In my high school, quiz bowl was the nerd equivalent of Friday Night Lights.
Every Friday, our American Problems class took a break from our normal lesson plans to compete in a game of current events trivia.
Our teams were quizzed on the latest happenings found in three magazines: Time, U.S. News and Newsweek. There were also some historical and geographic trivia mixed in, but the bulk of the questions were ripped straight from news magazine headlines.
The game rewarded not deep understanding of issues, of course, but rather a wide knowledge of topics that were being covered in news magazines that week. Quiz bowl required a mix of memorization and being faster on the buzzer than the other team. (You could buzz in before the question was finished, but if you got it wrong the other team could steal the points).
I was pretty damn good. I was one of the tournament team captains, and I still remember the stress of trying to study every headline like it was the ACTs, and the payoff and high I would get from knocking off classmates on our way to the semifinals. There was only one thing standing in our way to ultimate victory: Brian Bock, the fiercest quiz bowl player in the school.
This isn’t some David and Goliath story. My team lost to Brian Bock’s team, and we got beat pretty handily. My dream of getting my name on the quiz bowl plaque came crashing down pretty suddenly in a cascade of questions about Elian Gonzalez, Alan Greenspan, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Pat Buchanan, or whatever was the topic de jure in spring 2000.
I was heartbroken.
Then a recent high school grad (shout out to Andy Leiser) came back for a visit to his old stomping grounds and stopped by my class. He was there to tell us seniors what to expect in just a few months when we entered college.
One thing he said stood out to me. You know all that studying we did for quiz bowl? He said it’s completely useless in college. He said he had hadn’t read or seen the news in months, and had generally no idea what was going on in the world.
And you know what? It was ok! He was living the college dream in a college bubble, oblivious to what was happening in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News, which had been my constant companion and bible for months. And he seemed a lot happier for it.
That was the one thing that made me feel better after my quiz bowl defeat. Maybe these headlines didn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t have to know that the first online animated film Herschel Hopper, New York Rabbit debuted on Rumpus.com. Maybe I could live in my own world without the obsession over current events.
That was 17 years ago.
Now I feel like every day is quiz bowl day. It’s non-stop current events, breaking news, and trying to keep up with what’s trending. Time, Newsweek and U.S. news has been replaced by Twitter, Facebook and Google.
We can’t get away from it. If I go on Twitter, it’s 24/7 breaking news, Trump and scandals. If I go to Facebook, there’s prominent trending news stories. Even Google, which used to be the simplest page on the Internet, has filled its app with news stories. I just bought a Google Mini, and when I ask it to “tell me about my day,” it reads the latest headlines (you can turn that off, but it’s on by default).
In 2017, #BREAKING was a word that was kinda important. Every second there is breaking news. And it might actually be big news or heartbreaking news. Or it might signify lol nothing matters.
Breaking news stories can be important. The #MeToo movement, for example, has been decades (or centuries) in the making and is long overdue, and became the Time person of the year. Knowing what is happening in this minute of history feels necessary for long-lasting change. But do I have to know about every congressman who I’ve never heard of before that resigns in disgrace when I pull up my Twitter app? Maybe. I don’t know.
What I do know is that our brain can only process so much information at one time. If we fill it up with breaking news and current events, there is less to process in other areas. There’s less time to think about history and context, not to mention anything else that’s worthy of deeper attention. It’s an opportunity cost equation.
I’ve been trying to catch up on some older podcasts I have stored on my phone, going back to March, after my phone started running out of storage. It seems like March wasn’t that long ago. But in Internet time, that’s ancient.
I was struck to hear references to Sean Spicer and Trump’s Muslim travel ban, because that already feels like another lifetime ago. That’s millions of tweets ago! We’ve moved on. There’s new breaking news to take its place.
In investing, there’s something called the recency bias. That means investors give too much weight to what recently happened, and get spooked by downturns and overconfident when their investments are doing well.
This also feels like a lifetime ago, but back in 2009 Nate Silver wrote how the recency bias could have been responsible for the economic crisis of 2008. He wrote in Esquire that “the gambler who doubles her bet at the blackjack table because she’s won her past couple of hands” hasn’t improved the odds, even if the perception of odds have improved due to a recent winning streak.
“Most economists are so caught up in the theory du jour that they fail to study economic history,” Maggie Mahar, author of Bull! A History of the Boom and Bust, 1982–2004, wrote to Silver. “The most successful investors I have ever known were steeped in market history. History didn’t mean ‘what’s happened in the past 15 years since I have been on Wall Street’ — it meant what has happened since World War II.”
Recency bias also applies to the news. It’s not that what’s happening now isn’t important. But in a world of breaking news, we might put too much weight on what happened 5 minutes ago, and it crowds out something even more important that happened 10 minutes ago, or 9 months ago, or 17 years ago.
So is what’s happening in the news today worthy of our constant attention?
Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.
Ask me again in 17 years.