Some have argued that one benefit of the new newsletter ecosystem is a return to the older conventions of blogging in its halcyon days. I don’t know about that. I doubt you or I really want two or three dispatches from every newsletter we’ve subscribed to arriving in our inbox every day. That said, I do occasionally feel the attraction of that older form. I won’t say that this installment is blog-ish in that way, but I sat down to compose it in that old, familiar frame of mind: aiming at something relatively brief and discursive, suggestive rather than fully developed. As always, I hope you find it useful.
There is a genre of tweet that begins thus: “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but …” Well, it’s in that spirit, and un-ironically, that I write what follows.
Yesterday, I listened to a radio program with two thoughtful scholars and mental health practitioners on the subject of doom scrolling1, the habit of thoughtlessly and compulsively scrolling through our infinite feeds with no clear sense of direction or purpose, often late at night when we ought to be sleeping, and with the result of inducing greater degrees of anxiety and unease.
One of the guests explained doom scrolling as an effect of having to navigate unfamiliar and potentially threatening situations with inadequate information and little clarity about what one ought to do. Understood this way, doom scrolling is just a function of our need for decent maps of the world.
This is an entirely plausible account of doom scrolling, even if it does not account for every dimension of the practice. For example, I’d say that what we’re often after is not information per se but an affective fix. Nonetheless, the term did explode onto the lexical scene last year as the pandemic wildly reconfigured the way most of us live, transforming everyday decisions we used to make rather carelessly into matters of complex actuarial decision making: when to go out, whom to see, at what distance, for how long, with what precautions. Etc., etc. Some handled these conditions better than others, but it’s easy to see how under such circumstances one would cast about for any bit of news or information that would help clarify matters and relieve the acute uncertainty, anxiety, and fear we might have been experiencing.
Of course, in this case, as in so many others, the pandemic merely revealed and heightened an already existing pattern. While the term was popularized under pandemic conditions, it pre-dates the public health crisis by at least two years and certainly describes a phenomenon that was common long before then. And, I would add, whatever its precise relationship to the pandemic, the practice of doom scrolling will persist independently of the uncertainties and anxieties generated by the pandemic. Previously, I’ve characterized the activity we call doom scrolling as structurally induced acedia, and the conditions that thus tempt us aren’t going anywhere.
What struck me about the characterization of doom scrolling in the interview, however, was the implicit assumption embedded into the terms of the analysis, an assumption which acts as the mechanism linking the experience of uncertainty to the practice of doom scrolling.
That assumption, simply put, is that what we need in order to better navigate uncertainty is more information.2
I grant that this is obviously true to some extent. Good information can helpfully inform our choices. And in the total absence of good information, we would rightly feel altogether adrift and at the mercy of forces beyond our ken.
Yet, it is also the case that our problem with information is not that we have too little of it but rather that we have too much. Granted that, in saying this, I am assuming a distinction between information and knowledge, which is to say that an abundance of information does not necessarily imply an abundance of knowledge.
My point turns out to be relatively straightforward: maybe you and I don’t need more information. And, if we think that the key to navigating uncertainty and mitigating anxiety is simply more information, then we may very well make matters worse for ourselves.
Believing that everything will be better if only we gather more information commits us to endless searching and casting about, to one more swipe of the screen in the hope that the elusive bit of data, which will make everything clear, will suddenly present itself. From one angle, this is just another symptom of reducing our experience of the world to the mode of consumption.3 In this mode, all that can be done is to consume more, in this case more information, and what we need seems always to lie just beyond the realm of the actual, hidden beyond the horizon of the possible.
And, once again, this mode of being, with regards to navigating uncertainty, has the paradoxical effect of sinking us ever deeper into indecision and anxiety because the abundance of information, especially if it is encountered as discrete bits of under-interpreted data, will only generate more uncertainty and frustration.
One alternative to this state of affairs is to ditch the idea, should we be under its sway, that what we need to make our way in the world is simply more information. For one thing, there are practical difficulties: even in cases where more information might be genuinely helpful, it may not be forthcoming when we need it. But, more importantly, some matters cannot be adequately decided simply by gathering more information and plugging it into some sort of value-neutral formula. Indeed, we might even say that what we need to make is not a merely a decision but more like a commitment with all the risk, responsibility, and promise that this entails.
What we might truly need, then, is not information but something else altogether: courage, patience, practical wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship. Of course, these can be harder to come by than mere information, however valuable it may be.
I trust that there is no need to further clarify why what we might really need in the face of uncertainty might be courage, patience, and wisdom. Lacking these, I might add, it is easy to see how we might take refuge in the idea that we lack sufficient information. The claim that I’m holding out for more information can neatly mask my lack of courage to do what I know needs to be done.
But it’s worth reflecting for just a moment on the the last of these: friendship. I was thinking here of how isolation and loneliness, which I would sharply distinguish from solitude, can warp and disfigure our cognitive faculties. The more isolated we find ourselves, the more harrowing and disorienting the experience of uncertainty.
Moreover, if we do proceed, as we often must, without the benefit of certainty, venturing forth and assuming the real risks that must accompany our action in this world—especially once we renounce the imperative to control, manage, and master—then it would be a far better thing to do so in the affectionate and heartening company of friends who will sustain us in our failures and celebrate our triumphs. After all, it is easier by far to take a step into the unknown with another walking alongside of us than it is to do so alone. If I must bear the consequences of my choices alone, if there is no one whose counsel I trust, then it becomes especially tempting to seek both perfect knowledge and certainty before acting, and find myself paralyzed in their absence.
Unfortunately, the patterns of our techno-social order tend toward the fracturing of community and the isolation of the person. We are offered an array of tools that promise to assuage the resulting economic and psychic precarity, but, more often than not, their real aim implicit in their design is to perpetuate and accelerate social fragmentation and cultivate deeper degrees of dependency from users. They tend to inhibit the enduring satisfaction of our genuine needs in order to perpetuate our dependence on their services. They distract us from attending to the roots of our disorders in order to continue trading on the superficial and counterproductive “solutions.”
In a talk Ivan Illich gave late in his life, he made the following observation: “Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge.” Then he added, “I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.”
I come back to these lines often, especially in light of the debilitating epistemic consequences of becoming too dependent on digital media to mediate our perception of the world. It may seem counter-intuitive to say that, in the face of the profound challenges our society faces, what we most need is the deliberate cultivation of friendship. But I also find myself thinking that this conclusion is, from one angle, inescapable. At the very least, it seems to me that we need such friendships as an anchor and a refuge from the disorienting tumult of the digitized public sphere and precarity of our social world.
Some have objected to the term for various reasons, but nonetheless I’ll assent to its usage here, although I grant that it is not the most helpful way of referring to some of what it is used to designate.
There are other misguided assumptions we might mention. For example, that if, in fact, it is the case that we need more information, we are likely to find it on our social media feeds.
It is striking to, upon reflection, to consider how the imperative to gather more information really does reflect a consumerist mode of relating to the world. What I mean by this is that when confronted with consequential and often morally fraught decisions, we find ourselves tempted to operate just we would if we were deciding which brand of refrigerator we ought to buy.