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Information Pollution is Why Our Climate Continues to Burn

The most important subject #COP26 missed is #Facebook: 4 lenses that will transform how you see Climate action, social media, and your personal health.

Created November 10, 2021 /
Last edited -

Mario Vasilescu

CEO/Co-Founder of Readocracy

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COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference) and Facebook’s societal chaos are dominating headlines, so I wanted to spotlight a conversation I had earlier this year that sits at the intersection of the two. The big idea? We won’t solve climate pollution — or any of the Wicked Problems society is facing — until we solve information pollution first.

Here are 4 specific lenses that might change how you see climate change and Facebook/social media’s role.

1:

Information pollution is a new phenomenon, and it affects how we defend ourselves as a species

There is something called information proximity: how close to a source of information are you?

Our primitive ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, dealt exclusively with immediate information and acted accordingly: there’s a predator, throw a spear! If it wasn’t real-time, then it was extremely relevant and actionable information passed down from elders. There was minimal distance between the source of information and those using it.

Their “information commons” — the information they all shared and who used it — was only as large as their family grouping or tribe. An individual could know almost all there was to know.

Our society has evolved, and the distance between information and the user has exploded. With the internet, that distance, that space, has become infinite. That is our new information commons. The social internet is our new global tribe, an infinite source of information that we all share and shape together. And it’s how we decide what to care about and ultimately what our threats are — the new version of the predator we have to throw a spear at. Whether it's climate change or something else.

A human could only ever hope of giving their attention to a miniscule fraction of this new information commons. So what information gets our attention? And, what happens if that space is flooded with noise and distraction and, in many cases, the polar opposite of what we're supposed to do to survive our threats - literally and vehemently informing us to do the opposite? That the predator isn’t even real?

That noise, that deliberate misdirection, is information pollution. The pristine, precious space of our information commons becomes a toxic bog. We become paralysed prey, both individually, and as a society. In many ways the effects are akin to those of a neurotoxin.

“Energy is a finite resource. And whether it’s the planet’s energy or our own human energy, our collective future depends on how we use it. At the moment, our decision-making in both categories is dangerously deficient: we’re burning up the planet and also burning far too much of our personal energy on the latest outrage of the day.” - Arianna Huffington

Why is this happening?

2:

The economics of Information pollution

It is now no secret that the business model of the modern internet is toxic. But it’s helpful to understand just how absurd it is through the lens of climate polluters.

Online, the more attention you get, the more money you can make through the advertising money generated. More attention means more opportunities to show more ads. There are no rules on how you can achieve this. It is a Wild West that has therefore become a race to the bottom: the content that can provoke the most reactions performs best — clicks and comments and shares that bring in ever more eyeballs — regardless of accuracy or helpfulness. These are the algorithms that Facebook is being exposed for, over and over.

Can you imagine if corporations and leaders were actually paid more to pollute? This is what is actually now happening online.

But it goes deeper than that. Facebook, Youtube, and their social media brethren, pay out money to those helping pull in all that juicy advertising revenue. If you’re a content publisher, whether an individual or an entire website, the name of the game is to “flood the zone.” As one TikTok user recently told me, if you want to have a chance of gaining traction, you need to publish content at least 4 times a day. The odds you’ll be seen logically increase. In this case, they went from a new account to over 26K followers in half a year.

In the context of the information commons being the shared space we rely on to stay informed, and to make decisions, what happens to the information we actually need? It disappears under this avalanche of compulsively produced, half-baked, totally unnecessary content designed to grab our precious attention. 24 hours, reliably consumed by a million nothings. “Where did my day go?”

Now think of the corporations polluting our world. Can you imagine if they were actually paid more to pollute? This is what is actually now happening online.

3:

Amusing Ourselves to Death

My favourite, perpetually recommended book is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, and its foreword is the most concisely powerful and unsettling I’ve yet to read to this day:

“...we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision [1984], there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. [...]

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

4:

When what we love ruins us: Infobesity vs. Information Wellness

“We obsess over our diets: we count calories, we try to maintain balance. If we see a burger, or see a salad, clear implications immediately spring to mind. How it will make us look, how it will make us feel and function.”

Imagine nutrition labels not only didn’t exist, but nutrition science itself wasn’t widely known — and there was no regulation around how much food fast-food chains could encourage you to eat. This is where we are in our relationship with media. We are infobese.

Why don’t we give the same attention to how we feed our minds? Americans spent 13 hours with media every day last year. Where are the nutrition labels, the calorie counting, the fitness tracking — for our minds?

If Information Pollution acts like a neurotoxin, we need to be equipped to protect ourselves. Individually, this simply means being more aware of our minds.

Collectively, we need to implement standards that are the polar opposite of today’s social media platforms:

“Some people are quick to start shouting “censorship” at such ideas, but this isn’t about stopping anybody from doing anything. It’s about giving others desperately needed context before you hijack their attention. It’s rewarding how we inform ourselves, instead of how we distract others.”

Information Wellness needs to be something that becomes mainstream for a healthier society that is able to think straight. Only then will we have a fighting chance of tackling the wicked problems we’re facing.

So what?

If you want to take action or dig deeper, I share a few recommendations in the podcast episode where this conversation took place. You can also join our efforts to solve information pollution / practice Information Wellness directly with Readocracy. Thanks again to Craig Applegath and the Twenty-First Century Imperative podcast for giving this topic a space. Every month Craig interviews change-makers who have ideas about how our species can continue to have a future on this planet. It’s the Twenty-First Century Imperative.

You can find this episode on Spotify, Google, Apple or through the show’s website.

If you would like to connect with me, you can find me on Linkedin here, and Twitter here. You can see how I’m informing myself here.

Thanks for giving me your precious attention today. I hope this information was worth it.

Subscribe to follow along as we rethink the attention economy and our relationship with information

Mario Vasilescu

CEO/Co-Founder of Readocracy

I am deeply passionate about making attention online count for knowledge instead of only advertising. So that our time online can be optimized and rewarded for consumption that is mindful instead of mindless. To unlock the true economic value of our attention online, for a healthier internet and a smarter society.

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