info diet

TL;DR: “Every new piece of news is seriously important” => fundamentally unserious about the nature of importance / priorities => suboptimal information diet => wasted cognition => frustrate => sads

Several years ago I read a book that punched me in the brain in quite a few places– it was ‘More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom Of Economics’, by Steven Landsburg.

I didn’t agree with every single thing he said, but he got me thinking and questioning a lot of things that I had taken for granted. A sentence that has stuck with me for a decade was “Any policy who won’t do this kind of arithmetic is fundamentally unserious about policy.” He was talking about the cost-benefit analysis of using capital punishment as a deterrence, and pointing out that if we were sincere about it actually being a deterrence, we’d execute computer hackers. (It’s an enlightening thought experiment.)

Here’s an excerpt of the sort of uncomfortable things he was willing to talk about:

“When we say that a human life is worth $10 million, we mean nothing more or less than this: A typical person, faced with a 1–in-10-million chance of death, seems to be willing to pay about a dollar to eliminate that risk. We know this not from theory but from observation—by looking, for example, at the size of the pay cuts people are willing to take to move into safer jobs. On this basis, Harvard professor Kip Viscusi estimates the value of a life at $4.5 million overall, $7 million for a blue-collar male and $8.5 million for a blue collar female. (Viscusi acknowledges that it’s puzzling for a blue-collar life to be worth more than a white-collar life, but that’s what the data show.)”

His point, as I interpret it, was this– if we’re serious about making the world a better place for everyone, we have to be serious about doing the cost-benefit analysis of things that make us uncomfortable. That includes things like deciding whether to use limited $$ to pay for food or for ventilators. You can’t say “Oh, we can’t put a price on a human life”. Yes you can. You can buy a child for a couple of hundred dollars. It’s just uncomfortable to think about, uncomfortable to talk about. Reality is an uncomfortable thing.

Why am I bringing this up now? I guess I’m just frustrated with my social media feed. It feels like people are fundamentally unserious about their information diets. Am I serious about mine? I’d like to think that I try to be. It’s not a contest, of course. Everybody is free to do as they please, to share what they like, and we don’t need to be uptight and rigorous all the time. There’s room for humor and amusement and all that good stuff.
In fact, I love fun, unserious stuff. What frustrates me is when people posture and pretend to be serious about things that they’re not actually serious about. Because then you don’t actually know how seriously to take people. You can’t walk around pretending that everything is your top priority, that’s not how prioritization works. The people themselves aren’t necessarily to blame (and blame is a tricky, tedious thing)– they can have good intentions. But it gets wearying.

I don’t expect to change the world or change how people post. And I’m not saying we should all necessarily start being super strict about everything we post (… that’s a pretty good idea, though, and we’d all be better off for it). Whenever I put this sort of thing out there I’m mainly curious to see who else feels similarly. Maybe we could have better conversations.

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