Julian Fell

On Quietness

We have a societal problem with information overload. It’s a problem that is exacerbated by platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They are just so loud. Infinite feeds and incessant red dots remind you of how much has happened since you last refreshed the page. Whether it’s do not disturb mode, or logging out of Slack at the end of the day, we all have filters to help us focus on the right things, but they are often blunt instruments. The most important tools in our era of information post-scarcity will recapture a sense of quietness, and balance our needs for connection and reflection.

The metric-driven philosophy of design that is popular with tech companies is leading us in the opposite direction. By measuring and optimising the amount of time spent and attention squandered, algorithms are tuned to pump the maximum amount of information down the pipe.

One movement trying to combat this is that of mindful consumption. It is a good place to start, but one that is doomed to fail without being instilled into the ways in which we interact with the internet. On its own, it relys on people’s will-power triumphing over algorithms that are tuned to steal their attention. And for me at least, this is a futile battle. If I’m tired, hungry or drunk, the bad habits creep back in.

Instead, we could nurture quieter places on the internet that respect our autonomy and limited attention. I’m not alone in this thinking judinging by the success of the newsletter model of Substack; people are conscious of removing the intermediaries between them and the things they want to read.

Email is a universally accessible tool for taking control of your media diet. Newsletter subscriptions and inbox filters are complementary levers for curating the quantity and mix of content you see. Sharing is built-in, and there is no fundamental need for centralisation (even though in practice most people use a few centralised email services). Setting up your inbox to automatically file newsletters into a folder and mute notifications for them is an immediate quality-of-life shift that is worth taking five minutes to set up.

A societal shift in this direction would be a move away from the chaotic environments that reward and amplify polarising views, and lose the longer, more thoughtful pieces in the noise. A return to selectively choosing your influences and organic discovery could soothe some of democracy-eroding problems we are facing.