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Anxiety Culture: Media-free zones

"Information anxiety" is caused by the "ever widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand" (according to Saul Wurman, who coined the term). But what makes us think we "should" understand anything?

There are two common notions about "being informed": i) it's irresponsible not to be, and ii) it's unsafe not to be. In other words, social consensus (which defines "irresponsible") and basic survival anxieties (which define "unsafe") lead to information anxiety – so it perhaps shouldn't be underestimated as a social influence.

Most people probably feel Oprahfied to some extent – ie pressured to have opinions on everything the media defines as important. And they fear falling behind. (According to a report in the Guardian1, nearly half the population have this fear). This is possibly due to good marketing – the advertisers' constant drip, drip of things you "should" know about is intended to induce anxiety, so you spend money to relieve it. (A major UK company's marketing chief once admitted to me that his profession was concerned entirely with stimulating consumer fear and greed2).

As a selling strategy, "fear of being left out" has no limits when applied to media (entertainment/information-based) products. There's a limit to how many cars you need, but there's no limit to what you "should" know about.

The info-anxiety theory recommends that we find more effective ways to process information, so we can absorb more without being overwhelmed. A better approach, however, might be to simply filter out the 99.9% of information that serves no purpose for you.

How much "information" consists of people making noises to avoid listening to themselves think? Media personalities tend not to be quietly reflective. The over-representation of "loud" personalities on TV no doubt contributes to the increasingly accepted notion that "quiet introspection" is a mental illness. Peaceful isolation from extroversion and media noise seems like a difficult commodity to find.

Fortunately, you don't need a cave to escape to – you can take a holiday from info-noise without going anywhere, simply by changing a few parameters of your mental processes. This technique has existed in various forms for centuries – used by "eccentrics" who wanted to revive their faculty of thinking, as opposed to having people's thoughts (ie reflection rather than verbal loops). Side effects included improved imagination and weirder dreams:

For a set period (eg 1 or 2 weeks), completely avoid TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, browsing in newsagents, topical chatter etc. This is done by refusing such stimuli any admittance to your mind.

Mass-media "information" appears (to us) as mostly non-useful, vaguely entertaining distraction. Of the non-trivial, non-amusement content (eg some of "The News"), most concerns things you're powerless to influence. (Conversely, the issues you might influence seem notably absent from "The News").

Why clutter your brain with things you can do nothing about? How can it be irresponsible or unsafe to ignore it, if it's of no use to you?

Get your daily virus here today! Two varieties available: "Worried Conformist" or "Take-it-easy Individualist"!

1 The Guardian (UK), 22/10/96
2 M&SFS Head of Marketing, 1990

This document is a print version of www.anxietyculture.com/mediafree.htm.