The Glut.

Caveat: frivolous #firstworldproblems in the wake of everything else happening across the globe.

A pal tweeted this the other day, and it’s stuck with me:

I’ve been living with post-concussion symptoms for about five years now. To regulate my symptoms, I have to make an effort to manage visual concentration time–driving, watching TV, reading, computer work–you know, the good stuff. This necessitates something of a utilitarian approach to leisure activities. Suddenly, there’s a lot more of an opportunity cost to getting lost down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, or to taking a bunch of photos (who wants to blow out their brain cells on hours of editing?). Among other things, it has made me cognizant of the ridiculous amount of time that I, as a single dude, kept whiling away on dumb random internet surfing and garbage television before this whole thing was a concern.

It has also bred a maximalist impulse that made me initially feel Colin’s question was pretty lopsided. When you only have so many minutes per day and the deluge of new media is unending, of course you should be trying the new stuff. Dumb question, beardy. Yet I find that this has also skewed and lessened my reading experience in particular. There is so much I want to read that I sometimes find myself trying to race through books without really properly digesting or appreciating them. Likewise, using Goodreads and thus introducing metrics and an element of ‘the quantified self’ can end up making the experience itself less meaningful. The fact–and the math–of the situation is that it’s simply impossible to keep up.  

As chronicled in the Streaming Wars series Colin hosts, there’s an utter deluge of premium, brooding, grimdark, self-serious television programs. Not only does it start to feel homogenous, but it’s kind of exhausting. Why am I wasting my life on a television show that “doesn’t get good until season 2”? It’s made me appreciate shows like The Mandalorian that are packaged tightly and don’t overstay their welcome. Here’s where Colin’s quandary is a lot more evident. In the face of this firehose of new content and the decision paralysis or mental effort of sifting through all of it, the lure of rewatching old favourites or dipping into the candy confection of short, simple YouTube videos starts to become a lot more powerful, and a lot more sensible.

The issue (such as it is) of overwhelm and decision paralysis is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Books like Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” and Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing” pick at the rationale and promote the benefits for stepping back from things like social media. Somewhat paradoxically, I find some of the experts make the point that we need to select our digital/cultural activities with more intention, but schedule blocks of time that are without intention–time for proverbially stopping to smell the roses or strolling in the park. Based on my readings about mindfulness and my own experiences, I can see the merits. For various reasons, I often have that maximalist, completionism impulse when it comes to constantly trying to get through my glut of podcasts or the latest audiobook that I’m picking away at. But constantly shoveling someone else’s thoughts into your brain doesn’t exactly feel healthy either. You do need to turn off the spigot of content and be more mindful from time to time.

tl;dr – we should try new things, but be more choosy about it, and accept that it’s a fool’s errand to try to keep up with it all. There’s also nothing wrong with revisiting old favourites (especially during a stressful time like the pandemic), but we should probably carve out a little more time to do nothing instead of just revisiting old content for the sake of whiling away time.