There are 70 emails in my inbox. I just spent an hour of my Saturday going through and knocking out 20. These weren’t junk emails. Most are newsletters and Substack authors whose content I enjoy. I’ve spent years providing and revoking access to my inbox so as to filter in only the “best” content—the definition of which is always changing.
But I can’t give most of it the attention it deserves. Because another wave of content washes over it. More newsletters. Plus Twitter threads, Slacks, podcasts, YouTube videos, Netflix, Hulu, TikToks, group chats, DMs, and memes. All the memes. I work a full-time job (in which I create content), live with my girlfriend, and *hope* to interact with the outside world every day. At a minimum I try to go for a walk outside without my phone—which would mean time not consuming content. So now I’m generating a content consumption deficit. And it’s only 10AM. What’s the goal of the walk? To calm my mind and clear my head…so I can go home and consume more content.
Mind you, I do like the content. Who doesn’t like the content? I wouldn’t carefully curate my newsletter subscriptions and Instagram and Twitter follows if I wasn’t serious about consuming the content. But content consumption is never done. It’s never even halfway done. Even when you think you’re done, Twitter just loads a series of new tweets or an article links out to another article with a catchy headline. You’re the product. Your attention is payment.
When people say they’re addicted to their phone, I think they really mean they’re addicted to content. Because what’s a phone if not a receptacle for content consumption. I’m not spending 4 hours a day on phone calls or texting people. I’m scrolling Twitter and reading articles. I use the iPhone setting that locks you out of your social media apps after 1 hour of usage per day. But if the matter is important (and even if it’s not important), I just click “Ignore” and continue on with the content. I treat consuming content as something I “have” to do. How can I go to bed before checking Twitter?
My addiction is unresolved partially because most other people I know are exactly the same. I’ll pull my head out of the content around friends, only to find their heads are buried in the content. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Most people I know will concede they spend too much time consuming content. But it’s not like we’re popping Oxycontin, so why be so hard on ourselves?
I think modern life is a struggle between living in the content and living outside the content. What’s the right combination? 100 years ago it was possible to live entirely outside the content. But today I think it’s barely possible. The physical world is enmeshed in the digital world. This is how I feel every time I see a restaurant menu QR code.
But the irony is the content makes you less connected to the physical world. My goal when not consuming content is to better interact with the outside world, but the outside world wants me so badly to interact with the content. I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a friend in which the content didn’t come up at least once. Netflix shows, our favorite podcasts, the news, etc.
Content has simply become a way of life. Many of us create it. All of us consume it. It’s unnatural behavior. If you don’t think so, go look at Influencers in the Wild or attend a Trump rally.
Humans haven’t evolved to be able consume everything all of the time. But we’re only partially aware of the implications of this lifestyle. We’re conducting a mass psychological experiment on our society without a clear understanding of the potential outcomes. My generation (Millennials) should consider ourselves lucky we grew up at a time when the content wasn’t yet overpowering. I didn’t have Instagram until college. Kids today are always plugged in because it’s what their world requires.
In Adam Alter’s 2018 book “Irresistible,” he interviewed tech executives who said they wouldn’t allow their kids to use social media because they knew exactly how addictive it is. If the folks who invented the technology don’t want their kids around it, maybe I should plan to limit my child’s tech exposure as well? But will it even be possible to socialize them without a cellphone and TikTok account (or whatever social app is dominating in 10 years)? I know rich parents who can’t even keep their kids off their phones. Why?
Probably because they’re the children of addicts, making them more likely to become addicts themselves. A friend of mine posts her infant on Instagram multiple times a day. How is that kid not going to be addicted to content from the moment she can hold a phone? The best thing I could probably do for my unborn child is cure myself of my content affliction. It’s also the best thing I could do for my relationships, work ethic, mental health, and general enjoyment of life.
Because when I look back on my life, there’s not likely to be many moments spent consuming content that I’ll remember.
Knowing that, I’ve still clicked off to other tabs 100 times while writing this essay. And the urge is building to make it 101. So it’s best we end things right now.