Drinking the Internet

Remember filling water balloons from the faucet when you were a kid? The trick is to fill them as full as you can, but not too full, or they’ll explode. If you open the faucet too far, the whole thing will pop off and spray all over the kitchen.

The internet is the faucet that is pumping into the water balloon of your brain.

What we consume has a profound and lasting effect on us, and the rate at which we consume it does too.

There is really no hard evidence that violent video games cause the people that play them to emulate the kerb-stomping antics of the glowering protagonist. But in my experience they do have an effect on your perception of the world around you, no matter how grounded you are. The same thing goes for music lyrics, graphic sex scenes in movies, you name it.

You are what you eat? To a certain extent, yeah.

A big chunk of the media I consume comes to me from the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, websites, RSS feeds, all drain into my head. I’ve come to the conclusion that keeping a very tight hold on the faucet handle is really important to my mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Last year I wrote about muting people on Twitter:

Just because you respect someone for one slice of what they do or are doesn’t mean you should be interested in their opinion on everything under the sun. I couldn’t care less about the political opinions of a tech blogger, for example, unless they’re particularly relevant or informed.

I’ve become even more convinced of this in the interim. Thanks to the muting capability of Tweetbot, I’m able to screen out a lot of noise that I don’t really benefit from hearing. Not only that, I’m able to completely avoid a lot of conversations about things that will make me feel uncomfortable, or leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Apart from Twitter, I’ve also added a few sites to my hosts file, rendering them unreachable from my computer. For example, I used to spend a lot of time aimlessly reading Reddit, “the front page of the internet”. Which was mostly harmless, except that it became habit to go there all the time, and so I ended up consuming a lot of nonsense on a regular basis. Not worth it. Now that I’ve blocked it, that time gets used for other things, often more worthwhile.

It’s not just a question of filtering what content reaches me, though. In a lot of cases I stumble across parts of stories or Twitter conversations and I’m compelled to follow them up. I’m fairly adept at ferreting out what happened. But is this always edifying or worthwhile? Am I better off for it? Infrequently. Unpeeling these metaphorical onions might awaken a thrilling detective instinct, but it’s not always advisable.

I suppose the thing that I think about most when I consider this area is my responsibility. That is, to what extent should I be paying attention to things like world events, politics, #yesallwomen? Hell, I used to feel compelled to keep up with tech news. Thank God I’m over that. But do I have a duty to my fellow citizens, as a participator in society, to be informed? Where is the line drawn, or is it acceptable to completely screen out everything?

Is it right to live a life governed by perpetual fear because I trudge my way through every atrocity the internet can deliver to me, like I’m eating my vegetables? Or worse, do I flirt with building up an immunity to the tragic, the obscene, the immoral? More and more I’m starting to wonder if erring on the side of non-consumption might be the best choice. For my sanity, if for no other reason.

I don’t want to put my mouth over the faucet. But maybe I don’t even really need to be drinking tap water at all.