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.