February 25, 2020

News in the age of abundance

David Perell runs a business entirely dedicated to writing. He offers a course, called Passage of Writing, that was recommended passionately on twitter and peaked my curiosity very much.

Last week one of David’s own articles suddenly showed up as a recommendation in the finimize newsletter. It’s a very long read that took me two attempts to finish completely, which however is no indication of how much David’s piece resounded with me.

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.

David makes the case for news abstinence or at least fasting. I have been trying news fasting myself by deleting my twitter app (though David also makes a big case for twitter) and cutting down my newsletters to just 3 subscriptions. I fully realize how news has become purely entertaining and over-dramatic and sought to stop my indulgence on this 24/7 cycle of breaking-news and public outrage over events I cannot influence and mostly don’t even influence me.

My wife convinced me through her consistent dis-interest in news that there was really nothing I would miss if I quit the news. She was doing just fine. And so am I. With less news and more time for the things that I can control and that control me, like my family and my mental and physical health. Part of my goal to read more books is inspired by my quest to read less fast food news, and instead read time proven works of literature. I.e. Tim Ferris pledged for himself not to read any books that did not stand the test of time and are younger than five years. I don’t think I have been reading many new books that I would have to impose such a rule on myself. Still, I think this rule is good as a general orientation to find meaningful works of literature that have succeeded in sending their signals, though being trialled by our fast-than-ever changing civilization. While by this logic good literature will be published consequently, regular readers are best advised to filter for truthful literature through a democratic process by early-adapters and experts in the prospective fields.

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.”

What strikes me most with David’s essay is the existential importance he ascribes to writing. Of course, David himself has a business interest in that his readership raises the writing skills on a pedestal, and I am can’t blame him for it. As a father, I agree wholeheartedly with him in calling for an education that puts more focus on the humanities than on capitalistic skill sets, for my sons’ joie de vivre will not be founded on money and status, but on savoir vivre.

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.”

It is worth your time to bookmark David’s article and read it when you have time. No rush needed - it’s no breaking news.

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