Stepping Away from the Trough

Earl Butz was the US Secretary of Agriculture who shifted domestic policy to support large-scale farm production. As a man who grew up through the Great Depression, poverty and hunger no doubt influenced his view on food policy. People in his youth couldn’t afford to eat and his policy in many ways fixed that. When he was asked about the unintended consequences of this policy, he almost looked perplexed. He responded:

Well it’s the basis of our affluence now, the fact that we spend less on food. It’s America’s best-kept secret. We feed ourselves with approximately 16 or 17 percent of our take home pay. That’s marvelous, that’s a very small chunk to feed ourselves.

To Earl Butz, a man who grew up in the depression and no doubt saw the effects of hunger first-hand, it seemed ludicrous to see cheap food as a problem. However, the rise of heart disease, obesity and diabetes can arguably be attributed to the policies he helped create. Earl Butz solved a huge problem and created another in return.

The things we create, the problems we solve, often create entirely new problems. I see the work being done surrounding the internet to have a lot in common with what Earl Butz did with food. Humanity had considerable difficulty accessing information, so we gave ourselves access to virtually everything. We are now drowning in information. I could see a similar interview 50 years from now where someone from our generation tries to explain how everything we did was with the best of intentions.

The information we take in on a daily basis is a lot like the food we eat. The nutrition, calories and quantity we consume impact our well-being. Sadly, much of the content consumed online is equivalent to junk food. Status updates, short-form blog posts, memes, animated gifs, etc. They’re tasty, enjoyable morsels with zero nutritional value. The bite-sized format means we can keep popping them all day long. It’s a trough filled with nothing but empty calories.

This has been my life for the past 10 or so years. Unsurprisingly, it has not had a positive impact on my mind. I have been struggling with distraction. Concentration was becoming a considerable task. It hadn’t affected my work, but I could see it starting to creep into my personal life. After writing my last article, I had an honest look at the things taking my time. I had a lot of regret.

Rather promptly, I decided to remove information sources I deemed nutrient sparse from my life. Reddit is gone, Twitter is now only on my phone and off the home screen. All notifications except the absolute essentials have been turned off. My collection of RSS feeds have been significantly pared down.

The changes so far are subtle, but visible. My concentration is improving. I am calmer, less distracted. I am becoming a more mindful person. I spend more time creating and more importantly, I spend more quality time creating.

As creators, we need to think about the implications of what we make. We are not just creators though, we are equally vulnerable to the problems we bring to bear. So while I am actively trying to avoid the things which are hurting my mind, I am also thinking about how I can make things that don’t hurt other people’s minds. Until then, I’m stepping away from the trough, and not coming back.

5 thoughts on “Stepping Away from the Trough”

  1. Very well said, PJ. I remember having a conversation with you about this sort of thing about three years ago, so I know it’s been brewing for a while. I feel much the same way and have the same concerns.

    I don’t run a Twitter client on my laptop, and I often uninstall the app from my phone for weeks at a time. I find those intervals much calmer and more focused overall. I did happen to see your link to this via Twitter, of course, when I logged on looking for something else. Fortunately, your tweet led to a thoughtfully written piece. 🙂

    You might be interested in this article on the role of the smartphone in teen girls’ lives. It points to similar and perhaps broader trends.

  2. Hey Maria, thanks for the comment!

    Great idea – I may try putting my Twitter app is “super time-out” for a week or two. I’m also trying to set up a follow list with 5-10 people and using that as my main timeline. I’ll get 10-20 tweets a day. It’s such a different way to interact with Twitter.

    That article you referred to frightens me. I honestly don’t think we have any idea of what we’re doing to ourselves.

  3. I’m also wondering about where we are bringing our own children and grandchildren. They seems even more hooked to the mobile devices than myself.

    Somehow we are repeating the breakdown of the traditional farm family. Our children are taking a great toll on our inability to keep families going, without the support from the farm and the larger family.

    As with the extinction of the family, equally nasty consequences of excessive use of IT, will require generations to master.

    But as with family breakdown, we will finally learn to master continuos connectivity to the Internet. And it may be that disconnecting from the net, will give us the necessary pause to enable us take control of our own lives.

    So all my best wishes to you Onori. I’m hoping you will return as much as it serves you soon!

  4. I’m so following you on this one!

    My new years resolution for 2013 was to make my life less cluttered and more zen-like. I did the obvious online-things first (un-cluttered my inbox, seriously cleaned out my rss reader etc) before directing my critical eye offline. So I sold my iPad, threw out all my old clothes which I hadn’t worn in the last 12 months, went through every single pile of old papers, ring binders and folders scattered around me (at home as well as at work). I think I filled 3-4 large bags and gave most of it away to charities. I even went through my Facebook friends list and “Likes” and cleaned that out a bit.

    I even decided to create a series of blog posts about until it dawned on me that these kinds of commitments were in fact part of my problem of always committing to too much. So I killed that idea. This process is for me, for the benefit of myself, my family and general surrounding.

    Of course it’s an ongoing process to keeping things simple but, the efforts combined to stay organized is well worth the extra time and surplus of energy, and has indeed been very rewarding to me. I still send out the occasional tweet, I check Google+ and Facebook every day, but it’s now me who controls it, and not the other way around.

    Best decision ever!

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