Freedom of missing out

2020-02-27

It's been around a month since I've reduced the amount of content I consume to its long time minima. By "content" I mean the stream of content that I don't care about and don't want to consume, but as the internet flushes my brain with it, I have no other choice but letting it feed my braincells with dopamine. In the last few months a growing urge to change something has been growing inside me, out of the frustration of having a hard time focusing and my motivation to produce was oppressed by the constant noise of feeds, magazines, news and videos.

I didn't want to block every source of content in my life, instead I wanted to introduce some cadence, a pace I feel comfortable with. It was also my plan to try to trick my habits and shift my focus from certain sources of content that don't give enough value to other ones that do. As an example, I wanted to spend more time on Are.na and read more essays on sites like e-flux or Aeon. On Are.na, I wanted to clean up my existing channels, find interesting research topics and try to map out my interests and thoughts, which I find impossible in a state of chaos produced by information bloat.

What had started out as an experiment has evolved into the foundation of how I use the internet. Instead of the continuous streams of content from multiple sources, about multiple topics, on multiple timelines, I focus on one source of content at a time. Hardly Everything helps me to keep a rhythm. I've stopped visiting frequently updated sites directly by their URLs and instead I add them to my Hardly Everything list and define "rest" times that feel correct and comfortable. The simple rest value can denote different relations to a site: how much time do I want to spend on it? how frequently do I want to be reminded of it? when might I search for it in the future? When the link to the site appears, I take my time to explore it: check what's new or just return to something old, spend more time with reading the entries that seem interesting, save highlights and quotes, save it to Are.na, research about it and maybe even write down some thoughts. An important characteristic of my Hardly Everyhing feed is that it's filled with space (with void). On most days it welcomes me with the "Nothing more for today" message. I find this similar to a projection of my mind where I try to give everything its own space, isolate thoughts and try not to hurry the natural flow of ideas (even in music I enjoy breaks and silence a lot). The longer rests give me enough time to digest the incoming content. They give me time to think. What surprised me the most is that I spend much more time with thinking (as an activity). Instead of the constant buzz of the hunger to consume, I have constant streams of thoughts and ideas, which now I can also control better.

In the first one or two weeks it wasn't easy. I entered URLs and hit Enter almost without thinking. merveilles.town, twitter.com, youtube.com, nytimes.com... I've found myself on these homepages and didn't know how I got there. As these habits faded away, I had a really short period of "fear of missing out" outbursts, but even if it was short, I think it should me mentioned. Luckily, I could always handle this quite well in other areas (like parties, gossips or mainstream content) and seems like I could also apply it to something as large as the whole internet thing. The people around me act as natural content filters. If there's something important or something I should know about, sooner or later I will get notified about it through my environment (or directly or by glancing at the frontpage of a newspaper on the tram, et cetera). I was reassured that there's much less happening in the real world than what news sites present to us and that humans outperform even the best content filtering algorithms.

What the world sold me as "fear of missing out" turned out to be "freedom of missing out" (FrOMO?). The freedom of my opinion, ideas and thoughts, freedom from anxiety, anger and fear. This doesn't mean that my attitude towards the world is "DGAF", on the contrary: I try to see it through a more lucid digital filter, in the hope that I will understand it better. Instead of stretching out my own little world until it fits to the models I'm constantly reminded of via mass media and carefully designed visible or invisible advertisements, I surrender to my environment, to my personal physical and mental spaces. Missing out is what lets me use up information to its fullest, without feeling hurried or slow. Missing out means that you can live in your own time, in sync with the pace of your environment and not by everyone else's.

The chaos all this mass content produces is a simple hideaway in the mind from the pessimism and helplessness of reality. The virtual world we live in doesn't try to model the real world anymore (it was deprived of this task at the dawn of capitalism), instead it gives hope that this virtual and optimistic play can be projected to reality. The current model of society is based on and powered by the hope and belief in this transition from virtual to real, but in a ride where we should be leaders, we're all blinded by the same forces of culture and society. As William Gibson stated once: "We can't see our culture very well, because we see with it".

The plan was to conclude the experiment with the end of February, but the impact it had on my life is so positive that I don't plan to move back. I do miss some of the communities, I miss the motivating creators of merveilles.town, but I couldn't figure out a way to connect to them without turning my brain into a feed-eating machine. That's how my brain works and that's what I will need to try to change. Until then I'll keep occasionally shouting out thoughts via my twtxt feed and happily talk with anyone in email.


Some related works / inspiration from Jon-Kyle Mohr:

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