“One can waste years systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.” ― Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
If you are reading this, you probably already know exactly what someone is doing when we say they are “scrolling”. Zoning out on that endless feed that somehow makes time fly by, while also accomplishing very little when (if!) we later analyze how that time was spent. This addictive behavior comes in many flavors, but when one boils it down, there are two main kinds of scrolling patterns people get sucked into:
It is the latter type of scrolling —wanting to know what’s going on— which this essay is about, and is the more insidious type of desire, because in the moment, it can feel like we’re accomplishing something.
Relaxing, and turning one’s brain off for a while is good for us, and something many people don’t do enough. Yes, it can be taken too far, and underlying conditions like depressive tendencies can exacerbate stress-reducing behavior to levels where it creates a dangerous cycle of being immobilized by stress that further immobilizes.
But even in the lowest lows, most people are self-aware enough to recognize when they’re “vegging out” on entertainment, and understand that it cannot go on forever. Being entertained is a break, a temporary reprieve. And what it looks like is (generally speaking) clearly defined and understood. Work is how accomplishments (both big and small) happen. Our brief lives are pretty much completely filled with work of one kind or another. And “entertainment” can be broadly classified as the thing that’s not work.
Consuming entertainment feels good, but accomplishments feel satisfying, and doing work in pursuit of them also feels satisfying.
It is that fleeting feeling of satisfaction which motivates human beings in all pursuits. Ignoring for a moment the fact that lasting satisfaction is impossible (though many feel the chase itself is still worthwhile), it is that same satisfied feeling that the I-want-to-know-what’s-going-on types of social media dangle in front of you in order to keep you scrolling.
It is important to recognize how AI-powered social media algorithms are tapping into deep and fundamental human motivations and manipulating them into serving their own goals.
Getting a “lay of the land” is the first step on the road to accomplishment, and therefore the first step towards that elusive feeling of satisfaction. No matter what one’s goal, it’s natural to take an assessment of the topography before choosing the best course of action to pursue in depth.
It’s our natural inclination to keep scrolling in order to get a bird’s-eye perspective on the news and “what people are talking about”. We’re social creatures and there is an additional social benefit to not being left in the dark.
However, our brains evolved in a place where figurative scrolling “to the end” happened all the time. There’s only so much new information a caveman can learn every morning about his or her cave. Human beings’ special talent is their ability to extrapolate likely outcomes based on previous experience and to take action with little data. We are evolved to maximize small amounts of data. But the desire for more information never dulls. In an information-sparse environment, any information, no matter how unrelated, might come in handy. So we crave it to a degree so high that in most cases we have little ability to not consume it.
Seriously- have you ever tried to stare at text and not read the words? Or to turn on a radio in an empty room and not somehow hear what’s being said? It’s impossible. No amount of willpower can completely tamp down the part of our brains that is taking in the information in front of us. Modern social media apps remove all possible hindrances that may stand in the way of getting you in front of their app. Bright colored easy-to-find icons, auto-playing videos, and of course- the endless news feed, algorithmically sorted to always feel fresh.
To be clear- If we lived in a world with the same abundant information landscape, but without social media and it’s algorithms, addictive behavior and binging on endless trivia would still be a problem for many. But not only do we now live in an information-rich environment, we have intelligent machines who present it to us in a way that (once it’s on the screen and in front of us) is nearly impossible to resist.
These are four facts to remember, and it’s easy to see how they compound and expand the issues:
We are hard wired to shift our focus to novel information above all else.
We live in a world where novel information is readily accessible in near-infinite amounts.
Bad actors and opportunists create and spread false or misleading information masquerading as trustworthy.
AIs present all (real and unreal) information to us in a very difficult to resist way.
Not only are these apps and websites addictive, but what they’re serving up isn’t even true. If it feels like your grasp on reality is weakening after reading social media, that’s because it is. Endless consumption without context is the opposite of learning.
What can one do?
There may come a day when the AIs directing the attention economy become so powerful or intrusive that they’re impossible to resist. Until then, we still have the “air gap” between our minds and devices. Broadband signals are not entirely ubiquitous, our screens need to be in front of our eyes, our thumbs need to touch the screens, etc..
But the very first step to breaking the cycle —borrowing a page from alcoholics anonymous here— is to recognize that there a problem that’s out of our control. And then to identify what the problem is. The problem in this case? Endless headlines are addictive, provide no real perspective on world events, and do not educate us in any meaningful way.
The hard truth is: you’ll never learn enough to get to a point where you’re “ready to start actually learning”. You’ll never scroll headlines and trivia to a point where you’re ready to be educated more in depth on a single topic. The point where you feel satisfied with your understanding of the world will never arrive. It will always be perpetually out of reach.
It’s in our nature to want a summary, a birds-eye perspective on the world. But achieving that perspective in today’s digital space is impossible. Social media’s big fiction is that it can provide this impossible perspective. Twitter asks it’s users “What’s happening?”, insinuating the question can be answered if one manages to scroll far enough. Reddit bills itself as “The Front Page of the Internet”, but the front page is actually millions of pages. TikTok’s slogan: “make every second count”, should feel particularly insulting to anyone with a finite lifespan.
Lastly, it’s easy to vilify social media purely for distracting from more productive time, but that can be a dangerous trap too. “Productivity” (in the way it’s usually understood) itself has no end. No moment exists when one will have “produced enough” to start actually living. For example, social media removes boredom from our lives, but if one’s goal is to not be constantly overwhelmed, then boredom (doing “nothing”) is productive.
The idea that “mindlessness” or consuming “pure entertainment” is wholly fruitless, is the same logical trap that causes one to get “stuck” scrolling endless feeds in the first place. We are keenly aware of our limited time on this Earth, don’t want to “waste” it, and scrolling these websites feels like learning. Which is better than doing “nothing” right?
Most entertainment is understood to be just that, and crucially- most of it ends. TV series are comprised of episodes. Movies have an end. Novels have chapter breaks. (Most) video games have an end. Scrolling headlines is like watching an unending documentary without a topic. And it won’t stop until you make it.
Stay Grounded is a reader-supported publication. Click the button below to get 50% off a premium subscription ($2/month) forever, or until the singularity eats us all. Only for the first 100 subscribers.
Something not mentioned enough is that being depressed, stressed or anxious, is actually very exhausting work! It’s no wonder that those feelings encourage “vegging out”.
This is amazingly spot on. That's enough intellectual conversation for now I'm off back to Reddit to scroll..
Two books came to mind: Hooked. and Inspired. Both elude the ideas behind the dark and ingenious strategies that brands such as TikTok, Instagram, Reddit use to keep us mindlessly scrolling while our legs go numb or coffee gets cold.