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Practice Selective Ignorance for Digital Wellbeing

Last Updated on May 18, 2021

Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless. (Psalm 119:37, The Bible)

Filter Out What You Can Do Without

In the world where every piece of content is designed to steal your time and manipulate your mind, selective ignorance can help you stay productive, independent – and sane.

Selective ignorance is the practice of ignoring distracting and useless information. This can include news, social media updates, emails, ads, notifications – anything YOU DO NOT NEED.

Wait a minute. Don’t I need to be informed about the state of the world?

At what cost?

Protect Your Time

The Cost of “Being Informed”

In our race to “be informed” and never “miss out” we spend 12 hours a day skimming through updates and feeds, while:

  • Accomplishing nothing of value
  • Getting upset about things we cannot control

We spend our time in the digital shallows, reacting to the media agenda, instead of investing time for our benefit.

Addictive technology wastes OUR time to make THEM money.

Tim Ferriss introduced the term “selective ignorance” as a productivity hack in his bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek. Selective ignorance is a lifestyle choice of high performers, who:

    • Guard their time.
    • Prioritize their own choices.
    • Refuse to contaminate their mind.

Click-Bait for Attention

Once we go where the click-bait takes us – breaking news, celebrity gossip or trivial social media updates – we are robbed of our time. We divert our attention to the ever-expanding universe of distractions. But unlike online content, time does not expand – it is still 24 hours a day.

We need to triage our attention to the content aligned with our priorities. In an emergency room, if the patient is bleeding to death, they will get treated first, and the others will have to wait. In the same way, our work, our family, our health should come before our smartphone notifications.

Noise vs Signal

Besides, the more often we look at “updates”, the less meaningful they are. Minute by minute information on anything – Covid cases, stock market, or your friends’ relationship status – is useless. “Data on a daily basis is 95% noise, 5% signal. On an hourly basis, the split becomes 99.5% noise to 0.5% signal. This is 200 times more noise than signal – which is why anyone who listens to news is one step below sucker” writes Nassim Taleb, the most direct thinker when it comes to risk and randomness.

As technology develops, distractions multiply – and they are no longer random.

Protect Your Freedom

New Slavery

Online content is weaponized by Artificial Intelligence, “personalized” for the particular weaknesses and insecurities of every person. Irresistible. Made impossible to ignore – by design.

The goal of the algorithms is a fully programmable human. AI cultivates a user in the grip of primitive negative emotionsfear, anger, sadness, envy, anxiety – to take their freedom away. The fight or flight response in the subconscious mind is turned on, while the rational brain stays disengaged. A human animal in such a state is easily manipulated into buying, voting, thinking, feeling, living and dying exactly as expected.

Easy to control. Predictable. Enslaved.

Philosophy to the Rescue

“If someone tried to take control of your body and make you a slave, you would fight for freedom. Yet how easily you hand over your mind to anyone who insults you. When you dwell on their words and let them dominate your thoughts, you make them your master.” – wrote a Stoic philosopher Epictetus 2000 years ago.

Stoic philosophy gave us a simple recipe for living a good life: only worry about the things that you can control. Other people’s political opinions do not belong to this category – they are of no concern to you. Your mind, on the other hand, is yours to control. Do not hand it over.

Serenity prayer sums it up beautifully: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

The Habits of Freedom

If you read about things you can do something about, you are free to take action. But everything else just takes space in your head and makes you feel bad.

We think we are free individuals, but we are up against the industry that spends billions to make us addicted. There are no legal, social, or religious constraints to their power. Only our own habits. If we don’t craft healthy boundaries ourselves, no one would.

The way to maintain our freedom is to resist the flow of information served by manipulative algorithms. If you pay attention to everything, you lose your ability to think independently. Online content would program your behavior for the benefit of third parties.

When you turn it off, you are no longer influenced. You are free.

Protect Your Peace

How Does It Make You Feel?

Is it worth it to lose your peace of mind over “breaking news”?

We are not designed to consume so much information. We get overwhelmed. Hours of passive browsing are not harmless – what we see online presses our pain points.

Feeling out of control translates to how unhappy we become:

We feel hopeless. Unhappy.

Our joy and peace crumble under algorithmic mind control.

News headlines create the perception of the world coming to an end – with the sole purpose of keeping us glued to screens. Objective reality is still here. We are still in our comfortable homes, we have a roof over our head, food on the table. But our inner peace had been shuttered by the attention economy.

Turn Off The News?!

Of course, we could decide to watch no news at all. But since most people cringe at the idea of complete ignorance, selective ignorance offers a viable compromise.

How should we select? The key is relevance.

  • Can you use the information to improve your life or help someone else? 
  • Can you control the events? 
  • Is there any action you can take? 

If yes, then be informed and take action. If not, what’s the point? If you cannot change the situation, the only outcome is frustration – or worse.

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes about iatrogenics – a treatment of the problem that causes more harm than good. The medicine that kills the patient. With our compulsive use of digital media, the costs of always “being informed” are mental health crisis, neglected relationships, breakdown of democracy, digital addiction – a long list of harms.

Information Diet

Selective ignorance puts us on a low-information diet to get healthy.

Do not let toxic media compromise your wellbeing. Organizing guru Mary Condo preaches finding happiness by getting rid of all the items that “do not spark joy”. In the same way, a digital declutter can bring relief – and contentment.

What would it look like on your phone? Deleting social media, anxiety-producing news, anything related to politics – while keeping your reading and meditation apps?

A lifestyle of digital minimalism is the pathway to peace.


Selective Ignorance Action Plan

In the culture of distraction, selective ignorance does not happen naturally. It has to be consciously cultivated.

#1 Choose Wisely
Select what you allow into your system. Garbage in – garbage out. Unless you curate the content yourself, the algorithms will do it for you – and make you angry, envious, depressed, or scared. There are great opportunities online for learning and growing, as long as you choose wisely.
#2 Compartmentalize
Designate the time of day you consume news and social media, and limit the intake to whatever YOU decide is reasonable. Then stop. Don’t let “updates” interrupt your life every five minutes – turn notifications off. Protect your time in the real world with real people.
#3 Avoid the Echo Chamber
Diversify your information diet across the spectrum of opinions. Do not get stuck in the echo chamber that confirms what you already know. The dregs on the bottom of an echo “chamber pot” are often conspiracy theories – crazy stuff cannot be healthy.
#4 Discern Information from Manipulation
Distinguish between genuine information and manipulative advertising. If something looks like a conflict of interest, it probably is.
#5 Be Nice
If the content pushes your emotional buttons, it’s often by design – to amplify traffic with your reaction. Pause, do not let your “inner troll” take over. Others are entitled to their opinion, even when they are wrong. Let’s agree to disagree and be civil to each other.

The algorithms that control our thoughts and emotions have no compassion. They are optimized for profitability, not empathy. They condition us to feel helpless in the world that seems out of control. Unless we guard our mind from their unsavory influences, we fall apart too.

It is still in our power to ignore the noise and protect our freedom and peace. To turn off the firehose of “breaking news” and attend to something that we do control – like playing with our child or planting a garden.

The window of opportunity to unplug is closing – as the number of connected devices increase, it becomes harder to escape from surveillance and manipulation. When Elon Musk puts a wire in our head, we are doomed to have someone else’s agenda downloaded directly into our mind. Until then, we can do what I ask my children to do when they are out of control.

Disengage. Separate.

Ignore the noise.

Practice selective ignorance.

Take Back Control
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