I firmly believe that limiting the amount of information that you face is a great way to simplify your life. I also firmly believe that having a good understanding of major world events and issues is very important. These two ideas can come into conflict with each other quite easily. In fact, I've seen many minimalists write about how they don't follow world events or the news at all. It's almost a point of pride to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the world. Every time I read that particular piece of advice I cringe. The social studies teacher inside me won't let me forego understanding and following world events in the name of greater simplicity.
I should probably back up and give some credit where it's due. I realize that most of my colleagues aren't advocating complete obliviousness to what is going on around us. They are wary of being sucked into the need of checking news websites all day long or leaving CNN on the T.V. for hours on end. I support that sentiment. Nobody needs to stay that connected to what's going on in the world. However, I do think many of my colleagues understate the importance of being informed and educated about more than just what is happening in your own small sphere of influence.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
An understanding of the world and the dynamics within it adds important aspects to our lives. Becoming obsessed with that which you cannot control isn't healthy, but neither is obliviousness to the travails and problems of the world around you.
Knowing about conflicts happening across the world will help you build empathy for other humans. But only if you go beyond being aware of conflicts and move into understanding the issues surrounding them. Geographically we may be spread very far apart but the things that you care about, living a fulfilling life, having your natural rights respected and protected, supporting and providing for your family, are the same regardless of nationality or culture. The protests in the Middle East may be happening on the other side of the world but they are made up of people who care very deeply about topics that you likely care about, too.
We risk shutting off our capacity to empathize with others when we disregard the events they are living through.
BROADEN YOUR PERSPECTIVE
The majority of people who read this blog, and people in the United States in general, are some sort of "knowledge worker." Knowledge worker is just a fancy way to say that you interact with information and somehow add to or modify it in some way as to make it useful. Most of us aren't standing behind a workbench producing physical items any more. Whether you think that's a positive or negative thing is not relevant, but you can thank the Industrial Revolution for that particular social change.
When you are a knowledge worker, the only thing you have that separates you from somebody else is your unique perspective. Your educational background, your biases, your personality and your relevant knowledge is what you apply to your work everyday. Being aware of the larger world and understanding the issues that permeate it stretches your perspective. This is tied to the idea of empathy, but broadening your perspective to include the viewpoints and concerns of people other than your close friends and neighbors will only serve to improve your ability to do great work.
Perhaps you think I'm really grasping at straws here by arguing that an understanding of world events will improve your work, but I think it's a salient point. You never know when or how your knowledge of the world will apply to your work -- especially when that work is something like writing, teaching, or something equally abstract.
Lastly, staying up to date with the world will improve your ability to think critically. Thinking critically refers to the idea of weighing multiple sources of information and deciding if they are relevant and accurate. For many people, thinking critically is a skill that has laid dormant for a long time. When you begin to accept as truth whatever you see on TV or everything you read you give up the sovereignty of the mind that distinguishes you as a human.
Thinking critically is something that must be practiced and honed over time and there is not a better arena than the propaganda-laden world of news media. It's not easy to figure out what is truth and what is spin, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO STAY CURRENT?
When I advocate staying up to date with world affairs, I must clarify the time frame of what I'm talking about. You don't need a minute by minute feed of information. I don't even think a daily checkup is particularly important under normal circumstances. I'm talking about understanding the large and recurring themes and problems that are present in different areas of the world. Almost every conflict that you hear about in the news has a historical basis that is well established. Understanding that historical basis is the key to understanding current events today -- not checking an RSS feed every hour.
READ LONG ARTICLES/ESSAYS ON CURRENT EVENTS
Long articles and essays generally treat topics of importance with a greater attention to detail and nuance than short articles or clips. A well-written essay will explore many different aspects and sides to a story which makes it easier for you to digest critically. Some of the best sources for long form articles include Longreads and The Browser. If you have a mobile device, the app Instapaper has single handedly done more for my reading than anything else.
BRUSH UP ON YOUR HISTORY
As I mentioned earlier, most world events are not spontaneous. They are usually rooted in a deep history. Most of the conflicts in the Middle East, for example can be attributed to a handful of different historical events: The split of the Islamic religion, the mandate system at the end of World War I, the creation of the modern state of Israel (which in itself is borne out of it's own unique history). Nearly everything can be explained by first looking at the past. Brush up on your history, whether that's as simple as Googling for some information about something you don't understand, checking some books out of your local library, or taking a class at a community college -- the information is available if you care to find it.
FOLLOW A SAMPLING OF NEWS WEBSITES - PERIODICALLY
I rarely watch news on the television. Part of that is the fact that I don't have cable TV in my apartment and part of it is because I know most news television is utter crap. That which attracts viewers (and thus advertisers) is very rarely that which is actually important to understand. Bloodshed, sex, and celebrities make for so-called interesting TV but they are not the holy trifecta of important information you need to know. A more rational way to get a sampling of world events is to check a handful of news websites every couple days. For example, I regularly peruse BBC, CNN, Fox News, and Al-Jazeera. I try to select a wide array of sites so that I'm not exposed to only one type of bias -- even if I happen to disagree with the way they lean politically.
Living a life of simplicity does not mean living a life of obliviousness. Putting your hands over your ears and closing your eyes to the worlds' problems does not mean you are living a better life. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Understanding world events allows you to build empathy for those different from yourself. It allows you to broaden your perspective which allows for an untold amount of creativity and growth in your own work and thinking. Lastly, it allows you to practice thinking critically. Whether that is through identifying bias in news sources or understanding the historical basis of the ills that plague our world.
We live in a world too interconnected to expect to live completely isolated from one another. Utilize your tools intelligently to regulate the stream of information that is coming your way at all times but don't hide from it. The problems of the world are not just for those experiencing them at the moment. We all have a responsibility to understand and work toward a more harmonious world in whatever form that may take.