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Signal, Noise, and the Infodemic

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Screenshot Baby Shark

The video “Baby Shark” is the first on YouTube to cross the ten billion views milestone.

Ten. Billion. Views. 

To put that in perspective (since my mind can’t encompass billions with a B) estimates are that there have been five billion bibles printed through history.*

In other words, ten billion is a lot of views. And counting. 

But then, there are 300 hours of videos posted every minute on YouTube. 

Yes, that’s twelve and a half days of 24-hour viewing uploaded every minute. No, you won’t be watching it all. That’s just it — the information available far surpasses the ability of any human being to process. 

Before the pandemic we were experiencing an accelerating rise in the amount of information available. Then, pandemic, and even more information and misinformation. This, combined with social isolation, has led to what the World Health Organization calls an “Infodemic,” which the WHO defines as, 

too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviors that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response. . .*

Yep, WHO, that sounds like an accurate diagnosis. To combat the disease, the WHO even offers an online course “to fight the infodemic.”

Our attention and focus have been hijacked. But, curiously enough, it appears to have long been so. The Roman philosopher Epictetus (c. 50–135 CE) sends this advice down through the years:

Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.~Epictetus, The Art of Living

I hear you saying it, because I’m saying it all the time: “But, wait. I care about the planet and its people. I can’t stop watching!”

Epictetus is laying out a plan for surviving the infodemic:

  1. Realize where you are — which is: here, now.
  2. Look around you. Study the physical space you inhabit.
  3. Respond to those thing that you must respond to.
  4. Stop dodging what’s required but don’t “borrow trouble” as the old saying goes. 
  5. Focus on being alive, here, now.
  6. Stop watching and start doing what you can.

What truck drivers are doing in Canada may not be something you can physically react to or affect in any matter. In which case, Epictetus has a suggestion: “Keep this in mind: events don’t care about you, so you cannot care about events.” (Handbook, 32)

It’s hard, I know. We’ve all done a lot of doom-scrolling in the past months. I suspect that Epictetus would ask: And how much good has your doom-scrolling done for humanity and the planet?

Hmmm. Perhaps the people who have contributed to those ten billion views of “Baby Shark” have it right after all — One good answer to all the information and misinformation out there is, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo.”

Din of Conversation

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