299: The Three Uses of Information

This is the Monday Medley, a newsletter that goes out, you guessed it, every Monday. I republish it here for sharing and referencing, but if you'd like to sign up you can do so right here:

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Happy Monday!

First up, Made You Think is back! Enjoy the update episode, and look for the first "real" episode next week. The next book we're doing is The Dictator's Handbook if you want to read along.

Alright, on to the Medley.

The Three Uses of Information

Once upon a time, there was a limited amount of new information per day you had access to. You could sit down in the morning and read the paper and you were done. Kind of wild to imagine.

Then with the popularity of radio and television, we had additional variables. You could read the paper, listen to the news, or watch the news. But a dedicated person could probably still get a good chunk of the new information available to them for the day.

Now we have an insane amount of information available to us. There are multiple 24-hour news channels, thousands of digital newspapers, blogs, twitter threads, YouTube videos.

And that's just the news. You also have your interests, hobbies, and work information. And unless you're in some extremely small niche, there's probably a month or a year's worth of new information available to you every day.

Obviously you can't stay on top of everything. So how do we manage it?

Aside from trying to evaluate the quality of the source of information, it's also worth considering the motivation for consuming information.

Information can generally be lumped into three buckets:

  • Useful for day to day life or decision making
  • Useful for gossip or signaling
  • Entertainment

And obviously it can satisfy multiple of these criteria at once. Crypto news is all three for me: some of it affects my day to day decision making, some of it helps me not sound like an idiot around my peers, and some of it is just fun to follow.

Watching The Bachelor and reading the info surrounding it is mostly satisfying the Entertainment itch. But depending on your friend group it could be useful for signaling as well. It probably doesn't affect your day-to-day decision-making for most people, but there are certainly some for whom it does (e.g. Bachelor podcasters).

Everyone thinks the information they consume is important. And we're often surprised whenever we find people who don't care about the information we care about because it's hard to imagine not treating that information as valuable. If you tell someone you don't care about Football or The Bachelor they're not likely to get particularly offended or upset. We know that information is mostly entertainment.

The problem is when we start to misconstrue information we seek for entertainment or gossip/signaling as important for decision making. Tell some people you don't care about the latest news on COVID, politics, or what Joe Rogan said this week, and they might lose their mind.

Let's start with COVID. For anyone who doesn't work in a hospital, there's no utility to getting constant information on COVID deaths or infections. You can look up the case mortality rate for each new variant, assess whether it's something worth worrying about for yourself given the treatments and vaccines and when weighed against all the other ways you could get sick or die, make a decision, and move on with your life.

Unless, of course, you're following COVID data for signaling or entertainment. There are certainly many people following it and posting about it just to signal. And some people just find it really interesting to follow. But pretending following it is important for everyone for day-to-day decision-making is absurd. That utility ended a year and a half ago.

Politics is another example where this runs rampant. As an ordinary citizen, you have very few political levers you can pull. In most cases, those levers are just how you vote in a given election.

So following Politics seems important for decision making, but it isn't. Preparing for an election can be an extremely fast process. I'm not particularly aligned with either major party in the US, so for elections, I just read the websites and policies of whoever is running. Then maybe watch through a debate or two to try to get a sense of their leadership capabilities, and find what I can of their political track record. You could do that in a couple of hours, and you'll have more than enough information to make an educated voting decision.

Staying up to date on politics is predominantly about entertainment and gossip/signaling for the vast majority of people. If you're a reporter or work in politics then obviously you need day-to-day information. But as a normal citizen? It's mostly useless. You shouldn't feel pressured by people who love the entertainment to follow it closely any more than you should feel pressured to follow football or The Bachelor.

It would be one thing if there were finite information to consume, or if you got to vote on democratic policies weekly. But there isn't, and you don't. You have infinite information at your disposal, extremely limited time, and very few uses for most information. You have to guard your time at all costs and only let in the information that's useful or entertaining to you.

Signaling or gossiping in particular is where you can easily end up wasting a ton of time by ingesting useless information. Many people aren't following politics or COVID to affect their day-to-day decision-making, they're following it so they can talk about it with their peers or post virtuous memes on Instagram.

This is why Chamath got such a ridiculous blowback for his statement about the Uyghurs on the All In Podcast. If you're curious about it, just download the actual episode and listen to what he says and judge it for yourself.

To paraphrase what he said (again, go listen and judge for yourself), he said he didn't "care" about what was going on with the Uyghurs because it didn't affect his day-to-day decision-making. He has a limited amount of time and energy, and that's just not a problem he's focused on. Which is fine! You can't focus on everything.

Most people in the US aren't talking about the Uyghurs because they're going to do anything about it. I doubt they purged their life of products manufactured in China. They're talking about it to signal "I'm a good person who cares about bad things going on in the world." Which is fine, but to Chamath's point, what's the point of staying up to date and constantly talking about something if you aren't doing anything about it or at least enjoying following it.

Chamath understands something most people don't: your time and attention are extremely scarce, and if you aren't ruthless about what you spend them on, they will be wasted. You can't try to care about everything everyone cares about because then you'll spend all day absorbing and regurgitating the trivia of the day. You have to triage. And that often means not caring about or not being informed about things other people think are really important.

Then there's the balance of utility and entertainment. I generally think we should lean as heavily towards entertainment as possible, assuming you have the means to. Life is short, and it's easy to get sucked into analysis paralysis when you start downloading information for day-to-day decision-making. The 40-70 rule is a good guideline. If you try to get 100% of the information you might want for every decision you'll go crazy and waste time that could have been spent on entertainment or making more decisions.

Once you turn off the news, ruthlessly prune your social feeds, and stop feeling guilted into staying up to date on the stuff everyone else cares about, you'll have huge amounts of time for the things you care about.

And as long as you're fine asking people to explain stuff, you won't really miss out on not knowing what's going on in Politics, football, or The Bachelor.

Have a great week,

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