Inundation is the new norm. That we’re overwhelmed because of a never-ending flow of information from the internet is commonly accepted wisdom; a defining characteristic of modern life is navigating excess. So pervasive is the feeling that we are drowning in a sea of too much that, for a certain privileged class of people, self-care is often a question of subtraction or reduction. This is arguably why Marie Kondo’s minimalist philosophy has so caught the imagination of the moneyed and fortunate; though her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was published in 2011, its “declutter your life” thinking continues to generate a glut of news stories. (It is important to note that these stories tend to ignore the multitudes who continue to have not enough.)
This isn’t terribly surprising. The internet has massively expanded what we have access to, and that insistent flow of information and communication has been fully integrated into day-to-day life: You might have always had access to a library or a movie theater, but they weren’t always in your pocket. There is a psychological difference at work, too, science suggests. A researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics recently posited that continual digital interruption—the constant barrage of IMs, emails, text messages, etc—has in fact changed the way we process information. “Consequently, sustained attention is increasingly being replaced by continuous partial attention,” his paper reads, “the act of paying simultaneous attention to multiple sources of information but only at a superficial level.” Now, it suggests, as an answer to the changing conditions of modern life, how we concentrate is changing too.
The responses to distraction in the face of excess have generally taken two forms: Unending calls to cut back and disconnect; or, conversely, to develop a set of coping strategies. New York Times tech writer Farhad Manjoo recently suggested on Twitter, for example, that we should treat email like a stream that one dips into rather than a list of things that must be read. (The ability to quickly prioritize information, of course, is the common denominator across coping strategies.)
But perhaps there is a third way to respond to the feeling of drowning in information. Rather than either disconnecting or simply adapting to the flood as a new norm, another choice is what one might call a kind of judicious refusal—in a word, applying the KonMari philosophy to your digital life. To “consciously uncouple” and move to the digital equivalent of Walden pond. There is also room for a surprising sort of politics, to boot: Refusing overrepresented ideas and voices can be a way to build a more balanced view of the world. You can even make it a political statement. Some, including Huffington Post editor Chloe Angyal and XOjane writer K.T. Bradford, refused to read books by white men for a year. People have only watched films by women on Netflix; a man has proclaimed that he’s only reading books by women. In each, the point is to react to saturation and overrepresentation—refusing those voices and views that tend to dominate our media in favor of those that often go overlooked. As one writer wrote of her experiment: “there is a curious and tiny power in realizing you can have some control over the media you consume.”
We are groomed to believe that exposing ourselves to a wide variety of views is the way to enlightenment. Though understandable, that reaction is couched in the terms of the 20th century—of a time when it was more difficult to access a variety of views or ideas, and when media was much more tightly controlled. Refusing to consume a certain type of information isn’t about narrowing one’s viewpoint; it’s about balancing out an inherently unbalanced collection of ideas and perspectives. It is part of a politics. As a philosophy, refusal is also about prioritization, which it has in common with Manjoo’s method. And, as with Kondo’s minimalism, when you prioritize, you choose to engage with those things and people that you consider the most fulfilling. (If this sounds a bit like basic self help, that’s because it is.)
Part of the epochal change the internet brought is an inversion of the scarcity-abundance binary. Which is to say: Instead of adding things (hobbies, classes, and the like) to improve your life, now you subtract them. Potentially good things are everywhere and unending, and that is overwhelming: There’s an incomprehensible number of maybe life-changing things you can consume on demand. How many nature documentaries are there on Netflix? How many albums were released on Spotify today? How many inspirational tweets are tweeted in a week? Rather than striving to find the few good things, you have to refuse the broad array of brilliance for a smaller selection, and hope it equally inspiring. (It is.)
Whether or not we are in fact living in an era of information overload, anyway, is still a matter of debate. Some Stanford academics argue that at each moment of technological change, it takes time for people to acclimate to the transition from one historical era to another; cries of information overload also accompanied not just TV, but radio, and also the printing press. Perhaps we are in the middle of another historical cycle—and from this vantage point, the beginning of 2016, it certainly looks like we are. If this is true, it will take time for us to learn how to live productively and effectively in the face of another new torrent of information. In the meantime: We can look after ourselves simply by saying no. Subtraction is the most purely modern form of self-care.