As the 2020 presidential race kicks into high-gear, I find myself telling friends about an important lesson I learned last time primary season rolled around. During the run-up to the 2016 election, as now, vitriol filled the headlines. Rather than well-informed, reading the internet often left me feeling emotionally exhausted, powerless, and alone. So many stories were urgent but not important, and certainly not actionable.
Frustrated, I decided to run an experiment. I read and engaged with dramatically less news, and spent that time reading books instead. I read ancient philosophy, fantastical adventures, historical biographies, scientific treatises, globetrotting thrillers, and mind-bending stories of magical realism. I followed my enthusiasm and read what I loved, challenging myself to think more deeply and broadly in the process.
After a few months, my life and outlook had changed completely. Reading was no longer an exercise in rubbernecking and literature armed me to face the challenges of the present with fresh eyes, seek out other points of view, and put the political turmoil into perspective. Taking ownership of my media diet turned the stories I read into sources of strength, fuel to fire my own personal and public life. My wife and I volunteered to host a Ugandan refugee in our home for nine months. I helped design a game that illustrated emerging vulnerabilities in American democracy. I co-created an internet public art project that raised money for ProPublica.
We are what we pay attention to. The stories we read don’t just inform, entertain, or inspire, they shape our identities, become a part of us. These stories have consequences. The Allies were inspired to defeat the Nazis by stories of resisting oppression, protecting freedom, and ending humanitarian disaster. The Nazis were themselves inspired by stories of racial superiority, national dominance, and the return to a mythical past. Humans are capable of transcendence and unspeakable horror when we convince ourselves of the righteousness of our cause.
So I expanded my experiment into a novel that quickly grew into a trilogy. Bandwidth explores what happens when someone hijacks our attention in order to transform us into the person they want us to be. Borderless examines the rise of tech platforms and the decline of nation-states. Breach extrapolates what might come next and how to build new institutions for the internet age. My hope is that the Analog Series inspires readers to reassess their own most deeply held beliefs with candor, kindness, and healthy skepticism.
As candidates and special interest groups ruthlessly vie for your attention across the vast datascapes of the internet like gladiators in a digital Colosseum, remember that seizing control of your media diet is the first step toward acting with intention to realize your version of a better future.
Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.com, Harvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.