How Do I Process Information in a Chaotic World
When I give a keynote, the public can usually ask questions after my talk.
Questions fall into two types:
- Public questions asked when the public can speak and as a microphone goes from hand to hand
- Questions asked privately when the talk has ended and most attendees have left the place. These questions are mostly asked during the cocktail which sometimes happens after the conference
Among the second type, the question I’ve been really asked the most is the following:
I have children. What would you advise for me to do for them in this changing world?
This question is pretty close to my heart. It is, indeed, akin to what led me to choose, 20 years ago, to leave my well-paid job and seek to understand the fantastic transition we, humans, are going through today.
- Teach them to learn, to unlearn, and to learn again. Of course, this is also true for us: we, the older children, must learn to learn, to unlearn, and to learn again
- Teach them how to process more and more information. Teach them to find it, assess its quality, and interpret it. Which also holds true for the “older children”
(I also have a third piece of advice but usually refrain from saying it aloud: get your children out of conventional schools!)
Today, I would like to share how I answer these concerns within my own life. How to process efficiently and relevantly information when it is more and more abundant? How to find it, qualify it, interpret it?
The question is all the more relevant when you have to navigate through a crisis or a chaotic period, whether as an individual or as a collective.
Here is what I am about to share with you:
- Basic principles which I use during a crisis to process information adequately and make decisions
- How I process information, broadly speaking
- A few points on information and the media
- The media and information sources I mostly rely on
Let’s start with my basic principles to use during a crisis.
I seek information. The information does not come to me.
When the Bataclan was stricken by a terrorist attack on November 13, 2015, I was at my resilient home in Ardèche—quite afar. This night, several supposedly reliable information sources (the piece of news was broadcasted on the mainstream radio station Europe 1 and subsequently told by most other mainstream media) spoke of “Kalashnikov gunfire” on Les Halles neighborhood, in Paris, where I own a small flat and live on a regular basis. Later on, the piece of news was proved false. No gunfire happened this night around Les Halles. At the time, I was wondering what to do if I was in Paris: to lock my door, or flee without delay?
A few weeks after, I was having lunch with Patrick Lagadec, one of the leading experts in crisis management.
What would he advise in such a situation?
He answered this:
- Prepare a list of questions to which you would like to have answers before making any decision. The list should be short with less than 10 questions. Here, for example: would you stay at home with your door locked, or flee quickly?
- Check a limited number of media outlets. Check them for a very short time, e.g. between 10 and 30 minutes depending on circumstances, and try to get maximum answers to your questions
- These answers will be limited and insufficient. Still: your decision will have to be taken based on these. So, take the best decision you can…
- Once the decision has been taken, you must act
This example was obviously extreme and dramatic. Even then, in an increasingly chaotic world, it seems both useful and inspiring.
During the current COVID-19 crisis, I used Patrick Lagadec’s method several times, for example to answer the following questions:
- Should I go back to France and join my relatives as I was then travelling abroad, and if so, when?
- Should I wear a facemask on my return trip?
- How about taking preventive treatment?
- Should I tell my parents to remain at home (before the official quarantine policy was implemented)?
- Should I go to the supermarket during the quarantine period?
Hence, as I wrote in this article penned at the very beginning of the COVID-19, when a crisis kicks in and urgent decisions must be taken, the method remains valid: I draft a list of questions to which I would like to have answers, check a limited number of media outlets—no social media like Facebook or Twitter!—to get answers, and make the best decision according to the few pieces of information I managed to obtain.
I would check these media outlets on a regular basis, as everything changes so quickly, but not too much as not to get into a permanently excited state where clarity and judgment ability are lost.
This brings me to the next topic: how I process information, broadly speaking.
Every day, I will spend 20 minutes only checking the media. I do it once a day, during the afternoon, and never when getting out of bed, my critical ability remaining a bit sleepy at that time.
Limiting media exposure is particularly important during a crisis. Critical or stressful situations make it tempting to get a lot of information. It is better, though, to remain on top of the events and to stand back on things. A continuous flux of information, usually featuring the same pieces of news repeated over and over, does not let you such hindsight.
To be honest, I feel a mixture of fascination and repulsion upon seeing people listening to radio channels or watching news TV channels continuously. Such flux does not respect my rule “I seek information. Information does not come to me” and bears a disturbing similarity with brainwashing.
I also avoid social networks as they tend to contradict this rule as well. The social network’s algorithm chooses what information will show up on my feed. And I will not let the Facebook or Twitter algorithm decide what I have to know or not.
By the way, I only use Facebook or Twitter following to aims: first, to reach my community—thank you if you are reading me on Facebook!—and to get information on carefully curated groups. You can do this by following my page if you haven’t done so already.
Going to the source
I will not make my mind forever after having read a couple of Facebook posts, or even one only Facebook posts as so many seem to do.
When you are going to the source, if an article mentions a study, you can find and read the study itself.
Of course, you do not need to do this every time you are reading an article! This may be a good idea when you feel like what you are reading is making you opinionated on a particular topic.
Consider the debate, if not the overt religious war, about how to treat the COVID-19. The discussion has polarized in France between those in favor of Prof. Didier Raoult and his opponents. In this case, to make my own judgment, I have read the 62-pages report from the French Senate’s Commission, watched a couple 1-hour long interviews of Prof. Raoult (here and there, in French) and did the same with the other side.
What was my subsequent conclusion? This: I cannot make my mind up! If all these specialists, including some who seem quite sincere and who all look like they know their specialty well, cannot agree, perhaps the best solution for me—and God knows I am not an expert on this specific issue—consists in patience, humility, and waiting for newer information.
When someone asks me for my take on hydroxychloroquine, I answer that I don’t know!
Checking the source
Going to the source entails checking and assessing its quality and credibility. What did the author write before?
As of today, it is usually very easy to find the past writings of an author, published before this article or study I’m reading right now.
Researching allows me to find other articles from the author, and some articles may tackle topics I know better or are old enough to be assessed for accuracy.
If I’m reading someone’s article about the future of cars, written 3 years ago, and the article touts diesel motors as the future of cars, I will have serious doubts about the author’s futurist abilities. And even more, if he did not change his view in 3 years.
Any email, even sent by a close friend, saying “Check this video before it gets deleted”, “A friend of mine, who is a doctor, told me that…” or “What the media won’t tell you…” goes to the trash automatically.
Watch or Read?
I have often seen around me, and most noticeably among our youngest peers, the growing temptation to watch videos instead of reading books or even articles longer than 280 characters.
More often than not, YouTube is not enough to get deep knowledge about a particular field. Many YouTube channels upload high-quality content and feature serious YouTubers: these channels usually give good introductions about the fields they specialize in, however, lots of other channels content themselves with a very superficial overview and try to maximize both views and advertisements.
Also, when you start watching a couple of YouTube videos, the algorithm quickly takes over and chooses the next video so that you don’t have to. This violates my rule “I seek information. The information does not come to me.”
To really learn instead of overviewing, to develop my critical abilities and allow some time for reflection, the book is among our greatest tools.
I am often asked how I can read around a hundred books per year. The answer is simple:
- I spend at least 15 minutes reading each morning; this is part of my daily morning routine and comes before the rest of the day
- I do not watch TV, do not listen to radio channels and do not spend time on social media
You do not need to read as much as a futurist monk. You can, however, try to read a dozen books per year, if you don’t do this already, and ponder what you got from this.
Nowadays, I almost only read books in electronic format. This has not always been the case. For years, I truly favored paper books and refused to abandon the venerable by-product of trees. However, upon trying, two features convinced me immediately:
- Much lighter bags when I travel
- The ability to write notes easily. I constantly copy newer notes to Evernote
At least once a year, I read back these notes taken through the year. Re-reading my notes is among my favorite practices: it feels like a knowledge concentrate, and my brain loves it!
The tyranny of communication
Now, a few thoughts…
Years ago, Ignacio Ramonet’s Tyranny of Communication made a lasting impression on me. One of the ideas I remember is that high-quality information has a cost:
- Either a cost in time: quality information is not easy to obtain, and one has to dig in order to find it
- Or a cost in resources: other people dig so that you do not have to, but such individuals will ask for a repayment through subscription or the buying of a book
In other words, high-quality, free, and easy to find information does not exist. (Oops!)
Another key point is that the media outlets follow each other. If one of them says something, others will all say almost the same thing to not look outdated.
The media who live off ads will make you read what you want to read so that you keep subscribing or at least clicking. Thus, they will not try to make your view evolve: the New York Times makes up New York Times articles, the New York Post makes up New York Post articles, Fox News makes up Fox News articles and so on.
On many news channels, reporters-hosts know their audience minute per minute. They know very precisely whether you liked what they said or if you switched to another channel. Thus, they won’t risk going up against your ideas to make you change your views…
My Own Sources
Here come my main information sources, outside of the books which are by far my first source.
Newspapers and magazines
I am a paying subscriber of the following news websites, magazines/webzines or confidential letters:
- The Guardian (with a support subscription of 50 EUR per year)
- The Intercept (with a donation of 50 USD per year), a website created by some of my real-life journalist heroes including Glen Greenwald
- The Correspondent: a no-news (!), no-ad journal. I pay 50 EUR per year. This is one of my favorite and most exciting news projects created a few years ago
- Wired, I have been subscribing since they came into existence
- GEAB Confidential Letter (160 EUR per year). A view I like as it is often different from mine and makes me thoughtful
Here are the websites I read in less than 10 minutes and where I did not subscribe:
- Le Monde (in French)
- Les Echos (in French)
- The New York Times, for a more US-centric vision
- Fox News, not really my cup of tea but I want to know what is being said outside of my bubble
- The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based journal for a more Asia-centric vision
- Aljazeera, for a more Middle-East-centric view
Other media outlets could be mentioned, but limiting my exposure time to 10 minutes made me selective.
I only subscribed to a very few newsletters. Sooner or later, most of the newsletters try to sell you something.
Here are my favorites:
There must be some newsletters and outlets I do not know about. Including, perhaps, some excellent ones!
And you, what would you advise to make the better out of all this information?
What information sources would you advise checking?