Say no to digital bulls**t

What did you have for dinner last night? If you were trying to lose weight or keep healthy, you might have cut out the white rice and opted for quinoa instead.

Or maybe you just had some oatmeal instead of devouring the delectable dim sum staring at you lovingly.

We all know the importance of a balanced, healthy diet. Many of us try not to overeat and to reduce the amount of carbohydrates and fats we consume. And even if we don’t, at least we’re still aware of the dastardly effect it has on our bodies when consumed in excess.

But how many of us are nearly this cognizant about our digital media diet?

If I was to venture an educated guess, I’d say exceedingly few. What the vast majority of us do is consume pretty much whatever digital media catches our fancy at any time of the day without much discernment.

According to an eMarketer’s study, the average American spends a staggering 12 hours and 9 minutes consuming different types of media on a daily basis. British market research firm YouGov says that Malaysians spend an average of around six hours or a quarter of their day just on social media sites. As crazy as it sounds, real-world experience bears it out.

Stuck in traffic? We whip out the phone, tap on Instagram, and tug on the top of the screen to refresh its endless stream of updates, knowing full well that we did that just mere minutes ago.

Want to catch up on some news at the start of the day? We open up a local news portal and are barraged by information about dishonest, party-hopping, self-aggrandizing politicians backstabbing each other.

In the toilet to relieve ourselves? We go on YouTube and are greeted by an avalanche of clickbaity, hypersexualised music videos. At an airport waiting for a flight? We look up and CNN is blaring so-called “breaking news” about one calamity after another.

Unsurprisingly, today’s digital media deluge has some fierce, outspoken critics. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University, singles out social media as having the most damaging effect of all digital media platforms.

According to him, around 20% or one in five American girls between 12 and 17 years old has had a major depressive episode in the past year, with the number almost doubling since 2012.

Similarly, less than 6% of college-going girls said they had had a psychological disorder in 2012 but now it’s more than 15%. Rates of self-harm have followed suit.

The prime suspect? The precipitous rise of the smartphone and social media use in the early-to-mid 2010s.

Not too far from Haidt, MIT professor Sherry Turkle is concerned about how the all-pervading nature of digital media via smartphones is eradicating boredom and, by extension, eroding our ability to form strong real-world relationships.

She says: “Boredom is your imagination calling to you. It’s important to go inside, it’s important to cultivate your inner life. When you experience boredom, your brain isn’t bored at all. The brain is laying down those parts of the brain associated with a stable autobiographical memory. So it isn’t good for us to flee from any moment of boredom by going to a phone, yet that’s what’s happening.”

According to her, we need solitude to get a sense of who we are and that’s pivotal in being able to form strong relationships with others. She warns:

“They’re not accessories (smartphones), they’re powerful mind tools that can really affect how we think. We should treat them that way.”

Over at the University of Washington, professors Carl T Bergstrom and Jevin West were so frustrated with the amount of nonsense, falsehoods and misinformation in the digital world that it prompted them to devise a course called “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World”.

Their main aim was to equip their students with the ability to spot the informational “bullshit” that’s increasingly littering and clogging up our digital media ecosystem.

They confidently assert that: “We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education”.

I don’t doubt them.

Today’s digital media tsunami is near-constantly assaulting our senses, drowning us in stimulus, depriving us of the time to do things that are actually meaningful, stripping us of our autonomy, eroding our willpower, feeding us falsehoods, blowing our attention span to smithereens and playing to our most basal, animalistic instincts.

At the end of the day, it leaves us perpetually overstimulated yet unfulfilled and saps our happiness and peace of mind. It does to the brain what junk food does to the body – it makes us feel oh-so-good in the moment, but it’s unequivocally terrible for us.

Fifty or so years ago, we entered the knowledge economy. In it, reading was the most valuable skill of all. Being able to read meant being able to amass knowledge and communicate effectively, and it formed the foundation for acquiring other valuable skills. It was a meta-skill.

Today, we’ve undoubtedly transitioned into the attention economy. It’s one where companies and individuals are vying for an ever-smaller chunk of a fast-dwindling, precious resource – our attention. Winning our attention means raking in the ringgit.

In today’s attention economy, knowing what to pay attention to is the most valuable meta-skill.

Learning this meta-skill will mean being able to discern truth from untruth, knowing what to consume and what to ignore, reclaiming our ability to do deep, meaningful work, and forming strong human bonds.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.