mt. solitary a weblog

XXXIII.

This is a photograph of the side of an old apartment building in Tel Aviv, the kind of concrete structures that are likely to crumble to a thousand pieces the second there’s an earthquake.


1. Should we write if no one’s reading?

From a quick wc -w * in the posts directory of this blog, I have written around 54,000 words here over the last two years. And from a quick check of my Google Analytics dashboard (I’ve been meaning to replace it with the open source and less evil GoatCounter but haven’t got around to it yet), in those two years the site has received just a little over five hundred page views across the thirty-three posts I’ve written. I don’t actively promote the site in any way other than the occasional post to HackerNews or Reddit, so I’m not sure how the few people other than the friends and family I’ve sent links to who are discovering it are doing so. But it’s certainly not a large audience, and it does feel a little strange creating something which is ostensibly so public but realistically almost entirely hidden.

I’ve been committing to this project a year at a time, more as a form of meditation and exercise in self-discipline, an anchor of the kind I wrote about in XXIII, forcing me to distill my thoughts, to focus them, to hone my ability to write about anything. An audience was the furthest thing from my mind: aside from a few dear friends whose opinion means a lot to me and whose tastes and interests are simlar to my own, I deliberately didn’t proselytise this blog because I wasn’t really sure it had value or meaning outside of the function it serves for me personally.

Now I can feel this weird and unprecedented year drawing to a close and so I’m beginning to ask myself the questions: do I want to stick with it? (My gut feeling is yes, but I need to weigh it up against the other things I’m not doing with my time and energy while I’m writing). Do I want to keep writing once a month, or go back to my fortnightly schedule? Is there value to writing if no one’s reading? And, if there is, maybe I’d like some people to read it anyway?

I know for certain that I enjoy very much reading the type of writing that comprises this blog. A bunch of small, disconnected thoughts on various interesting subjects from different disciplines that (hopefully) over time coaslesce into a coherent mosaic of a person’s worldview. I’m talking about the feeling you get when you read the same journalist once a week every week and start feeling as if you anticipate what their opinions will be on other issues they haven’t written about yet. Writing creates a well-preserved and timeless image of the writer, one that is very interesting and intimate to observe.

So I hope that other people find it interesting too, and that if you happen on this particular issue of the blog one day after reading many future entries, or maybe past entries, you’ll feel like you have a slightly clearer picture of who I am and what I think about the world.

2. Obsession with the news

It’s not over yet but I’m fairly sure when I look back on 2020 it will be as one of the most historically significant years of my life so far (mainly surpassed only by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but I was only one year old then so not sure if I can really count that). And of course we happen to be experiencing all these tremendously consequential and unprecedented events (I’m thinking specifically about the US election and the news from October 2 that US President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19) in an age where information is immediately available, where news is constantly manufactured and consumed at a pace that can become overwhelming and at times even feel sickening.

The obsessive desire to be constantly up-to-date is at times very strong for me. There is a persistent feeling of urgency: I need to know what’s going on, it’s important, imperative. And when things are changing so fast, the sense of urgency is compounded by the feeling that if I don’t stay up-to-date now, when the next thing happens I won’t understand it because I wasn’t keeping track of the situation.

I often think about how humanity stayed informed and aware of what was happening in the world before the internet. Newspapers, the main way people consumed news until ten years ago or so, provide a very different experience than the constant stream of updates on today’s internet. News accumulates over a day, informed and professional people write about it, and then it is collected into a single publication with a defined start and end (the pages of the paper), ready to be consumed. With online news, this is impossible: all parts of the above recipe are missing. News accumulates every minute, live blogs are constantly refreshed by writers who are presumably not the finest the publication has to offer. And there is no way of knowing where all today’s news can be found. Articles are changed, headlines are edited to receive more clicks, everything is designed to look like it’s in the “most current” state every time you look at it, meaning you need to keep coming back to remain up-to-date.

I personally fall victim to this constantly, and it’s only when I take a step back and think about how different things used to be that I realise how sick it all is and how badly it affects my ability to concentrate and stay focussed on other parts of my life. I’m thinking a lot about this specific period, where I’m spending probably three times the normal amount of time in my home, not going anywhere. Craig Mod put it as eloquently as he usually does in his recent Ridgeline newsletter, constantly checking the news numbs the skill of observation and dulls one’s sense of presence in the landscape and in the moment. I find the distracted mindset that the constant checking creates permeates into other parts of my life. Already struggling with deciding what of the many different things I like to concentrate my time on, that time when it comes around is hard to devote singularly to the single chosen task.

There’s a bunch of applications and tools to help with this problem (Freedom, Apple Screen Time, RescueTime etc), their existence an indictment of the problem and an indication of how prevalent it is. I’m thinking about going a week with a very different consumption regimen and although my first thought is to try and use one of these existing tools, I think I’m going to try and go “cold turkey”. I’d add “be in charge of how he spends his time and attention” to Heinlein’s list of things a human being should be able to do. Reclaiming control of our time and attention is not something I should need help with.

What I do need help with is the “digesting”. I want to reclaim my attention and check the news fewer times throughout the day, but I don’t (yet anyway) want to completely disconnect from what’s happening, particularly at this extremely critical time in the history of the world. So my current goal is to find the best way (RSS feeds? Email newsletters?) to get the news I want digested daily and delivered to me without me having to look for it.

3. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

Watching

Listening