How reading books instead of news made me a better citizen

from consume-information department

As the 2020 presidential race kicks into high gear, I find myself telling friends about an important lesson I learned the last time the primary season rolled around. During the run-up to the 2016 election, as now, vitriol dominated the headlines. Rather than being knowledgeable, reading on the internet often left me emotionally drained, helpless, and alone. So many stories were urgent but not important, and certainly not actionable.

Frustrated, I decided to run an experiment. I read and engaged in far less short stories, and spent that time reading books instead. I read ancient philosophy, fantasy adventures, historical biographies, scientific treatises, globe-trotting thrillers, and mind-bending stories of magical realism. I followed my enthusiasm and read what I liked, challenging myself to think deeper and broader in the process.

After a few months, my life and outlook had completely changed. Reading was no longer an exercise in thoughtlessness and literature equipped me to face the challenges of the present with fresh eyes, seek other points of view and put political unrest into perspective. Taking ownership of my media diet turned the stories I read into sources of strength, fuel to fuel my own personal and public life. My wife and I volunteered to host a Ugandan refugee in our home for nine months. I helped design a game that illustrate the emerging vulnerabilities of American democracy. I co-created a public art project on the Internet which raised funds for ProPublica.

We are what we pay attention to. The stories we read don’t just inform, entertain or inspire, they shape our identities, become part of us. These stories have consequences. The Allies were inspired to defeat the Nazis by stories of resisting oppression, protecting freedom, and ending humanitarian catastrophe. The Nazis themselves drew inspiration from stories of racial superiority, national domination, and a return to a mythical past. Humans are capable of transcendence and indescribable horror when we convince ourselves of the rightness of our cause.

So I extended my experience to a novel that quickly turned into a trilogy. Bandwidth explores what happens when someone diverts our attention in order to transform us into the person they want us to be. borderless examines the rise of technological platforms and the decline of nation states. infringe extrapolates what might come next and how to build new institutions for the Internet age. My hope is that the analog series inspires readers to reevaluate their own most deeply held beliefs with candor, kindness, and healthy skepticism.

As candidates and special interest groups ruthlessly vie for your attention across the internet’s vast data landscapes like gladiators in a digital Coliseum, remember that taking control of your media feed is the first step to act with the intention of realizing your version of a better future.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of infringe, borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, true blue, Neon Fever Dreamand the Uncommon series. His writing has appeared in Verge, Tor.com, Harvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has spoken at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

Filed under: election, news overload, news, news consumption

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