If we were to define the word “philosophy” in both its academic and colloquial sense—that is, actual “philosophy” and the more casual “She responded philosophically”—we might say that it means both to get to the fundamental truth of things as well as to view things calmly and with perspective.
And with this definition, we can also clearly say what the opposite of philosophy and philosophical is. It’s the device in your pocket. The one whose home screen looks like this:
Or maybe you carry a little device on your wrist that hits you with little vibrations to tell you breaking news about the weather of half the continent.
The constant interruptions and distractions of our society are, to me, the opposite of philosophy. Getting caught up in minutiae. Getting caught up in things that don’t matter. Getting caught up in things that are designed to exploit and antagonize us and our emotions.
I’m not just referring to apps and games and phone calls of course. I am mostly referring to the news. Take Donald Trump’s media diet, which as I understand it, far predates his presidency. Every morning he gets up very early and watches Fox & Friends, which he calls the most honest morning show. If you’ve ever watched Fox & Friends you know that’s definitely not true. He reads multiple newspapers a day. He has his online news printed out and brought to him, and then he reads them. In the evening he watches all the magazine shows like Sean Hannity and before it was cancelled, The O’Reilly Factor, which are basically just opinions about things that happened earlier in the day and then chimes in with his own opinion on Twitter while he does it. And on the weekend he watches Saturday Night Live.
I don’t think it’s a partisan point to say that that sounds absolutely awful. Although, I would venture to guess, it’s not far from the diets of most of you reading this. Maybe you’d sub in more time on Facebook. Or you’d watch Rachel Maddow instead of Sean Hannity. Maybe you don’t print out articles but you save yours to Pocket or Instapaper and read them while you’re in the bathroom or on the train. And maybe you also consume a steady diet of ESPN and CBS Sports for your fantasy team. Or maybe you follow the movie business or the stock market.
The amount of information we consume on a daily basis is embarrassing.
I know it is for me.
I remember after the 2016 election, I’d read more news that year than any other year of my life. Like nearly everyone in America, I was convinced (though not exactly excited) that Hillary would win. I read all those opinion pieces that said she was going to win and why she was going to win and why this election was just an aberration. Then the actual election returns sent my wife into labor.
My son was born on November 9th. I was in the hospital with the nurses and my wife and me had a few minutes for a break. And what did I find myself doing? Reading another news from a person whose articles I’d read many times over the past several months who had been totally and completely wrong every step of the way. Here I was in seemingly one of the most important moments of my life reading more information from this person pretending that he hadn’t been wrong the entire time.
Now that’s an extreme example, obviously, and I sympathize with the fact that the election was a traumatic event for a lot of people. So here’s something a little more common: I live in Texas so this year I found myself glued to the coverage of Hurricane Harvey. This was a real thing, it was coming to my area, and I needed to know if I should evacuate and what I needed to prepare for. There was so much on the line for me: my house could have been destroyed, there could have been flooding, etc. Thankfully we were mostly unscathed (though we did end up with some very costly repairs). If you remember, Harvey was followed almost immediately by another hurricane. Irma came up the coast of Florida just 10 days after Harvey left Houston. I found myself watching the coverage of Irma, too, and it was as riveting and dire. But here’s the thing: I don’t live in Florida. Of course, what happened to those poor people in Florida or Puerto Rico was important but that doesn’t explain why I was watching it with the same seriousness I had consumed the coverage days before. This is what is so brilliant about what the news producers can do: Tune in, we have a breaking news alert, follow this, see what’s going on, look at these compelling pictures. All the while I’m neglecting the bigger things in my life—literally the repairs that need to be made from the hurricane I just survived!
Although we’ve had newspapers for as long as the modern state has existed, previous generations didn’t have to deal with this. Leaders didn’t. Citizens didn’t. It might have taken months for news to make it from one coast to the other coast or across the Atlantic. So leaders of past eras were able to more naturally take this longer view. Citizens too. Even the run-up to WWII, arguably the most important and deadly event of the 20th century, developed over 6 years. Meanwhile, we’re following the news like the world spontaneously combusted.
If you want to see how much the internet has changed things here’s an ad posting for the Washington Post from a few years ago. They’re looking for a blogger to post 12 times a day. I don’t know if any of you blog for a living, but it is very hard to come up with 12 articles in one day. After about 5 or 6 you just start making stuff up, so if you wonder why the news is the way that it is, this is largely a part of it. There used to be a finite amount of space, even a 24/7 news network only has 24 hours in a day. And there are reruns, commercial breaks.
To me, nothing captures our news and social media ecosystem quite like this photo:
Credits: Evy Mages
For an internet publisher, they have infinite space. They have an unlimited amount of things that they can publish, so as you would expect we have lots more news than we’ve ever had before. It’s exhausting and it manipulates us and it works us up into these fits.
We must give credit to Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, who five years before the rise of fake news accurately detailed the extent to which most news is fake.
“Fake news. I don’t mean fake news in the Fox News sense. I mean the fake news that clogs up most newspapers and most news websites, for that matter. The new initiative will go nowhere. The new policy isn’t new at all…The product isn’t revolutionary. And journalists pretend that these official statements and company press releases actually constitute news…Fake news, manufactured, hyped, rehashed, retracted—until at the end of the week you know no more than at the beginning. You really might as well wait for a weekly like the Economist to tell you what the net position is at the end of the week.”
He’s saying most of the things that you read aren’t going to go anywhere—it’s not revolutionary, it’s not new, it’s not important. These are press releases, government statements, manufactured hype, speculation, opinions about things. Why? Because reporters are trying to write 12 posts a day. Reporters are trying to beat other outlets by five seconds so they can get all the traffic for a “scoop” that is going to be rendered irrelevant by the “scoop” that comes out tomorrow.
It’s true for platforms too. As a former data scientist at Facebook explained,
“The fundamental purpose of most people at Facebook working on data is to influence and alter people’s moods and behaviour. They are doing it all the time to make you like stories more, to click on more ads, to spend more time on the site.”
Facebook is not unlike a casino. You ever notice that there are no clocks in a casino? They don’t want you to know what time it is or how long you’ve been there. Facebook is sort of the same thing. It’s designed to keep you in Facebook as long as possible, clicking as many things as possible. Uploading, sharing, intertwining your life into the social network. So on the one hand that is a large part of why we are so obsessed with the news despite our understanding of how misleading it often is.
The same goes for every other publisher or platform. Television doesn’t want you to get up and take action, they want you to sit through the commercial break. A news outlet doesn’t want you to be so outraged by an article that you do something, that you decide to change the world, they want you to be so outraged that you sign a Change.org petition and then consider it a job well done.
But I would say that there’s another part. I would say that one of the other reasons for our news addiction is ego. Facebook and news publishers understand how much of our identity is tied up in this consumption and that’s what they manipulate. It’s this need to be seen as well informed. We have this great word now: virtue signalling. Knowing everything that’s going on in the world, having an opinion on these news stories, having the right opinion on these news stories, we believe says something about us. We want to be in the club of the elite, smart, informed intelligent, compassionate, interesting people. We don’t want to be on the side of the ignorant people or the people who have tuned out. These are what the publishers exploit. They know some people on the right want to hear this and some people on the left want to hear that and that’s exactly what they cater to. That’s exactly the content that they create.
Credits: John Holcroft
Ah, but this is not philosophy. Epictetus said it best. “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.”
In other words: Stop watching the news. Turn off all the alerts on your phone. Alerts for texts, for social media, remove the news sites from your phone as well. Delete Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—all of them. You can still consume information of course, but see what happens when you don’t carry it around in your pocket and allow it to interrupt you in the middle of everything that you do. No wonder we don’t have time for philosophy or thinking about these big issues when we’re pinged by every CNN breaking news on our wrists in real time. If we can remove ourselves, create some distance between those breaking news alerts and our reflective, contemplative time, we’re going to be able to think about bigger and more important things.
Aziz Ansari got in trouble a couple months back for saying he had stopped reading news on the internet. His response was great: “I’m not choosing ignorance. I’m choosing to not watch wrestling.” He’s still learning and reading—he’s just not following the show that we call the “news.” He’s come to the same conclusion that Obama came to in office—that political television is the absolute worst thing you can watch, and that saying away from it is how you “stay focused on the task, as opposed to worrying about the noise.”
And of the information you do consume, ask yourself about its half-life. I found it fascinating to learn that the most popular book in the state and defense departments right now is Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. What does it say that the people who have access to the best intelligence on the planet—spies, dossiers, diplomats, satellite imagery—are reading a book published about a war between Athens and Sparta 2,500 years ago. But it makes sense: The wisdom in that book has stood the test of time. It goes to the essence of human nature and to conflicts between great powers.
The news is designed, by definition, not to last. It’s the ticker tape of what the sociologist E. Robert Kelly once called the “specious present.” So you’ll read something else tomorrow and you’ll read another new story the following day. Since you don’t pay for it they have to create lots and lots of it to make for in volume what they lack in margins. So ask yourself: Is this thing that I’m consuming likely to still be relevant, still be important, in a day? Or in five days, or in a week or in a year or five years?
I urge you to take that bigger picture. In one of the poet Lucian’s dialogues he takes flight and flies above the earth and he’s able to see the petty squabbles of the day in perspective. Even armies fighting each other, he says, look like ants fighting over a tiny mole hill. That’s the view that we want to take on these things. (In fact this is a pretty common device in ancient philosophy from Plato to Marcus Aurelius). That’s the view that we want to take on these things to give us perspective, to show us what really matters. Whereas if we’d zoomed in on these things and focused on the things that matter to our identity we lose the larger picture.
Speaking of larger pictures I would encourage you to take a second to look again at the famous blue marble photo. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times and not known the story behind what you were looking at. The photo was taken in 1972 by the astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission. It was taken approximately 18,000 miles from earth—it’s actually the first photo of earth that we have in its totality. It’s amazing to think that for all of human history up until that moment we had never been able to actually see what the earth looked like. The highest viewpoint that you could get would have been on a mountaintop. It’s only in the modern era that we have the gift of this perspective and yet all we’re focused on is the tiny minutiae of what happens to have made the news that minute.
The reason I ask you to look at it is that the few astronauts—the couple hundred people out of the billions who have ever lived—that have had the privilege of actually seeing the world from this perspective in person talk about this thing called the overview effect. They say when you’re in space and you’re looking down on earth, you feel this wave of tranquility and peace and perspective that you could never have on earth. One of the astronauts who talks about this says that when you see this you are struck immediately with a sense of global consciousness and a compassion for other people that it makes you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
There’s a neighbor of mine in Austin who is the oldest living veteran in the United States and we sometimes sit on the porch and talk. He was born in 1906—he’s 112 years old. He lived through two world wars, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, segregation. Nothing gives me the Overview Effect quite like sitting next to a human being who was born when Theodore Roosevelt was president. The oldest living veteran when Richard was born was a veteran of the Blackhawk War which was fought in 1832 against the American Indians. So again, history seems very long but only two lifetimes takes you back to almost the very beginnings of this country.
When Richard sits on his porch, he sees the neighbors he knows by name, and people he has helped. He sees the trees he planted himself. He cherishes his friends and his family and enjoys his cigar while he shakes his head at the absurdity of life. This is the attitude that I think allows us to endure the craziness of the world. Are we heading in a good direction or a bad direction? I’m going to be who I’m going to be, I’m going to do the right thing in the moment and I’m not going to be whipsawed from one direction to the other.
When you look at earth from all those thousands of miles away you feel that larger feeling—that oceanic feeling—that connectedness. The stresses and the distractions that we carry in our pockets or we wear on our wrists or we see on our computer when we sit down to work don’t seem so significant and the conflicts we have don’t seem so insurmountable and the right thing doesn’t seem so far away. This egotistical desire to know exactly what’s going on, to understand every fight and the causes of every problem? It falls away.
Walker Percy, who is my favorite novelist, has a remarkable passage that I’d like to close with.
“Can a man stand alone, naked, and at his ease, wrist flexed at his side like Michelangelo’s David, without assistance, without diversion…in silence? Yes. It is possible to stand. Nothing happened. I listened. There was no sound: no boats on the river, no trucks on the road, not even cicada. What if I didn’t listen to the news? I didn’t. Nothing happened. I realized I had been afraid of the silence.”
All this noise. All this news. We are afraid of the silence. We are afraid of looking stupid. We’re willing to drive ourselves insane—miserable—to avoid that.
And what would happen if we stopped?
We could live. We could get real clarity. And with it, maybe we could be the little bit of change that we want to see in the world.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.
He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.