I saw this article about a Google engineer that makes a practice of giving up something every year — not so much for reasons of faith, but just to see if he can do it. This year, he’s giving up news.
My first thought was, maybe the guy should try something easy. Like cigarettes or crack or caffeine or something else.
Google engineer Matt Cutts gets on a self-improvement thing every year, and in the past he’s taken up marathon running, gone vegan, grown a ‘stache for Movember cancer awareness, and resolved to do a kind act every day. For March he raised the bar by resolving to give up news.
The rationale, he says, is there’s nothing he could do to change the news when it happens, and he burns a lot of mental resources keeping up.
It’s been rough, he says. At first he felt “unmoored” without all this information he’s used to gathering, then he realized he’s getting more important things done without all the constant stimuli. Besides, if a news event is important, someone will tell him about it anyway.
“It’s also interesting to see which ‘news’ stories are reflected back to me second-hand,” he said. “Evidently Snooki is pregnant and Rush Limbaugh did something that has people up in arms. It’s made me think a lot more about my information diet. We need better tools to distill the river of news – or more often, bread-and-circus factoids–down to the trickle of things that really matter.”
Kind of funny when you think about it. This guy works for Google, which made a fortune out of gathering information (some of it extremely personal, critics sahy) and making it available online. There’s no bigger collector on this earth than Google.
I’ve seen studies about how much information a person soaks up in a day, and trust me. It’s a lot. One study broke this information down to gigabytes and figured that if your brain was a hard drive you’d be filling it up awfully fast.
I can write with some sense of authority here, as I am an information junkie from way back. Never was much for TV, but I often had my nose in a book. And even at an early age I read a lot of newspapers. My mom was mystified why my shirtsleeves were so filthy and couldn’t get clean, and at the time I was a loss to explain it. But the closest I could figure out, it was from reading newspapers. The ink on newsprint never fully dries, and if you’re plunking your elbows on a broadsheet you’re going to be wearing a lot of that ink.
Back then, any kind of information was fair game. Newspapers. Magazines. The copy of the World Almanac I picked up every year, from 1968 to around 2000 when I realized I could get it online. Current events. Batting averages. Song titles. My mind was a vast garbage dump then, and it remains so to this day. I’m too old to change now.
With all these electronic tools, I can really get my news on. My most-visited Web site by far is Google Reader, the repository of all my RSS news subscriptions. My most-used smartphone app is one that allows me to access my Reader feeds, and I went crazy trying to find one that didn’t a) suck the battery dry, b) max out all my system memory or c) overheat the phone. I finally settled on one called FeedMe, but if I find a better one tomorrow you can bet I’ll download that too.
I’m just wired that way. According to the Gallup/Clifton Strengths Finder 2.0 test, “input” was one of my top five strengths — my superpower, as it were. Here’s how Strengths Finder describes the high-input person:
“You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information — words, facts, books, quotations — or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls or sepia photographs …” In other words, my brain absorbs 47 times its weight in excess information.
I needed an assessment quiz to tell me this?
For a person like me, indulging in a news habit can be a dangerous thing. I am prone to depression, and one of the real danger signs I must pay attention to is the tendency to isolate. And when I’m spending a lot of time reading news and chasing information, it’s real easy to slide into that isolation mode. That’s part of why I don’t have an Internet connection at home; this forces me to go out to at least download some news. The smartphone allows me some limited news-grabbing and surfing at home, but it’s not quite the same thing.
My RSS list includes many news sites, both mainstream and alternative. It has a handful of tech sites and some that I use to monitor trends — a must for this writer. And I have other sites geared toward the writing trade.
Then there’s Twitter. I have several feeds for local news, industry news and trends. Of all my social media, Twitter is the one I use the most. Gotta keep on top of things.
When I left print journalism in 1997, one would think I can get away from the constant need for news. But it just wasn’t so. I may not have had professional reasons to keep so up to speed on everything, but I still felt the need to do so. Even after all these years I hate to be out of the loop on anything. I guess you can take the boy out of journalism, just can’t take journalism out of the boy. Or something.
OK. Just call it what it is. I’m a news junkie.
Technology has changed things around some. I don’t buy as many books as I used to — haven’t picked up an armload at my favorite used bookstore in I don’t know how long. I think I picked up one newspaper all year, and I used to read several a day. But my Nook is loaded down with at least a couple hundred books and the RSS feed is always active. If I feel like pursuing a story further for this column or a freelance piece I’ll star it in Google Reader, tag it, take a few notes, and save the link in my editorial calendar.
But most of the news I read is strictly recreational.
So you can just forget it. I’m not joining Mr. Cutts on his latest vow. Are you kidding? I’d miss too much, and some of what I miss might be important.