money falls and vice versa. Thus, countries with relatively low levels of corruption and high levels of social trust tend to have low interest rates. And when borrowing is cheap, people are more likely to stimulate the economy by purchasing goods, building apartments, and investing in their community. When a local newspaper disappears, crooks and fraudsters win while everybody else suffers.

Local newspapers make most of their revenue from advertisements. Historically, local newspaper revenue has grown in lockstep with the American economy because total advertising spend only grows when the economy does. It hovered between 1-1.5 percent of American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since World War II. In that time, total advertising units grew by a factor of 10 according to The Atlantic. In the 1970s, the average American saw roughly 500 ads per day. Today, that number has spiked to 5,000 advertisements per day — roughly one advertisement every 17 seconds for all of waking life. To be sure, this is a hard statistic to verify because it depends on the definition of “seen advertisement.” Nevertheless, the point still stands: Sometimes, it seems like we spend more time with advertisements than we do with our loved ones. As online advertising platform technology improved, businesses shifted their marketing spend away from local newspapers, leading to the death of hundreds of local newspapers.



National AD Spend.jpg

Source: L2

Facebook didn’t kill journalism. The Internet did.

Until the world was connected by underwater cables which transported information at the speed of light, newspapers had a local monopoly on the creation and distribution of news. More specifically, the death of newspapers was initiated by platforms like Craigslist. As its business grew, newspaper advertising revenues from classifieds shrank.



Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 9.32.06 AM.png

Before the Internet, newspapers were a bundle of news, commentary, local advertising, personals, classifieds, and job postings. But the Internet offers a better place to perform all those tasks. There, the distribution of news is faster, the advertisements more targeted, and the commentary more personalized. Different publications have picked off a slice of the newspaper bundle. BuzzFeed unbundled the culture section, Politico unbundled the DC-focused politics section, and The Athletic unbundled the sports section. Newspapers benefited from global reach, which ended their informational monopoly over their home city.

When the Internet arrived, the balance of advertising spend shifted from brand to performance advertising. To define the terms, brand advertisements are geared towards people with no specific intent to purchase a product. They’re the billboards you see on highways and the glamorous model shots you see in Vogue. Historically, these brand advertisements have attracted the majority of dollars.

Now, that’s changing. Personalized advertising technologies, enhanced by large scale data-collection, have tilted the balance of advertising spend towards bottom-of-the-funnel performance ads like the ones you see on Google and Facebook.

For example, Google searchers know exactly what they’re looking for, and many people search with the explicit intent of making an immediate purchase. People who type “best bicycle shop” or “flight to San Diego” are much later in the purchasing process than a laid-back, latte-in-hand newspaper reader looking to kill some time. The lower an advertisement is in the marketing funnel, the bigger the internet’s advantage over traditional forms of media. Newspapers can’t deliver bottom-of-the-funnel marketing needs because nobody picks up a newspaper when they’re ready to buy a product.

Three Lessons from Newspapers

I. Business Models Matter

Spurred by the health of the newspaper business, journalists were historically free to focus on their craft. Subscription and advertising salesmen built the business on their behalf. Since journalists didn’t have to worry about financial constraints, many big-name publications like The New Yorker generally had the means to follow their core values, such as sticking to the facts, avoiding sensationalism, and assuming people were innocent until proven guilty.

In the second half of the 20th century, even though some journalists were much more popular than others, salaries for reporters were comparatively even. The narrow pay disparity didn’t reflect the wide popularity range. At some newspapers, top-tier journalists are at least five to 10 times more popular than average ones. But to maintain a full staff and stay profitable, salaries were effectively redistributed from popular journalists to unpopular ones.

Newspapers made the majority of their profits from the most popular writers but the best ones built their reputations by breaking news and investigating important, but unprofitable stories. Even if consensus was prioritized over truth and not every opinion could be heard, the system mostly worked for citizens, corporations, and the world-at large. Newspapers needed to fill their space, so they added filler stories alongside the sports and lifestyle sections.

Journalists who earn secure salaries don’t have to sacrifice quality journalism to pander to lowest common denominator readers. My college education centered around the art of reporting, not the business side of news. We were tested on morals, ethics, and the Associated Press style guide, but never the finances of a news organization or what it takes to build a loyal audience. Professors assumed we’d always have a job if we produced quality work. But in retrospect, they were blindsided by how fast the Internet would transform the news industry and invalidate the core assumptions of my university curriculum.

The way information was delivered influenced the relatively flat distribution of salaries. Fueled by a dependable business model, the newspaper business had quasi-socialist characteristics. Newspapers could directly track how many copies of each newspaper they sold but not how many people read each article in each edition. Without the tools to build direct relationships with their audiences, they lacked leverage in salary negotiations and couldn’t quantify their importance to the paper.

In contrast, today’s journalists can precisely measure their popularity. They do so by tracking page views and social media shares, and building one-on-one relationships with readers on platforms like Twitter and Substack. Some journalists like Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times employee who writes about memes, influencers, and digital culture, have been elevated above the publications they write for. She’s built a loyal audience because she shares unique perspectives on her beat not just in the pages of the newspaper, but on the feeds of social media.

II. Distribution Shapes Coverage

Sharing media is a form of communication, so it’s always been a social experience. When we send friends memes, videos, and articles, we’re often looking for ways to spark conversation and stay in touch with our loved ones.

In the last years of his life, before my grandfather passed away, he mailed entire sections of the newspaper to me, and circled his article recommendations. His system of sharing information was friction-filled. To share an article with me, he had to fold the newspaper, put it in an envelope, stick a stamp to it, drive to the post office, mail it, and wait a couple of days for it to arrive in my mailbox. Then, he’d call me to talk about it and ask how I was doing.

The modern Internet would have made things easier for my grandpa. Today, it takes three taps on an iPhone screen to share an article to any place with an Internet connection without bothering with the rest of the paper, making content a social experience. As a co-founder of The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti was primed to make BuzzFeed the first big media company to capitalize on the ease of sharing. Peretti saw sharing as a proxy for how much media creates a social connection with people. Instead of reading the newspaper, readers went to BuzzFeed to find fun stories in easy-to-read and easy-to-share formats. Its readers didn’t have to subscribe to newspapers, and armed with the share button, average social media users replaced the paperboy on a bicycle and turned into information distributors.

By unbundling the newspaper, the Internet atomized news. The fundamental unit of news transitioned from an entire newspaper to a single article. The Internet allows articles to be shared individually because they don’t come packaged with the rest of the newspaper, Individual website links are passed around like notes in the back row of an elementary school classroom. With analytics platforms like Chartbeat, journalists turned their attention away from aggregate statistics like how many newspapers they sold and towards the real-time performance of each individual article.

As feedback improved, the business of news began to fall. As newspapers pursued popular, but superficial articles, the quality of news coverage decreased. As Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times wrote: “As the newspapers tried to keep up with technology, executive editors were expected to be digital gurus and let business imperatives guide their editorial judgment.” Competition increased, so newspapers were forced to either maintain their quality standards and go out of business, or stay in business by attracting page views and imitating the people who threatened their business model.

Newspapers have folded under the weight of rising competition and falling advertising revenues. To save their businesses, they’ve pivoted from the expensive work of reporting and relied more on cheap tricks like turning tweets and press releases into articles. Desperate for clicks, all kinds of reporters have borrowed the tactics of bloggers and sensationalized their headlines.

To be sure, the news was never objective. But now, the top publications don’t even pretend to be and journalists have lost their position as sole arbiters of truth. Upton Sinclair once said: “A man cannot understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it.” The modern equivalent for journalism is “never trust a journalist’s reporting on a company if that company threatens their job prospects.” People in power want to stay in power, so the economic anxiety of industry decline sometimes taints the objectivity of their reporting. The more people rely on the Internet for information, the more difficult the newspaper business will be, the more reporters will lose their jobs, and the more the median quality of journalism will fall.



Source:  Pew Research Center

In addition to creating perverse incentives for online reporters, the Internet has amplified competition for journalists. Even the best newspapers cannot compete with the scale of the Internet. Armies of ordinary underwear bloggers can out-compete multinational newspapers with offices in 26 cities in 15 countries, and thousands of people on staff. The rush to meet deadlines and run with the speed of an accelerating news cycle makes it difficult for journalists to research their stories in-depth. In contrast, experts spend years studying their craft before they ever write online. When the right story hits, they can share their experience with no constraints on the spread of their distribution. In the days after the second Boeing 737 Max crash, no-name pilots and independent writers with obscure blogs out-explained many of the world’s best newspapers. The variance in quality between journalists outside a field and experts within it is largest for technical or scientific fields.

Soon, a platform or publication will skip the process of hiring full-time journalists and incentivize specialists to inform the public about their areas of expertise instead. To date, platforms like Medium have tried but haven’t succeeded. Even though specialists feel a duty to inform the public, they don’t want the hassle of setting up a website to distribute their work. Guided by a respect for their field of study, those experts will cover their beats with textured nuance instead of sensationalizing their stories to please the algorithmic lords.

In the words of one anonymous writer:

“[Professionals] are outfoxed at every turn by citizen journalists on Youtube, Periscope, and Twitter who are simply savvier, less constrained, more authentic, and less wooden. Corporate content is grim almost by definition. The unvarnished thing is far more genuine, and it shows.”

In an age where ordinary people have the power to publish their ideas online, independent writers who write in their spare time on weekends can out-shine multinational newspapers with offices scattered around the globe. If these international outlets have an advantage, it comes from large armies of fact-checkers, which even small-town newspapers can’t pay for. But for subjects that require local knowledge, independent writers will increasingly outcompete the biggest newspapers.

III. Fact-Checking and Russell Conjugations

The problems of misinformation aren’t as new as they seem. The practice of yellow journalism, defined by sensationalism and crude exaggeration, began long before the Internet when journalists didn’t let facts spoil a spicy story. Writing about newspapers in 1914, Max Sherover, the author of Fakes in American Journalism said:

“The stories they have forwarded are obviously composed in large part of wild romancing. They snap up the most improbable reports and enlarge upon them with every detail that their fancy can suggest.”

Long before mass media, inaccurate information published by newspapers was often spread by telegrams, which were republished by newspapers in other parts of the world before the end of the week. More recently, in the mid-20th century, fake news stretched from falsely positive stories of the Vietnam War to the cover-up of Lyndon B. Johnson’s corruption. On the Internet, Gawker was early to borrow the salacious tactics of yellow journalism.

Today, we ask readers to point out flaws by responding on social media or publishing their own blog posts. For example, Frederick Smith, the CEO of FedEx responded to a New York Times article about federal income taxes, and challenged A.G. Sulzberger, the head of the New York Times and the business section editor to a public debate. Likewise, Alexey Guzey, an independent researcher, used his blog to invalidate claims made in Why We Sleep, and the article spread so far that he was interviewed by the BBC alongside the author of the book

Automated fact-checking systems are still limited, but false statistics are usually corrected quickly. But after false stories are corrected, narratives take years to correct themselves. And even when statistics can be verified, their meaning and relevance can be debated without conclusion. According to the Poynter Institute, an American-based journalism school, automated fact-checking systems “can only identify simple declarative statements, missing implied claims, or claims embedded in complex sentences which humans recognize easily. This is a particular challenge with conversational sources, like discussion programs, in which people often use pronouns and refer back to earlier points.”

In the coming decade, fact-checking algorithms will find scalable ways to verify explicit facts and statistics. Where the software solutions fail, I’m optimistic about armies of fact-checkers who can validate black-and-white facts. Meanwhile, I’m less optimistic about the subtler sides of false information. News can be misleading even if all the facts are true. Writers who want to attract an audience for their ideas have an incentive to stretch or distort facts to give them a compelling narrative arc. In doing so, some journalists omit important details, conflate fact with opinion, and change the meaning of the story.

The founding fathers who penned America’s laws knew the importance of sharing the whole story. Thus, everybody who testifies in an American court puts their hand on the Bible and says: “I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Fact-checkers will struggle to identify lies of omission for the foreseeable future. To be fair, omissions in news stories are often accidental. But that doesn’t make them any less damaging.

More scary, consumer computer-generated imagery (CGI, as used for special effects in movies) has improved tremendously. As the tools to create it are distributed, expect an increasing amount of fake viral content. Our brains are wired to believe what we see. For example, a deep fake recently went viral when somebody doctored a video of Tiger Woods draining a putt to win the match at the President’s Cup.

Once a juicy piece of news is published, it’s hard to stop the spread of it. One study in Nature found: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” The negative effects of misinformation were worst for stories about terrorism, science, natural disasters, urban legends, and financial information. All of them are prone to propaganda because they’re hard for casual readers to evaluate and ignite fear in the minds of their audiences.

So how will we solve the problem of fake news? 

A prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor named Balaji Srinivasan believes the future of fact-checking will depend on a combination of bounties: reputation scores, verified sourcing, and decentralized reporting (which is already here). Newspapers have always encouraged readers to contact them with more information, but the requests for information are increasingly explicit and visible.

In a recent article about how the California Department of Motor Vehicles was selling citizens’ data, Vice added a request for information at the bottom of the article with contact information and a clear call-to-action. I don’t know how well the strategy worked, but I’d wager that crowdsourcing techniques will gain popularity among publications with large readerships.

In theory, crowdsourcing has always been possible. But the two-way, call-and-response nature of the Internet will turn aspects of fact-checking into a collaborative and interactive endeavor. People will seek truth by pooling their attention, interests, and local knowledge.




Source: Vice

In addition to watching what writers say, we should study what readers hear. Looking at facts while the battle is waged over emotion is like looking to the West while you’re enemy attacks from the East. Words don’t just explain the world. They change how we feel about it.

Good writers know how word choice can sway the emotions of their readers and the meaning of their sentences, so the slings and arrows of cunning narratives usually come in the form of subtle changes in the emotional texture of a story.

Bertrand Russell defined a Russell Conjugation in a 1948 interview on BBC. In it, he shared three examples of sentences with similar definitions, but different connotations:

Sentence 1: I am firm.

Sentence 2: You are obstinate.

Sentence 3: He/She/It is pigheaded.

Most people will have a positive emotion to the first sentence, a mild reaction to the second, and a negative reaction to the third. Likewise, writers can vary the meaning of their words by changing the length or structure of their sentences. Once their words are set in print, they can enhance their messaging with images that manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Other examples of a Russell Conjugation include:

Sentence 1: I have reconsidered the matter.

Sentence 2: You have changed your mind.

Sentence 3: He has gone back on his word.

Sentence 1: I know what I want.

Sentence 2: You like things to be a certain way.

Sentence 3: He needs everything to go his way.

Sentence 1: I am righteously indignant

Sentence 2: You are annoyed.

Sentence 3: He is making a fuss over nothing.

As Eric Weinstein wrote in an article for Edge

“Many if not most people form their opinions based solely on whatever [Emotive] Conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts.

 Most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes:

 1. The factual content of the word or phrase.

2. The emotional content of the construction.”

Political pollster Frank Luntz re-discovered the Russell Conjugation in the early 1990s. To his surprise, the emotional hue of a word can invert the meaning of a sentence. People often care less about the truth of their beliefs than the consequences of believing something for fear of being ostracized from their social group.

Shoddy journalists can change the meaning of a sentence by replacing a single word with a synonym that implies a different meaning. For example, the same person can support an estate tax but oppose a death tax — even though they are the same thing. Likewise, many voters are against illegal aliens, but support undocumented workers. Like hypnosis, Russell Conjugations are deceptive because they are subtle and implicit.

Pillar #2: A History of Television

The Rise of Cable Television

People tend to focus on content, but the architecture of our media environment matters much more. Our image-based political environment began with broadcast television but didn’t take over America until cable television.

I felt the flip from broadcast to cable first-hand. For the first 15 years of my life, my family lived in a cable-free home. We had access to only six channels: FOX, KRON, CBS, ABC, PBS, and NBC. But right before I entered high school, we moved to a home with cable access and more than 1,000 channels. For the next few years, my television consumption exploded. In the click of a button, I could hop between ready-made shows from every corner of society from live sports, to stand-up comedy, to political analysis. Instead of going out into the world, the world came to me.

How did cable television become so vast?

Immediately after World War II, the core American narrative was driven by only a small number of broadcast television channels. But cable television changed that. And with it, Americans had access to so many channels that they couldn’t keep track of them all.

Unlike broadcast television, cable technology wasn’t limited by bandwidth constraints. Cable stations didn’t need to secure spectrum licenses (permission to use radio waves), so compared with broadcast television, new entrepreneurial ventures weren’t as limited. Once satellite television arrived, rural homes could communicate with signals in space, no matter where they were.

Free from legal roadblocks and pulled by both increased bandwidth and a growing market of television viewers, the number of television channels exploded. Spurred by the promise of economic opportunity, networks created new kinds of content because television producers no longer had to appeal to the widest possible audiences. Targeting small, high-intensity audiences became a better business model than trying to reach everybody. With the rise of cable television, the three-letter media companies lost their iron grip over narrative control to their friends down the street.

In 1980, there were 28 cable networks, and by 1990, there were 79. Sensing an opportunity to serve news junkies, Ted Turner founded CNN (Cable News Network) and launched the first 24/7 news channel in 1980. Fox News and MSNBC followed suit in 1996, each with their own perspective on the world.

Television’s Grip on Opinion and Advertising

Even in the era of the Internet, television networks have maintained a firm grip on all aspects of Western culture and its information environment. And yet, we’re blind to its all-encompassing effects. As media theorist Neil Postman wrote in 1984:

“There is no subject of public interest — politics, news, education, religion, science, sports — that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.

 Television has become… the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering gray light.”

Television sets the tone for American intellectual life. It’s the conductor from which everything else follows. Our culture of emotional politics and superficial debates result from the influence of television. MSNBC and Fox News are much more polarizing than a 1960s broadcast ever was. Thus, the majority of news coverage feels frantic and schizophrenic. Since the invention of cable television, American politics has polarized.



Source:  Gallup

Source: Gallup

To understand modern discourse, you have to look beyond its content and study the incentives of our communications technologies and how they shape human consciousness.

Out of all the money spent on advertising in America, roughly 40% of it goes to television. Even in the age of the Internet, television has kept its grip over American life by changing its product in response to the explosion of the image. In addition to promiscuous use of the “Breaking News” button, CNN has adopted the tactics of hard-hitting, conflict-heavy ESPN talk shows like First Take and Pardon the Interruption. Meanwhile, the presidential debates — where contestants fight for the most powerful job in the world — feel like a circus and lack the rigor of a middle school debate club.

Television has maintained its stranglehold over American life by changing its product in response to the explosion of online content, produced by amateurs and published on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Its resilience comes from older audiences, who feel the product is good enough and don’t feel compelled to receive their news from online blogs and social media.



US Advertising Spend.jpg

But recently, since the mid 2000s, in the face of stagnating ad revenues, TV news has transitioned from reporting to entertainment³. Television reporters know regular people on Twitter have a better pulse on breaking news, so they’ve responded by trying to entertain their audiences instead becoming the most entertaining way to consume developing stories.

Television cannot be too serious for too long. Thus, even when the news talks about crime and terror, morning talk shows still open and close with the same cheery reporters and up-beat music.

Their desperation worsened as watch time and pay TV subscribers fell in the past decade. In the face of falling advertising revenue, television networks turned up the dial on advertising loads. Some sped up content to create extra ad time. The traditional 32 minutes of content and eight minutes of advertising became 20 minutes of content and 10 minutes of advertising. Today, cable news is louder than a pack of Rottweilers protecting their home during a four-alarm fire.



US TV Time.jpg

Three Lessons from Television

I. The Overton Window

In media theory, the “Overton Window” is defined as the range of acceptable opinions in a society. It’s an invisible cognitive prison. Anything inside the window is fair game, but stretch beyond its borders in polite company and you’ll turn heads or be ostracized from conventional social groups. Even if the number of channels increased after cable television, the networks still submitted to the Overton Window, which made them more similar than they seemed. A quote attributed to G.K Chesterton, a well-renowned writer and theologian, best describes the phenomenon:

“A horrible suspicion that has sometimes haunted me is that the Conservative and the Progressive are secretly in partnership. That the quarrel they keep up in public is a put-up job, and that the way they perpetually play into each other’s hands is not an everlasting coincidence.”

Even if cable television fragmented the number of channels available on TV, the vast majority of those channels were owned by just a few networks, such as NBC, CBS, and Disney. Back in college, I remember seeing a list of how few companies were behind the galaxy of television channels. I felt betrayed by the unexpected “red pill moment” and struck by the monoculture behind a facade of intellectual diversity. The channels were all centrist, pro-business, and respectful of authority. Based on conversations I’ve had with New York journalists, it seems that even if the executives of major Manhattan media outlets no longer worked for the same networks, they still attended the same parties and sent their kids to the same Upper East Side private schools, which enhanced intellectual conformity among media moguls.



Big TV.jpg

Source: Connor

Centralization in the media industry resembles the centralization in the food industry.

The added efficiencies of market concentration in the food industry has made food abundant for the first time in human history while also contributing to unprecedented levels of obesity and diabetes.



Big Food.png

Source: Business Insider

Big food and media companies have created an illusion of diversity. When we focus on the differences between brands, we lose sight of their shared characteristics.

News consumers who hold a microscope to the differences between Fox News and MSNBC couldn’t see that the entire media narrative was controlled by a small handful of media companies who disguised their similarities by creating a culture of vicious debate within the range of their artificially narrow window of disagreement. As MIT professor Noam Chomsky once said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” By focusing on the differences between Fox News and MSNBC, casual news consumers passively accepted and ignored all the things they agreed upon such as continuing military involvement in the Middle East, upholding the prestige of Ivy League universities, and until recently, the benefits of free trade agreements with China. The narratives they pushed were more alike than different, even if no single individual controlled it.

Consumers who were blinded by an illusion of diversity fell into the trap of the “narcissism of small differences,” Sigmund’s Freud’s idea that the small differences between people are exaggerated in our minds. People tend to fight over trivial differences that are easy to understand instead of complicated things that demand high-level thinking. In social science, this is known as the Bike Shed Effect. To prevent again the narcissism of small differences, ancient Jewish law strictly prohibited Jewish men from marrying two sisters. The smaller the differences between the two groups, the greater the intensity and frequency of the conflict, which is why family feuds and civil wars can be so bitter.

Sometimes, trivial arguments between pundits keep our eyes away from important stories that deserve debate. Often, the bloodiest online battles are waged over the pettiest conflicts, such as the bitter controversy over the sexist and dystopian politics of a recent Peloton commercial which caused the stock to fall by 10 percent. Ferocious debates over the politics of the television commercial pulled attention away from a more important story about the leaked Afghanistan war documents, which showed that the U.S. government deliberately misled the American public about its 18-year involvement in Afghanistan — the longest armed conflict in U.S. history.

II. The Explosion of the Soundbite

Compared to newspapers, television is less about ideas and more about images and sound. Whenever a new technology is invented, society adopts a new way of thinking and feeling. The scale, pace, and patterns of human activities move in response. Marshall McLuhan, known as the father of media theory, argued that book-oriented cultures tend to have a uniformity of thought. When media moves from text to images, societies start to worship glamour over truth, emotion over rationality, and youth over wisdom.

Content follows form. True to McLuhan’s prediction, television medium makes us focus on style over substance and prioritizes the trivial over the profound. The written word shines its spotlight on the content of a message. People who read the Gettysburg Address when it was written focused on the texture of Lincoln’s prose, not the fashion of his top-hat. In contrast, televised media highlights the messenger instead of the message.

The history of television news is defined by two distinct epochs: before and after cable television. By encouraging image-based communication, television changed how we think. It paved the way for a dictatorship of the eye over the mind, which creates an emotionally turbulent world which prized looks over logic and passion over reason. It deluded people into thinking the world could be summarized in small nuggets of pre-packaged information. In response, people outsourced their thinking to multinational media companies who “keep them informed.”

Since this media is easier for children to absorb than text, children can sneak into the adult world earlier in life. The average American adult watches more than four hours of television per day. Today’s children are intoxicated with adult images like war, riots, crime, and Miley Cyrus butt-twerking videos. Thus, television makes children act more like adults, and adults act more like children — which infantilizes adults.

Just as USA Today turned news into entertainment, cable television turned entertainment into news. Stations like Entertainment Tonight borrowed the traditional news style and created daily programs for celebrity news and gossip that aired at the same time as the CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight. Americans now expect news to come to them in small and easy-to-consume packaging — just like a bowl of sugar-filled cereal.

Once upon a time, Americans were more or less united by the same noble vision of the American Dream. Today, an increasing number of Americans live for the trivial pursuit of keeping up with the Kardashians. Here’s Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“Although the Constitution makes no mention of it, it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office… it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world… For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words… You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”

Since the invention of television, politics has transformed into show business. On television, charisma and matters more than ideas. Looks have trumped intellectual substance for decades. Instead of reading the issues and voting for the best policies, television-voters decide between “the grandma in the suit” and the “tycoon with suave blonde hair.” Former President Richard Nixon once gave Senator Edward Kennedy advice on how to make a run for the presidency: Lose 20 pounds. A speaker succeeds as long as they keep the audience’s attention and pull on their heartstrings. Television-watching voters are moved not by nuanced arguments but by jokes and loud applause. Emotional reactions are loudest for divisive phrases like “we’re going to take down the enemy” and “we’re going to crush the other side,” which increased as public discourse moved away from the written word.

As Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator observed, since television gained popularity, the most charismatic candidate has won the presidential election. (To be clear, Graham doesn’t say charisma is the only factor in a presidential election. Rather, he argues it’s the most significant factor remaining after the tactics of both parties cancel each other out.) The 1968 election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey is the single exception to the charisma rule. Nixon knew he didn’t captivate voters on television, so he refused to debate Humphrey there. Instead, he used scripted advertising campaigns to reach voters through television.

Naturally, the presidents who best game our image-based media environment get elected. Marshall McLuhan once observed that “policies and issues are useless for election purposes, since they are too sophisticated.” Knowing this, our national leaders have become tribal overlords who rally their audiences with snappy slogans and emotion-filled speeches. In text, an argument needs to follow from one sentence to the next. But a speech demands no such rigor, so politicians win with short, catchy soundbites.

Between 1968 and 2000, the average soundbite of a presidential candidate was 43 seconds. By the end of the 80s, the figure dropped to nine seconds, and by 2000, it was 7.8 seconds.

The competition for the ultimate prize — presidential control over the nuclear football and weapons so powerful they could wipe out humanity — is won not by making well-supported arguments but by trolling opponents and crafting viral memes.

When we watch television, we focus less on what is said and more on what we see. By showering us with trivial facts that are easy to talk about but impossible to act on, television creates a society where people talk about political drama instead of by taking action directly or studying the specifics of public policy. For example, how many Americans scream and shout about the healthcare system without studying the influence of Purdue Pharma on the opioid crisis?

In addition to highlighting the trivial, television makes everything about the present, which prevents any discussion about the logic behind why things are the way they are. As Bill Moyers once said: “We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.” On television, people can change the channel with the click of a button, so television programs do not want to bore people. News directors design their programs so viewers can tune in at any moment without context, and be immediately entertained. They dumb things down so people can catch up. Thus, television programs touch only the froth of an argument and stay away from nuance underneath the surface. In the trade-off between entertainment and education, entertainment will always have the final word.

While books focus on the past, television directs its gaze towards a tiny fraction of the present. Only a narrow percentage of books focus on the present. Comparatively, the vast majority of newspapers and television focus on the here and now. By doing so, they pull us into a turbulent, never-ending present., filled with rage and fury. We drink cocktails of exaggerated headlines and shots of breaking news until we’re drunk on what’s trending.

The television world asks people to return to the news every day in order to keep up with the endless churn of information as if it’s the key to a noble and virtuous life. In reality, following the news is like running on a treadmill that spins faster and faster but doesn’t go anywhere.

III. Common Knowledge and the Benefits of Advertising

Too many people blame advertising for the problems of the media. Critics such as Walter Lippmann argued that mass media turned normal citizens into obsessive consumers when he said, “While television is supposed to be free, it has in fact become the creature, the servant, and indeed the prostitute, of merchandising.” Mindless media consumers become slaves to consumerism, paralyzed by fabricated anxieties that only purchases can suppress.

Through billboards and banner ads, companies engineer problems so their products can solve them. For example, bad breath wasn’t a problem people discussed until advertising campaigns in the early 20th century invented the problem and swooped in to solve it with products such as toothpaste and mouthwash.

Advertisers are applied psychologists. Instead of selling products, they tell people that by buying their products, they will become better versions of themselves. Advertisers know it’s better for their products to be misunderstood than ignored, so they capture consumer attention by focusing on the emotional benefits of purchasing a product instead of using facts, figures, and statistics that most people will ignore.

As any advertising executive will tell you, people overestimate their capacity for independent thought. The more a message is repeated, the more inclined people are to believe it. By creating the space for mass advertising, the mass market fragmented identity. People didn’t travel much before the invention of modern transportation. Most people lived their entire life in the same town and worked the same jobs as their parents. By unleashing individual desires, the mass market gave people the tools to express themselves. The most valuable brands seek to amplify our self-image. Apple represents creativity, Nike represents performance, and Harley-Davidson represents freedom. And by supporting these brands, we can speak to the world without saying anything at all.

Here, I’d like to defend advertising.

By subsidizing news and entertainment, advertising brought information to the masses. It made information free, which made the world accessible. In a span of decades, people who never had access to the broader world had near-unlimited advertising-supported information at their fingertips. And as access to newspapers, television, and magazines expanded opportunities for lifelong education, curious people gained a capacity for self-directed learning. Historically, advertising-based business models have been the most scalable way to finance free journalism.

By supporting the free (to consumers) or inexpensive distribution of information, advertising makes common knowledge possible. Micahel Chwe outlined the idea in a criminally under-rated book called Rational Ritual. Here’s how he describes the phenomenon of common knowledge:

“Knowledge of the message is not enough… for the message to be successful, each person must not only know about it, each person must know that each other person knows about it. In fact, each person must know that each other person knows that each other person knows about it, and so on; that is, the message must be ‘common knowledge.’”

It’s not enough for everybody to know a fact. Rather, everybody must know that everybody else knows that fact. Certain beliefs are only helpful if everybody in a community commits to them. The need to not only transmit information but create common knowledge explains why public rituals, rallies, and ceremonies are consistent across cultures. They don’t just transmit information. Rather, by making a shared set of beliefs explicit, they serve as an ethical blueprint for the community. Efficiency increases once common knowledge has been established because everybody levels up to a shared baseline of intent and understanding.

I underestimated the importance of widespread access to information until I studied the history of totalitarian regimes. Time and again, demagogues crackdown on public communications to prevent the spread of common knowledge. In a matter of months, an obvious truth can be downgraded from common knowledge to rude, to unspeakable, to unthinkable. And soon, citizens begin to censor themselves and disable their capacity for free thought.

Advertising-supported mass media enables people to unite in support of a common cause and rebel against tyranny. Rebellion is a coordination problem. Even if all the citizens despise their leadership, they cannot coordinate without common knowledge. But in the case of a rally, once some people start protesting, bystanders will follow because common knowledge has been created. Sometimes, the courage of one person can change the spoken preferences of an entire civilization.

Advertisers are happy to pay a common knowledge premium. Super Bowl advertisements are expensive because it’s the biggest event of the year. Each additional eyeball raises the cost of advertising because when a viewer sees an advertisement during a popular show, they know thousands of other people are seeing it too.



Source:  Rational Ritual    Caption: This study was completed before the rise of the Internet. On television, everybody tends to receive the same advertisement. Today, social media exhibits similar cost increases, but for a different reason. On television, the increase in cost accounts for the “ common knowledge premium.” But on platforms such as Google and Facebook, where advertisers auction for attention, the cost increase comes from low relevance scores and saturated audience targeting.

Source: Rational Ritual

Caption: This study was completed before the rise of the Internet. On television, everybody tends to receive the same advertisement. Today, social media exhibits similar cost increases, but for a different reason. On television, the increase in cost accounts for the “ common knowledge premium.” But on platforms such as Google and Facebook, where advertisers auction for attention, the cost increase comes from low relevance scores and saturated audience targeting.

Advertisements on Google and Facebook also become more expensive as you try to reach more people, but not because of common knowledge. Both companies have an auction for scarce advertising space, so advertisements become more expensive due to market saturation and falling relevance scores. But on television, market saturation and relevance scores don’t matter because networks usually show the same advertisement to everybody watching.

To summarize the parallels between newspapers and television: In their early days, creators on both mediums monopolized distribution and served a lowest common denominator audience. With newspapers, the Internet cable and increased competition. And with television, competition increased with cable news and later, the Internet too. With newspapers, truth was gamed with Russell Conjugations, while audience perspectives on television were swayed with images that prioritized the trivial over the profound. Newspaper editors responded to shifts in media by adapting their newspapers to America’s obsession with the image. Likewise, after the invention of social media, television directors adopted the loud reporting techniques and turned up the entertainment dial.

Both mediums display the Paradox of Abundance: the average newspaper article and television show is getting worse and worse, while the best gets better and better.


Pillar 3: News on the Internet

The Triangle of Information Flow

“The media, like any group of animals, gallops in a herd. It takes just one steer to start a stampede.” — Ryan Holiday

Today, bloggers seed most of the narratives. Then journalists amplify them.

Bloggers find new ideas by crawling through the backchannels of the Internet. They’re swift and nimble, so they act as idea scouts who validate stories before more credible journalists report on them. One study from George Mason University shows 89 percent of journalists report using blogs to research their stories, and the faster the news cycle moves, the more journalists borrow information from bloggers.

According to a 1995 document from the Clinton archive called The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce, political manipulators plant salacious stories by targeting the lower rungs of online media. The stories begin in obscure nooks of the Internet, such as forums and email newsletters. Tabloids and bloggers who pick up these stories expand their reach. A handful of those stories are then picked up by big-name media reporters, at which point the story gains national recognition. Once legislators in Washington D.C look at the story, it gains enough legitimacy to be covered by major media outlets, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

I call this the Triangle of Information Flow. Ryan Holiday, the author of Trust Me: I’m Lying, summarized it as such:

“Online publications compete to get stories first, newspapers compete to ‘confirm’ it, and then pundits compete for airtime to opine on it. The smaller sites legitimize the newsworthiness of the story for the sites with bigger audiences. Consecutively and concurrently, this pattern inherently distorts and exaggerates whatever they cover.”



Triangle of Information.jpg

The media isn’t a set of individual people. It’s a networked ecosystem of people in the top one percent of information consumers. Like a family of ants, they can exhibit tremendous collective intelligence by moving in unison. But sometimes, the system goes mad. In Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki tells the story of an army of ants who moved in a giant circle 1,200 feet in circumference. The circle was so big that ants needed two and a half hours to walk around it. The ants had been separated from their colony, and as usual, they followed one rule: Follow the ant in front of you. When the system works, ants exhibit collective intelligence. But when the system goes haywire, no single ant is independent enough to redirect the flow of the tribe, so the wisdom of crowds turns into the madness of crowds.

Just like a family of ants, the media sphere is hyper-connected. Journalists rely on other journalists who operate on blogs because they work under tight deadlines and don’t have the time to independently verify every piece of information. Thus, misinformation is everywhere, not because journalists have bad intentions, but because humans are hyper-imitative creatures and honest people make honest mistakes.

Friends and Enemies 

Rivalry breeds convergence. At once, it draws people together and pulls them apart. When two people become rivals, they begin to resemble each other more than they care to admit. The two rivals subconsciously mirror each other and forget about the ultimate goal they aim to achieve. Thus, two people who want the same thing will initially be united by their shared desires, but eventually torn apart by bitter competition. The more two people resemble each other, the fiercer the competition will become.

In the race to be unique, people often become the same. My favorite examples include wedding parties, halloween costumes, Burning Man outfits, people visiting the same Instagram tourist destinations, and college applicants who spice up their resumes with the same extra-curricular activities. In every example, people try to stand out so much that they end up looking similar.

Likewise, the more journalists and bloggers compete, the more they exhibit similar behavioral patterns. The crush of declining revenues and industry-wide layoffs is forcing many big-name media outlets to borrow the tactics they once condemned. Casual bloggers and professional journalists have both resorted to the same attention-grabbing tactics such as sensational stories and clickbait headlines. And increasingly, the reality we see on screens is more vivid, more colorful, and more entertaining than the one before our eyes. The ideas are spicier, the images are crisper, and the headlines stir our emotions in ways reality will never be able to match.

In the desperate quest for eyeballs, bloggers and journalists are simultaneously the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Both of them are bound by tight deadlines and page view quotas, so they depend on each other for narratives, distribution, and legitimacy. Since they compete for space on the same algorithmic feeds, they also compete for attention. Bloggers increasingly write with the authority of a news publication but envy the credibility of journalists. Meanwhile, journalists increasingly write with the speed of the blogosphere but envy the independence of bloggers.

Most people see love and hatred as polar opposites. But in the human mind, the line between the two isn’t that clean. Dependence breeds both love and resentment, so hatred is often a byproduct of love. Everybody suppresses a hidden box of resentment for the people they love most. A relationship, for example, is a covenant between two people to let the other person annoy and upset you more than anybody else.

Or, as Elie Wiesel once wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

News publications have razor-thin margins, so the threat of layoffs looms large. According to a Pew Research study, employees of more than 36 percent of newspapers experienced layoffs between January 2017 and April 2018. Plagued by the fear of job insecurity, newsrooms have become battlefields of gossip and speculation. By amplifying the extreme at the expense of the mundane, social media algorithms fuel outrage and controversy. Stirring up emotions may be good for business, but it pollutes our information environment and lowers the quality of the average article. As the president of CBS once said: “[The election of Donald Trump] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Problems with Subscription Media

Returning to the central issue of news, common knowledge explains why mass-market subscription media is a pipe dream. In my experience, people who say everybody should pay for news spend most of their time with people who also pay for news, so they overestimate people’s appetite for paywalled information. Additionally, advertising and subscription-based media are governed by different incentive structures. Advertising-supported publications need to reach a large number of people, so they have to cater to a wide diversity of viewpoints, which is why the market for non-partisan, mass market subscription media is limited. Subscription publications will reinforce their readers’ perspectives because most people only pay for information they agree with. Thus, an increase in subscription-supported media won’t just fragment information sources. It will fragment society.

To quantify the shift in rhetoric caused by the transition to subscription media and the second-order effects of information abundance, look at the rise in social justice related word use at The New York Times with an inflection point between 2010 and 2014.



Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 9.35.03 AM.png



Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 9.34.49 AM.png



Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 9.34.57 AM.png

Reflecting on his time at This Magazine and the problems caused by subscription journalism, Andrew Potter wrote:

“When a news organization relies almost entirely on its readership for its revenue, it will inevitably start to cater to what the owners perceive to be the political centre of gravity of that readership. And the readership will in turn make demands on the editors to shape the coverage in certain ways, which will tend to gradually shift that centre of gravity away from the middle, and towards the political extremes. The organization will end up in a content box the readership won’t let them out of.”

The press can’t keep a check on power unless people have common knowledge about the same important stories. Before we rage against the house of advertising, we should pause to consider its benefits. Just because advertising and technological shifts have contributed to the structural failures of our media environment, we shouldn’t outright condemn them. Subscription media comes with its own challenge of catering to its typical readership rather than delivering balanced coverage.

Pillar #4: Problems of Constant Consumption Across Mediums

I. Pseudo News Fills the Cycle

By nature, images tend to appeal not to argument or evidence but to prejudice and instinct. They bypass our rational senses and tug at the elephant inside our brains, thereby strengthening the pull of emotional narratives.

The first widely-seen wire-photo was sent in 1924 when American Telephone and Telegraph Company sent a photo of Calvin Coolidge from the Republican Convention in Cleveland to the New York Times. But the first popular weekly picture magazine did not appear until Life Magazine in 1936. It was an instant hit, and the magazine had a circulation of 1 million people within the first year.

The ease of sharing images by wire led to an explosion in the demand for news, which incentivized media outlets to invent pseudo-events to inflate the supply of news. In a famous study of media theory called The Image, Daniel Boorstin pointed to a shift in news production after World War II. Journalists expanded their job titles. Instead of merely reporting on the news, they began to create it. News organizations became production plants for events created only to be reported on, which fed the unquenchable thirst of journalists looking for attention, executives looking for cash, and advertisers looking for eyeballs.

Ordinary reality ceased to capture readers’ attention. Reporters were responsible for making reality seem more interesting than it really was. If a journalist couldn’t find an interesting story, they had to add color to an existing one, and those who couldn’t, analyzed the world or speculated about the future. Or, as Nassim Taleb, one of the world’s leading writers on risk and and investing, once said: “This business of journalism is about pure entertainment, not the search for the truth.”

Desperate for stories, reporters turned to pseudo-events defined as an event designed to attract media publicity. They include interviews, press releases, and annual celebrations like anniversaries and award shows. They’re manufactured but made to be newsworthy. At once they’re clear enough to be discussed but ambiguous to be written about from a variety of perspectives, often with the explicit goal of creating conflict to stir up the media buzz.

Pseudo-events aren’t propaganda because they simplify reality instead of exaggerating it. By saturating the world and making it seem more grand than it really is, pseudo-events make a fantasy out of the mundane. As Boorstin explains:

“Pseudo-events make simple facts seem more subtle, more ambiguous, and more speculative than they really are. Propaganda oversimplifies experience, pseudo-events overcomplicate it.

 The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original.”

Since the arrival of mass media, politicians have been masters of pseudo-events. Washington political correspondents are so desperate for news that they swarm presidents like teenagers waiting in line at In-N-Out Burger. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt planted the seeds for so many headlines that he was once called “the best newspaperman who has ever been president of the United States.” He also turned boring presidential press conferences into lively Fireside Chats and shaped the narrative in his favor.

By publishing daily distractions under the glitzy guise of informing the public, journalists create pseudo-events that contribute to systematic distraction.

Here’s Boorstin:

“We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman.

 We used to believe there were only so many ‘events’ in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was no fault of the reporter. He could not be expected to report what did not exist. Within the last hundred years, however, and especially in the twentieth century, all this has changed. We expect the papers to be full of news.

 The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one—by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interest he unfolds from some commonplace event, or by ‘the news behind the news.’“

Instead of covering events directly, news anchors focused on how important people perceived those events. And instead of covering events objectively, journalists pivoted towards subjective interpretations of other subjective interpretations.

The small number of networks who controlled the means of distribution had all-access White House press badges. In exchange for coveted, up-close access to the president, journalists protected presidents and reported on a steady stream of pseudo-events. Presidents were always in the public eye, which made the office of the president more important.

Sometimes, in exchange for this access journalists hid some truths about presidents. For example, journalists didn’t cover John F. Kennedy’s affairs or Lyndon B. Johnson’s corruption. This system of cooperation between the journalists and the politicians they covered changed with the explosion of online news outlets and the subsequent rise of the 24/7 news cycle.

The Negativity Bias

Obsessive news consumption leads to a negativity bias that distorts our worldviews because creation happens slowly, but destruction happens fast and seizes our attention. Therefore, the kind of rare events that jump to the front pages of the newspaper tend to be negative, while stories about steadily declining poverty rates or improvements in global health rarely make national headlines.

In the words of Hans Rosling, the author of Factfulness and a professor of international health at Karolinska Institute

“It’s not the media’s role to present the world as it really is. They (media) will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. It is upon us consumers to realize that news is not very useful for understanding the world.”

This trend towards media negativity is known as the MH370 Effect, named after the airplane that mysteriously disappeared in the Indian Ocean. Even though the total number of aviation incidents have fallen over the years, there’s a rising linear trend for relative media coverage about those incidents.

The tone of the news hasn’t just become more negative. It’s also biased towards extreme, one-time events such as crashes, explosions, press conferences, and dramatic deaths. For example, the media is relatively quick to report on shark attacks even though they only kill 10 people per year. In contrast, the same publications tend to ignore subtle disasters and slow-moving trends. Mosquitoes kill 725,000 people per year around the world, but they’re under reported upon because they aren’t as attention-grabbing as other animal-related deaths.

I’m not saying that news coverage should be a perfect mirror of reality. If it was, we’d read stories like “Sara watered the plants” or “Ted took the subway to work this morning, and it was crowded.” That wouldn’t help anybody. Moreover, certain events with “tail-risks,” such as diseases, deserve extra media coverage. Stopping the spread of viral phenomenons can hinge on how fast people change their behavior. And sometimes, newspapers need to dramatize the threat of a disease in order to kill it. For example, say every American newspaper covered a could-have-been-disastrous Ebola epidemic, which led to only two casualties. Despite the low number of deaths, we should celebrate the news for keeping us safe instead of condemning it for distorting our picture of the world.

Nevertheless, American news coverage distorts the most common causes of death and sickness. Two illnesses, cancer and heart disease, are responsible for more than half of American deaths. And yet, a survey of New York Times coverage from 1999-2016 found only 16 percent of news stories about death-related incidents focused on those two illnesses. Other serious risks such as Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, and drug overdoses are under-represented in the media while homicide and terrorism receive a disproportionate amount of attention even though they account for less than one percent of American deaths. Specifically, homicide is over-represented by a factor of 31. Terrorism, by a factor of almost 4,000. By giving disproportionate share of attention to sensational stories in order to attract page views, the media lowers social trust and can warp our model of real world risks.



Source:  Our World in Data

False Urgency: 24/7 News

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” — W.C Fields

Today, the tempo of news oscillates faster than a hummingbird’s wings.

The problem with daily news isn’t that it’s fake. It’s that we’re too close to the situation to see it clearly. Time gives us perspective, but the pressure journalists feel to share their hot takes makes cool and well-reasoned thought impossible. Even if most of the facts are true, stories in the daily news cycle are reported without the vital information you usually need to understand the story.

At the end of last year, I had lunch with a reporter at a major New York media company. As we dined over pizza and pasta in Midtown Manhattan, she told me about the demands of her job. Fresh out of college, she covers an industry beat for one of the major three-letter news organizations. (You know it. Guaranteed.) The success of her work is measured by page views. On average, her articles are read 500,000 times, and at the end of every month, she meets with the editor-in-chief who assesses her work and tallies up her monthly page view count. Her work spreads a mile wide and an inch deep. Sometimes, she publishes five to seven articles… in a single day.

When it comes to daily news, what’s good for business is bad for society. The current philosophy is built upon the fundamental lie that news is worthy of consuming every day. Daily news is profitable because it’s an unnecessary habit. Just like cereal, once people make a habit of eating it during their morning routine, they tend to maintain the habit. As one friend said: “I ate sugary cereal every morning for the first 18 years of my life and never stopped to question it.”

Result of False Urgency: Noah Effects vs. Joseph Effects

Since the news has such bias towards negativity, following media pundits is fun, but it’s mostly a waste of time. Media organizations are desperate for page views, so they increasingly capture our attention by creating urgency. In response, we’ve stopped listening because nothing seems significant anymore. In that way, talking heads are like the guy at a party who fills silences in conversation with his own voice.

Breaking news stories are irrelevant on the vast majority of days. But sometimes, television anchors are shouting because the course of history is indeed being altered before their eyes. Unfortunately, big headlines, gory photos, and breaking news labels have been overused. Now, the news struggles from “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. Audiences have been desensitized by the constant stream of disasters, so naturally, they tune out for the small percentage of stories that require their attention. With the exception of extreme circumstances, we should ignore the daily news. Or, as Nassim Taleb once said: “Do not read the newspapers, or follow the news in any way or form. To be convinced, try reading last years’ newspaper.“

My investor friends and authors like Taleb like to recommend a book called The Misbehavior of Markets. It’s about stocks, but the core principles also apply to the news. The authors, Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard Hudson, argue that humans yearn to find order in a world of chaos, even if that order is merely a product of their imagination. Thus, people invent patterns where they don’t exist and disregard contradictory information.

Worse, they overvalue the importance of recent experiences and rarely stop to look at the big picture. In the stock market, a small number of events drive the majority of positive or negative outcomes. Likewise, in life, a small number of events drive the lion’s share of important events. But the newspaper’s perspective is often one of relative equality. In times of war and peace, the length of a newspaper is the same, and in times of feast or famine, cable networks cover the news for 24 hours per day. In the day-to-day trenches of life, the world feels chaotic. But once you zoom out to a long-term perspective, the events that once seemed so important start to feel like inch-deep potholes on an interstate highway.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mandelbrot distinguished between two kinds of events: Joseph effects and Noah effects:

“Joseph effects – seven fat years here, seven lean years there – occurred when markets were evolving gradually and continuously. Noah effects were cataclysms – the Flood, or the week of September 11 2001, when the New York Stock Exchange closed for five days and dropped 7.5 per cent on re-opening.”

Conflating Joseph effects with Noah effects is like comparing small ripples in a swimming pool to a tidal wave at a thunderous beach. The ripples are regular but inconsequential, while the tidal waves are rare but transformative.

The news looks for Joseph effects when it should really be focusing on Noah effects. A small number of events carry outsized influence, but obsessive news consumers are too close to the action to distinguish the two. Past a certain point, consuming more data hurts our signal-to-noise ratio and can actually decrease our ability to make smart decisions. When the rate at which we think our knowledge increases rises faster than it actually does, we overestimate our knowledge of the world, act with over-confidence, and make stupid mistakes.

When we direct our attention to the daily shouts of breaking news, we overwhelm ourselves with irrelevant data and uncommon events. We give rare events too much publicity, which distorts our model of the world. In turn, we mistake chance for certainty and the infrequent for the inevitable. Instead of enriching ourselves with the wisdom of history, we drive ourselves insane with the madness of the moment. In turn, we are overwhelmed by irrelevant data and infrequent events. Our cortisol levels spike, causing our hearts to beat faster than the bass at a Las Vegas nightclub. But when you avoid the news, you miss the junk while the important stories still reach your ear.

In that way, the news cycle is the equivalent of Slack messages in the workplace. The flashing ring of a new notification makes every message seem important. Each one captures our attention, which makes it impossible to work without distraction for an extended block of time. But in reality, the vast majority of Slack notifications are superfluous and unworthy of your attention. Likewise, the rush of breaking news is designed to capture our attention even though most stories are ultimately insignificant.

Growing up, I had two high school sports coaches: Sam and Miles. Sam coached basketball. He shouted the entire game. Winning or losing, he was always tense. Over time, we stopped listening to him. His words sounded like the train next to an apartment. Loud at first, but ignored over time.

Miles was my golf coach. He was a happy-go-lucky guy who never raised his voice. He ignored little details and always kept his cool, even in difficult circumstances. One day, I was late to golf practice because I chose to watch the end of an NCAA Basketball game during March Madness. He kicked me out of practice and threatened to suspend me from the team. I had never seen Miles act like this, so I took his concerns seriously and called him to apologize, apologized in-person again the next day, and I apologized the day after that. It’s been more than a decade since the event, and I still remember the disappointment on Miles’ face. The torrent of news makes us less like Miles and more like Sam.

The relentless chatter of talking heads force us to over-react to recent information and mistake noise for signal. We think the news is a wellspring of insight when it’s actually a theater of entertainment — contaminated with more drama than a Taylor Swift music video.

Unfortunately, it’s socially difficult to ignore the noise. Office water cooler conversations revolve around breaking news stories, where we’re expected to have an opinion on every news story. The uninformed cannot participate, especially in a world of daily email newsletters and endless Facebook feeds. But expecting the average news story to keep you informed is like expecting a bed of thorns to keep you cozy at night.

Yes, when a news story impacts your day-to-day life, you should follow it. If a hurricane is coming for your home town, you should follow that news; if changes to immigration policy will impact your visa status, you should follow it; and if people in your city are voting on an important new bill, you should follow it. By no means should you check out entirely. But open your eyes to the twisted incentives of the news industry and the dogmatic perversion of what it means to “be informed.”

Most news is like a jar of Pringles. It doesn’t encourage self-restraint, and the more we consume, the more we want — even when it makes us our heads ache and our stomachs twirl.

Information Overload: The Illusion of Knowledge

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

— W. B. Yeats

If you knew nothing about human psychology, you’d think that the explosion of information would make us smarter.

I’m inspired by the optimism of early computing pioneers. Two people stand out: Doug Engelbart and J.C.R. Licklider. Engelbart, who contributed to the invention of the mouse, keyboard, and full-screen word processor, predicted that humans and computers would unite to think more powerfully than humans ever could on their own. Later, Licklider paved the way for the Internet in a 1963 memo to the Pentagon, where he outlined his vision to connect individual computers and time-sharing systems into a single, global computer network.

Like these visionaries, we assume that more information will lead to better decisions. Our priors aren’t entirely crazy, but our understanding is incomplete. Humans and computers collaborate best in bounded domains, such as chess and scrabble. Ask a chess master, and they’ll tell you they can’t compete against the world’s best artificial intelligence algorithms. Ask a stock market investor, and they’ll tell you an increasing number of investments are made by computers. Both domains also benefit from fast and honest feedback loops, just like sharing ideas on the Internet.

One of the biggest benefits of writing online is realizing how often I’m wrong about the world. Whenever I publish an essay, I’m surprised by how many people respond with well-reasoned rebuttals I’ve never considered. As the responses have increased, I’ve been humbled by my inability to predict the future — even though I’ve consumed more information about the world.

The march towards truth is a noble and worthwhile goal, even if we’ll never be able to understand everything about the present moment. Knowledge is the carrier of civilization. It’s the engine of progress, the story of humanity, and the torch we carry into the future. As Rene Descartes once said: “Reading good books is like having a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”

But past a certain point, our time is better spent escaping the turbulent news cycle, which ignores the wisdom of our ancestors and donates it to the cosmic vacuum of history. Instead, we should drink deeply from the well of classic fiction or soak up the ideas from field experts who double as writers.

My favorite example of the decreasing benefits of more information comes from a 1974 study by Paul Slovic, a world-class psychologist and peer of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In the study, Slovic tried to evaluate the effect of additional information on the accuracy of decision making. He tasked a group of horse gamblers to predict the winners of horse races. Gamblers who went from zero information to knowing the five pieces of information they wanted about each horse benefited from a significant jump in the accuracy of their predictions. But in subsequent rounds, additional information increased their confidence but not the accuracy of their predictions.

Adam Robinson, the founder of Robinson Global Strategies summarized the takeaways in a 2016 interview:

“Beyond a certain minimum amount, additional information only feeds — leaving aside the considerable cost of and delay occasioned in acquiring it — what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias.’ The information we gain that conflicts with our original assessment or conclusion, we conveniently ignore or dismiss, while the information that confirms our original decision makes us increasingly certain that our conclusion was correct.”

No human will ever be able to understand the world. It’s too complex, and we can’t see culture because we’re overwhelmed by its invisible influences. At best, we can build local expertise and useful — but ultimately inaccurate — models of the world. Past a certain point, additional information deludes us because it makes us think we understand the world more than we actually do.

Information Overload: The Paradox of Abundance

Food and information abundance create similar problems. It’s directly contributed to the obesity epidemic and the dumbing down of the American mind. Thus, abundance is a paradox. As environments of food and information show, environments of abundance are bad for the median consumer, but extremely good for a minority of conscious ones. Average consumers are doomed to the tyranny of instinct. Meanwhile, consumers at the top are propelled by unlimited access to nutritious food and information.

I call this the Paradox of Abundance.



Paradox of Abundance.png

Attacked by the cut-throat competition of the daily news cycle, the news suffers from Gresham’s Law, a finance concept which states that bad money drives out good money until only bad money is left. Gresham’s Law can explain why the median consumer reads low-quality information online. On the Internet, low-quality content drives out high-quality content, as the most wide-read articles are polarizing and emotionally jarring. First, they distort the truth by eliminating nuance and adding emotional charge to important topics. If you check almost any major publication, the most popular stories are opinionated and fear-inducing. They draw us in because they sway our base-level instincts in irresistible ways.

The Explore Tab on Twitter is the most important newspaper in the world. It’s littered with celebrity gossip and exaggerated political drama — both of which yield a wide reach but incentivize empty content. And yet, as the Paradox of Abundance predicts, Twitter is also one of the world’s top intellectual communities. It’s the bedrock of my social and intellectual life. It’s a place to make friends, raise your ambitions, and connect directly with people at the top of their fields. And yet, most people use Twitter to consume information with no nutritional value.

In theory, a world of information abundance would bring the best to the top. Using a classic Econ 101 argument, competition should benefit consumers by improving quality. The more competition, the better. Practically, curation platforms would wade through millions of posts every day and highlight the best of the best. But that’s not what happens. On most platforms, low-nutrition content is the easiest to find and the most likely to be consumed. For example, superficial article recommendations sit at the bottom of thousands of articles, pollute the Internet, and tarnish the credibility of media publications.



Sponsored Stories.png

Source: Fortune Magazine

But in practice, the opposite has happened. Instead of informing the public, journalists are forced to game social media algorithms by spinning stories and writing misleading headlines. One reporter at Vox told me they have to write 10 headlines for every post they write. Vox chooses the headline that attracts the most engagement, depending on the platform. Desperate for clicks, reporters tend to shade their headlines with fear and outrage.

In line with the Paradox of Abundance, every social media platform makes it easy to betray its stated intentions. On Facebook, we try to follow our friends but perpetuate our loneliness; on Instagram, we preach body positivity. But when I talked to friends and look at their Explore tabs, I see mosaics of soft core pornography, streams of six-pack abs, and bikini bottoms pulled up to the belly button; and on Twitter, we “stay informed” by fighting with egg-headed avatars and scrolling with rage until we’re tipsy on Trump. Orwellian doublespeak.

Social media has a context of no context. Memes, nature, travel, sports highlights, fashion shoots, sneakers, advertisements, and dances can catch our attention before news of the death of a loved one. We stop. We put the phone down. We pause, quiver, start texting a friend, decide not to, tap back to the news, get bored, and keep scrolling to silence the pain. Memes, nature, travel… the endless scroll continues.

Beyond the numbing effects of social media, the hyper-competition for advertising dollars has slashed the average quality of a news article. Instead of moving away from tabloid writers and gossip columnists, journalists have become more like them. They’ve increased their publishing cadence and lowered their quality standards. In my podcast interview with Ryan Holiday, he told a story about a Washington Post blogging job which required at least 12 posts per day. Likewise, a beat reporter at a major New York news organization once said to me, “My job is to type faster than I can think.” True to Gresham’s Law, low-quality information drives out high-quality information.

Healthy News Consumption Is Possible

I. Track What You Consume

We become what we focus on. At the end of our lives, when our heads rests on the pillow for the final time, we will define our lives as the sum total of what we paid attention to.

The benefits of the Internet are only as strong as your ability to direct your attention. It’s a gift to people with self-control, but a curse to those without it. And while it hurts the average news consumer, savvy ones have never been smarter or more informed.

Just as tracking what you eat is the fastest way to improve your diet, tracking what you consume is the fastest way to improve your news consumption. Consume too much news from the same few sources and you run the risk of not thinking for yourself. The human brain is more programmable than we acknowledge and almost no news junkie can avoid its homogenizing orbit. Flock to the vortex of daily news and you’ll devalue your own observations and hand over responsibility for your baseline beliefs to the agenda of media moguls and large corporations. Of all the people I know, frequent news consumers are most likely to justify their intolerance towards fringe ideas in the name of tolerance.

As Allan Bloom wrote in Closing of the American Mind:

“Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise — as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.”

The pursuit of eyeballs follows a simple formula: Find a story that inspires fear and lather it with outrage. As you read this sentence, millions of Americans are held captive by the screaming sirens of misleading headlines and flashing-red breaking news alerts.

II. Focus on News That’s Close to Home

Trusting news anchors when they tell you that good citizens are well-informed is like trusting United Airlines when they say that you’ll waste your life unless you travel the world. Both stories have the ring of an exaggerated sales-pitch, even if they both have elements of truth.

If the news has a subliminal message, it’s to ignore what’s close to home — local issues and even our loved ones — and direct our attention to events we cannot influence, in cities whose names we can’t pronounce, in countries we can’t even find on a map. Obsessing over every news story isn’t as virtuous as the news tells you it is.

People are expected to have an opinion on every story, but even the experts don’t have enough time in the day to familiarize themselves with every aspect of every story. Without the time to research what we read, we confuse what’s true with what feels right.

Today, all political news seems to carry national weight. It focuses on personalities instead of the structure of government, pseudo-events instead of the mechanics of public policy. Families are torn apart over partisan debates where neither side knows anything about the political levers undercurrents beneath the conflict they’re riled up about or the history behind why things are the way they are.

In New York, where I live, people rarely discuss local politics. By focusing on the national news cycle, we ignore the much more tangible effects of aging infrastructure or the injustice of New York’s restrictive housing policies. In San Francisco, where I grew up, people step over homeless people on Market Street while they listen to The Daily and read about phantom threats while they silence their own desperation with noise-canceling headphones.

We act like the problem is always elsewhere in part because philanthropy and other forms of moral posturing have become performative instead of active, less about love and more about status — driven by people who want to appear virtuous without paying costs of living a virtuous life. We say we care about people, but lower our heads when they plead for help. We donate money instead of time and attention instead of sweat.

By obsessing over national politics and foreign, fear-mongering threats, we forget about the people right in front of us — our friends, our families, and the neighborhoods we call home.

Information Is Food

Just like the media, the cereal industry is best thought of not as a series of disconnected channels, but as a unified and interdependent system. They built distribution partnerships with grocery stores, monopolized the advertising airwaves, and influenced the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommendations.

The relationship between news and cereal goes further. During a recent trip to Michigan, I pulled off the highway during a morning road trip to stop for coffee. The coffee shop I walked into advertised a sugar-filled, Red Bull Creme Freeze Smoothie on the door. I clenched my mouth in disgust as I entered the coffee shop. Unsatisfied with the menu of processed food, I only ordered a medium black coffee. When I returned to my car, I looked around the strip mall parking lot and saw 13 restaurants before me, all of which were fast food chains such as Taco Bell and Little Caesars. The parking lot was full of restaurants, but there were no healthy options. Americans are overweight, not because of scarcity but because of abundance — just like the news.

At the same time, wealthy and health-conscious Americans have never been in better physical shape. I’m struck by how healthy the food is in big coastal cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The healthiest people I know control their diet with surgical precision. They have access to state-of-the-art workout facilities, wearable health technology, and fresh foods to match their dietary goals. They walk with six-pack abs and arms like the Incredible Hulk, while they walk with the can’t-lose swagger of Connor McGregor at a UFC fight.

News and food consumption are near-perfect metaphors. For starters, we already use terms like “food for thought,” “I need to digest an idea,” and “she has a thirst for knowledge.” This is also why writing is so healthy for the mind. Just as you’ll improve your food diet if you start cooking, you’ll improve your information diet if you start writing.

Just as eating healthy is an everyday battle, the Internet makes it hard to find nutrient-dense information. It’s absolutely possible, but it demands deliberate effort. The Internet increases variance in outcomes. More good and more bad.

If you serve as a mechanical slave to mass media and online algorithms, you’ll end up with intellectual diabetes. To find quality information, you have to rebel against the biases of news feeds and the incentives of mass media.

To be clear, I don’t think we should stop reading the news entirely. As a society, we can spend less energy following the news and become more informed about our society. The act of reading the news carries symbolic weight. People in power won’t fear the pain of journalist’s bite unless the news maintains its legitimacy. Likewise, even if reading the news isn’t an efficient way to learn about the world, the news industrial complex might be a necessary inefficiency in society. Even if the societal positives of reading the news are mostly symbolic, doing so increases the legitimacy of the fourth estate. But today, the pendulum of human attention has swung too far in the direction of compulsive consumption of superficial news. A large percentage of the time we currently spend consuming news would be better spent reading the work of independent researchers or following writers on Substack.

Make no mistake. For the conscious news consumer, there has never been a better time to be alive. The Internet is filled with high-quality information, so intelligent news consumers have access to more high-quality knowledge than at any point in human history.

So skip the news cycle, but double-down on measured consumption. Ignore society’s recommendations for what to consume and refresh your learning habits like you’re shaking an etch-a-sketch. Remember, what you should consume looks nothing like what you were taught to consume, so rebel against the mainstream spotlight, find some trusted curators, chart your own path instead.

Your ancestors dreamed about the gifts you take for granted, especially the wealth of knowledge on your smartphone: Wikipedia, Marginal Revolution, Substack, The Browser, Wendover Productions, PBS documentaries on YouTube, Farnam Street, Invest Like the Best, Crash Course, Marshall McLuhan interviews, Brain Pickings, Samzdat, Stanford class notes, Yale philosophy lectures, everything Michael Nielsen writes, Stratechery, Melting Asphalt, Our World in Data, Slate Star Codex, 3Blue1Brown, Gwern, Der Spiegel, Wrath of Gnon, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paris Review interviews, The Portal, Edge, the Internet Archive, this collection of short books, and the best introductory books on basically every topic.

As the Paradox of Abundance makes clear, due to the abundance of information, the median information consumer is no better off than they used to be while the smartest people are smarter than they’ve ever been.

On average, the number of opinions we can express in public is declining because the fear of being shamed has sucked the intellectual oxygen out of the public sphere. But at the extremes, in online forums and group chats with people we trust, we are increasingly free. That freedom is spurred by ungated access to fringe theories and heretical ideas, which widens the range of ideas you can discuss in the private sphere.

Naval Ravikant, an angel investor who shares wise words on how to lead a healthy life, once said, “If you diet, invest, and think according to what the ‘news’ advocates, you’ll end up nutritionally, financially, and morally bankrupt.” The modern media environment helps a small number of savvy consumers, just as it destroys the lives of millions of mindless consumers who are paralyzed by fear, anger, and misinformation. Every day, the variance between them increases. Careful consumers use the information in their fingertips to compound their wisdom while compulsive ones drown in a volcano of fire-burning rage.

On the Internet, your rate of learning is limited not by access to information, but by the discipline to ignore distractions. The people you follow online is a leading indicator for your success, your health, and your happiness. Follow the right people, drink their recommendations deeply, and ditch the sugary cereal.


Want to see how I wrote essay?

Once you enter your email, you’ll see a 35-minute, step-by-step video of how I wrote this essay.

I’ll show you how this essay developed from outlining, to writing a first draft, to organizing the essay, to making the final edits.

I encourage you to borrow my strategies, and use them to improve your own writing.


Special thanks to the following people for the edits and conversations that led to this point: Jim O’Shaughnessy, Balaji Srinivasan, Kevin Simler, Jeremy Giffon, Will Mannon, Noah Starr, Austin Rief, Stewart Fortier, Graham Smith, Roxine Kee, and Salman Ansari.

And finally, a big thank you to my editor Kathleen Martin.


 ¹ In the 20th century.

² When it came to major newspaper coverage of this, I was particularly impressed with The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and this article in the Los Angeles Times. These newspapers took time to explain the technical details of the MCAS system failure, whereas the engineers were generally quick to report on the technical details of why the Boeing 737 Max Crashed.

³ People who live in cities also underestimate the influence of talk radio in America. According to one Statista study, roughly 90 percent of American adults listen to the radio every week. Even if the best hosts are half a world away, they speak like they’re next to you in the passenger’s seat. Conservative opinions have historically dominated the talk radio airwaves. At his peak in the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh commanded the attention of 20 million listeners per week. And today, the voices of podcasts, AirPods, and YouTube add emotional fire to moments of solitude.