Information abundance, like all markets of abundance, is bad for the average person but great for a small number of people.
Abundance is a paradox. Environments of abundance are bad for the median consumer but extremely good for a small number 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.
The best metaphor is health, where obesity rates and the number of people in incredible shape are both rising. That’s why 71% of American adults are obese, while the people I see at Equinox in Manhattan have bodies that are as sculpted as a Greek statue.
I call this the Paradox of Abundance.
During a 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.
Food and Information: Gresham’s Law
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.
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.
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.
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 that 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.
Succeeding in a World of Information Abundance
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 incentives of mass media and the algorithms that threaten its business model.
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 a 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 savvy information 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. Rebel against the mainstream spotlight, find some trusted curators, and chart your own path instead.
Get in Tip-Top Shape
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.
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 at 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 your ability to ignore distractions. The people you follow online is a leading indicator of your success, your health, and your happiness.
Embrace personal responsibility. Ignore the junk food, follow the right people, and drink their recommendations deeply.
Cover Photo by Raphael Rychetsky on Unsplash