As is the case so often in life, things online start to come undone when we lose sight of our purpose.
John Steinbeck provided a famous metaphor:
Life is like an empty field. With intention it becomes a garden, without it weeds and debris will take over. Something will grow either way, but it’s your choice what takes root.
So what is the purpose of the internet? What should we allow to take root in our lives online?
Britannica plainly states what the internet is intended for: “Through the Internet, people can share information and communicate from anywhere with an Internet connection.”
You probably already knew the internet is meant to help find and share information, and to communicate with one another.
But let’s go a level below that…. What is the purpose of information? What is it actually used for? Or to look at it another way, what information is actually worth finding, sharing, and communicating?
That’s not as easy to answer. But this question underlies every single digital interaction you’ve ever had or will be a part of. And this confusion, at the very base level of our life online, is where things start to come undone. It’s where the weeds and unwelcome wildness start to creep in.
To grasp the depth of this issue, let’s pause for a moment and call to mind the past 24 hours. Reflect on all the information, content, media, whatever you want to call it, that you consumed, outside of work or school (this is a valuable exercise for those spaces too, but it helps to isolate each area in your mind.)
Visualize all the texts you received, posts you scrolled by, pages you read, emails you exchanged, clips you watched, audio you heard, tv or movies you streamed, games you played, reviews you skimmed, memes you sent.
Focus. Imagine all those images, words, and sound bites swirling around you, filling up the room. Now as you hold this in your mind, ask yourself:
- What of all of this did I use in my daily activities or apply towards future goals?
- What did I share or use to actually connect with someone?
- What lifted my mood? Inspired me? Comforted me?
- How much of it do I even remember?
Popular studies say, by the time you go to bed tonight, you will have likely checked your phone 52 times (1) , been exposed to over 5,000 ads (2), and read over 100,000 words in your free time (not including work!) (3) .
To put this in perspective, 100 years ago it would’ve been very impressive if you read the equivalent of 50 books in a lifetime. In 2011 the average person was exposed to the equivalent of roughly 174 newspapers worth of information each day (4) . That’s nearing 15,000 oversized pages. And these figures were compiled over 10 years ago, when Instagram had just launched. Anecdotally, these numbers are probably much higher now, for most of us.
We are consuming more information than ever, and that amount is increasing every single day. But why and what should we be consuming? What does healthy intake look like?
Once again food serves as a helpful metaphor to help us figure out the purpose of the internet and all the information it has to offer.
Information and food are both forms of fuel. They’re things we take in from the outside world to use internally. They power our actions and feed our growth- mentally and physically. Information is quite literally food for thought.
The healthiest foods are the ones that are the most useful to us. The ones that give us energy, that help us to develop and maintain strong, agile bodies. The ones that keep us from getting sick, that help us live better, for longer. These foods are considered to have high nutritional value.
The same applies to information. The healthiest information is whatever we can put to most use. Healthy information offers inspiration and guidance. It helps us solve problems, make better decisions and navigate the world more smoothly. It helps strengthen our relationships and expands our options in life. It helps prevent us from getting misled or manipulated. It helps us to live better and more fully. This information is considered to have high “action value”.
The trouble is there is very little value in most of the things we consume today.
Where we got lost
The concept of “action value” was coined by the brilliant media theorist, Neil Postman in his seemingly prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he states the following
“….most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action…
Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value.
In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply. “
Put simply, we’re binging on information that has absolutely no bearing on our daily life.
Consider stepping back in time to the early 1800’s….. Most of the information you’d receive would have been local. The vast majority of news you’d receive would be about people and places you knew, on things that directly impacted your day to day. You would also likely know or have some sort of connection with the person informing you.
Today the majority of information we consume is about strangers, from strangers, through a screen.
This shift is the long-term repercussion of industrialization and mechanized technologies. Over time information, much like food, transformed from a scarce, appreciated resource, to an abundant, automated commodity. Like the empty calories filling our grocery shelves, empty entertainment fills our screens.
So what happens when we gorge ourselves daily on the endless downpour of immediate, often free information, covering every topic imaginable?
Well it’s no coincidence that we often refer to our current era as either the Age of Information or the Age of Anxiety. What we can’t use or process just sits there, building up, weighing us down, making it harder to move.
In this way, obesity and anxiety are more similar than we often realize. They both often stem from over-consuming cheap, useless junk, devoid of value.
Now it’s important to emphasize that we’re not suggesting putting our heads in the sand and ignoring everything inapplicable to our day to day. Not every digital interaction needs to be “useful”, just like every bite we eat doesn’t need to be a nutrient-dense superfood.
Sometimes we eat for comfort, to lift our spirits or to connect with others. Sometimes we just want that donut! And that’s ok! That’s human. However if the majority of things we take in are useless, or worse harmful, sadness and sickness begin to seep in.
Making Healthy Choices
Even if we know we should be taking in what’s most useful to us, many find it challenging to figure out and habitually choose the most purposeful things. But a decade spent interviewing people on their food and health habits has taught me: most consistently healthy eaters have a specific reason for being so. Purpose drives healthy eating habits.
There are short-term goals, like fitting into a wedding dress and longer term ones, like preventing a hereditary disease. Long term goals tend to inspire more impactful lifestyle changes, while shorter term goals help maintain focus and prevent overwhelm. No matter what, without a why, there’s often no will power. This is when the mindless, self-defeating habits tend to take over.
Having a goal in mind also helps you filter through the endless options and opinions to decide what choices are right for you personally. Muscle building, weight loss, cancer prevention- different foods or approaches impact everybody and every outcome differently.
Similarly, there is no one-size-fits all approach, when it comes to defining ‘healthy information’. Different people and different goals require different intake. What may benefit your goals, may be detrimental or distracting for others.
Whatever the reason may be, it’s helpful to find a clear goal or motivation to steer our focus online. Without it, we find ourselves overwhelmed, adrift, and at the mercy of platforms and advertising designed to capture our attention.
There are more obvious objectives that inspire less device dependency, like getting a good night’s sleep or setting a better example for your kids. But it’s also helpful to reflect on how all this access to information can feed your personal bliss or aspirations. What brings you joy? Who do you want to be?
These deeper reflections can help determine what information is most potent and actionable for you personally. Consider the Japanese concept of Ikigai to help you think through these larger purpose and growth-oriented questions.
Beneficial vs Depleting Time Online Chart
Despite the infinite array of starting points and destinations, there are some universal rules of thumb. For example sensationalized news media, much like ultra processed snacks, don’t benefit anyone (except for the deep pockets profiting from them.) Meanwhile things like drinking water and staying up to date on local news are healthy for everyone.
With this in mind, we have developed general guidelines on what constitutes beneficial vs depleting ways to spend time on your devices.
***Please note*** These are general guidelines to use as a starting point. This list may vary based on your lifestyle, goals, and disposition. Your inner compass remains your most dependable guide, especially when it comes to recognizing your limits. Nothing is healthy in excess.
As we move further online, we will further lose the ability to simply turn it off. In the future , we won’t be able to just put our phones down or close our laptops. Virtual and augmented realities will fully immerse us in a flood of media, content and entertainment- we will literally be moving through it. Now is the time for us to learn how to feed our health and happiness online, by placing purpose at the heart of our digital habits.
Let’s use algorithms to our advantage. Take a look at the app you spend the most time on and look at the recommendations you’re provided. It may be the explore page on your Instagram, the “You Might Like” section on Tiktok, the “For You” tab on Apple News, etc. Take an honest look at the topics and images suggested.
- Do these align with your personal goals or values?
- Do they make you feel happy , comforted, or inspired? Or do they make you feel embarrassed, irritated or insecure?
- Are you learning anything or are you tempted to buy something?
Energy flows where attention goes. Let this evaluation determine where you want to direct your attention moving forward.
(1) Deloitte. Global Mobile Consumer Survey: US Edition A new era in mobile continues, 2018. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/technology-media-telecommunications/us-tmt-global-mobile-consumer-survey-exec-summary-2018.pdf
(2) Story, Louise. “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad”, 2007. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/media/15everywhere.html
(3) Hawkins, Peter, and Judy Ryde. INTEGRATIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE a Relational, Systemic and Ecological Approach. Jessica Kingsley, 2019.
(4) Dr. Martin Hilbert, “Mapping the dimensions and characteristics of the world’s technological communication capacity during the period of digitization (1986–2007/2010),” presented at the 9th World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Meeting (WTIM-11), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), (Mauritius, December 7–9, 2011)