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Information Hygiene

My parents watch the 10 o’clock news every night. While I was staying with them recently I took that as my cue to wander upstairs and do my evening stretching and breathing routines, and read before bed. I just don’t need to see interviews with people complaining about lockdown restrictions, or the latest speculation about a vaccine, or what happened on a sports field somewhere. This got me thinking about what information I do allow in, and why. It seems that I categorise any piece of information as belonging in one or more of these five categories, listed here in order of importance:

1. Connection. Finding out a friend has had a baby, or chatting with another friend about books we’ve read, or catching up with my family. This is the most important category because it is the one that most directly leads to good mental health outcomes. Without connections, we go mad. Or at least, I do. Sure, catching up in person is better- tribe are the people you eat with, generally speaking. But many of my friends live on other continents, and one of the silver linings of lockdown has been that the number of distant friends I have regular online catch-ups with has gone from one to four. This doesn’t include friends who are also sword colleagues, so the real number is actually higher. Social media scrolling absolutely does not constitute connection. It has to be real-time interaction with a single human being or a small group. This category is usually very positive, but does also include being in the loop when a friend or family member is ill, has died, or some other bad thing has happened to them. That would make it also fit into the next category, action, because it would normally trigger some kind of response: sending a card, going to a funeral, sending a message of support, or somesuch.

2. Action. Am I going to act on this data? This is the broadest category, and can include everything from a weather forecast (what do I wear? Do we go to the beach?), to my swordsmanship research (how should I parry that?), to that youtube video I watched the other day when I had to change a headlight bulb on my car and didn’t know how. If knowing this thing means I may change what I’m doing, it counts. I check the NHS corona virus data every now and then, to establish the current risk level for myself. I act on that information. So this category is stricter and narrower than the next, positive curiosity, and is the one most likely to include sad, difficult, or frightening information. These first two categories are the only ones in which negative, unpleasant, information is ok. I want to know if something has gone badly for someone I personally care about, or regarding an issue I’m actually going to act on in some meaningful way. But I do not need to expose myself to reams of bad news just to feel like I’m staying “informed”. “Informed” about what? There is only so much data you can take in at any one time- might as well make sure it’s important, useful, or interesting.

3. Positive curiosity. Am I interested, and do I care? I first wrote just ‘curiosity’, but then realised that doom-scrolling could be counted in there, and it absolutely isn’t. It only includes the things you want to know. Curiosity is related to the next category, ‘Entertainment’, because it’s fun to find stuff out for its own sake. For instance, did you know that book sizing is based on calves and goats? Originally a single piece of vellum (thin rawhide from said calf or goat), folded in half once and trimmed, would be a folio (i.e. a folded piece). That’s a really big book. Fold a folio in half, and you get a quarto (a quarter), which is about A4 or US letter size. So one piece of vellum (or more commonly paper these days) has eight individual page sides written or printed on it. Fold a quarto in half and you get an octavo (eighth). That’s about the size of a modern paperback. Of course there was (and still is) no real standardisation, and most modern books aren’t built of stitched-together quires (groups of folded paper or vellum) any more, and with modern paper sizes you can literally have any size you want. But if you’ve ever wondered why a big book is about 11 inches tall, and a normal book about 11 inches wide when open, that’s why. I’m guessing a lot of my readers knew that already, because we’re not just sword nerds, a lot of us are book nerds too. Bookbinding is a rabbit hole I can dive happily down for hours at a time.
My current blood-sugar experiments counts as both Action and Curiosity- I am changing some things about what I eat (action) but I’m also simply curious to find out what is really happening when ice-cream hits blood stream.

4. Entertainment. The category also includes tv shows, movies, etc. It’s the least important category by a mile, though it can overlap with curiosity. Uri Tuchman’s YouTube channel is my current go-to curious entertainment. He’s very funny, and absurdly skilled, yet oddly klutzy at times. Most importantly, he seems like a very nice man to spend time with.

Have a look at this, for one glorious example:

And thanks to watching his videos I’ve started adding much more metal work to my craft repertoire. Including making this little sword, hot-forged from a nail, and furnished with brass and walnut (photo is of an early stage). So some entertainment also leads to action.

The question is always: does knowing this thing make me more connected to people I care about? Or am I going to act on it? Or am I actually curious? Or is it entertaining? If it is no to all of those, I just don’t want it to impinge on my consciousness. It fits in the final category:
5. Everything else. Everything in this category can be safely ignored. There is absolutely no need to watch the news to find out that there’s something major happening: you always find out eventually, and it is practically never time-critical: if it were, the news is probably too late. Just ask any investor- if you’re making your investment decisions based on the news, you’re already way too late. If you’re contemplating a course of action, by all means do some research- data that was irrelevant before is now in the ‘action’ category.
There is no need to fear missing out on something good. You almost always find out anyway, whether you want to or not, because we live in an age where we are simply bombarded by information all the time. Filtering out the stuff that is just unnecessary stress does mean that you may occasionally miss a particularly funny cat video- but should you ever feel the need for a funny cat video, you can just go look for them. I apply this information filter everywhere- especially in my email inbox. If I’m getting emails I’m not interested in, or am not planning to act on, or do not lead to connection, or are not entertaining, then I unsubscribe (feel free to do the same if you’re on my list and my emails have fallen out of the four useful categories), or just delete. Here’s a Venn diagram that may be helpful:

All of this is yet another way of keeping a healthy focus on my area of control, and a weather eye on my area of interest.

If you’ve found this useful, please share it, and feel free to leave a comment. If not, please let me know why in the comments here: I don't usually see anything on social media platforms- having read this post, you probably know why!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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