Nick Stockton begins his piece on internet news addiction by asking a question we’ll be hearing from generations that follow: “Where were you when covfefe happened?”
Blissfully, we don’t remember.
“Since the election, every iota of news has somehow come to seem more urgent,” Stockton writes, explaining how incidents like President Trump’s covfefe tweet become a cause célèbre.
If we look back at it in retrospect, however, all those iotas appear so much less significant, even the deservedly important ones. As we write this, a memory comes to us of yesterday morning and the article we read, with pit in the stomach uneasiness, about Alaska’s thawing permafrost, a horror we promptly forgot about until now. It becomes, in this age of content density, just another piece of news thrown into the compost pile, mixed in with all the other stuff that has fallen off the Twitter feed.
But back to what Stockton addresses, which isn’t what happens to a piece of news after it’s been digested, but to the fact that the concept of “after” itself is being lost as we engorge ourselves on an information feast offered in an endless present.
Is this owed to the dopamine-induced internet addiction cycle? Maybe, maybe not.
“We scroll through our Twitter feeds, not seeking anything specific, just monitoring them so we don’t miss out on anything important,” says Shyam Sundar, a communications researcher at Pennsylvania State University. This impulse could stem from the chemical hits our brains receive with each news hit, but it could also derive from a primitive behavioral instinct—surveillance gratification-seeking, or the urge that drove our cave-dwelling ancestors to poke their heads out and check for predators. In times of perceived crisis, our brains cry out for information to help us survive.
The solution offered, counterintuitively, is more engagement.
To that end, Sundar suggests a more sustained, interactive approach to social media: Finish reading every post before moving on to the next one, but not before commenting, tweeting, or posting your thoughts about it. Through that degree of enhanced engagement, you not only limit the volume of your social media intake—one can only comment so many times—but you develop a better sense of which issues really inspire, enrage, or matter most to you.
Stockton’s piece is one from a September issue devoted to all sorts of internet and tech-based anxieties under the umbrella of The Great Tech Panic of 2017. Some of the other pieces include an interactive graphic on where (Vermont, proportionally speaking, ), and when (3 a.m.), trolls are most likely to happen, a piece from James Surowiecki about how robots are probably not going to take our jobs and a Q&A with editors looking at all the things one could worry about that also assesses whether one should. Sample of what not to worry about: AI going all Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey on us. Sample of what to worry about: our devices, listening in.