The Proof

An Antidote to Modern Times


An Antidote to Modern Times

In Issue No. 22, Recess Founder Benjamin Witte explains his company’s roots in the anxiety economy. Witte notes that in order to find an antidote to the anxiety stemming from modern information overwhelm, “you need to take moments in your day to reset and rebalance.” Recess is much more than a brilliant product articulation, and its brand is further embedded in social theory than one might expect.

Web Smith, Founder of 2PM — a media platform evaluating the modern commerce landscape — recently covered how Recess positions itself in the market. Smith writes that Recess directly addresses “productive ways for overworked consumers to value calm, balance, and clarity,” enabling folks to combat “physical, emotional, and mental stressors.” These variable stressors can be closely traced to the roots of the anxiety economy itself.

Nate Bosshard remarked in Issue No. 21 that a successful brand must be grounded in an emotional zeitgeist, and should catalyze “a new conversation amplified by cultural rocket fuel.” Recess perfectly encapsulates the type of brand that Bosshard describes. As Witte notes, Recess seeks to create a balanced cognitive state in which creative work can flow naturally. However, finding the mental space for creative flow in an age of information overwhelm is a tall order. Report No. 2 seeks to answer exactly this question.

How do you find creative flow in the midst of an anxiety economy?

The Long Tail of Media Unbundling

Before delving into the anxiety economy, the unbundling of modern media must first be addressed. Put simply, the internet effectively commoditized content creation. Anyone can be a creator. However, few individuals can achieve distribution at scale. A small handful of media conglomerates retain this scale (CNN, Fox, NYT, WSJ), delivered through social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

In a brilliant interview, Naval Ravikant, Co-Founder of AngelList, frames the internet as a giant aggregator that “creates an atomized long tail of millions of individuals.” Naval argues that the “entire news media has shifted into peddling opinions and entertainment.” This ongoing media unbundling clearly yields downsides, the most prevalent of which is an overwhelming amount of shallow news coverage. However, the upsides manifest as a long tail of independent, niche creators.

These creators trade scale for heightened autonomy, niche audiences, and depth of coverage. While they are less reliant on click-bait entertainment, these creators must communicate a clear value-add for readers and listeners within their niche. The hosts of newsletters, podcasts, and blogs across various disciplines embody this long tail.

A striking parallel emerges here between retail and media. The Atlantic recently published There Is Too Much Stuff, a standout piece by Amanda Mull that illustrates a parallel retail unbundling. In this unbundling, Amazon, Target, and Walmart retain distribution at scale, while niche digital brands like Casper, Away, and Glossier more clearly articulate a specific value-add for a niche customer cohort.

In the context of this shift, Mull writes, “contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety.” More importantly, anxiety stemming from “infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state.” Fugue refers to a dissociative cognitive disorder characterized by separation from reality. Just as endless scrolling through infinite options on Amazon places oneself in a cognitively impaired state, mass media consumption yields the same.

The Anxiety Economy

The modern internet drowns us in a shallow breadth of information, while consistently ramping up content production. In the same interview, Naval Ravikant points out that “the human brain is not designed to absorb all the world’s breaking news.” He goes further, adding, “If you get addicted, your brain will get destroyed.” Unfortunately, our minds are programmed to pay attention to every stimulating Tweet or Like directed our way.

The majority of information we consume serves only to steal attention, rather than delivering tangible value. This dizzying array of inputs throws our mental equilibrium off balance. Thus, the anxiety economy is born.

Despite operating in separate worlds of influence, Naval’s reference to the state of media consumption as the “modern struggle” is eerily similar to Witte’s illustration of “modern times.” This defining struggle of our time represents a challenge in drawing boundaries around the information flows that you allow in and out of your brain.

Without such boundaries, your mind — and your attention — will fall into disarray. Critically, without these clearly defined boundaries, states of creative flow cannot be achieved.

The Antidote

In an essay published in the MIT Tech Review, Isaac Asimov — a prolific American writer — observes that “as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required.” He notes that the creative person’s “mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.” This shuffling, or digestion of information, is a prerequisite for creativity.

Information overwhelm from mass media outlets yields cognitive stasis, hindering this unconscious information synthesis. In order to resist these over-stimulating inputs and achieve a cognitive flow state, one must find the signal in the noise — replacing broad yet shallow coverage with niche content tailored specifically to your interests. These niche information flows, stemming from the long tail of media unbundling, yield more balanced cognitive states without overwhelming your brain.

Follow thought leaders in a specific domain that excite you, and go as deep and niche as possible. Pursue your natural inclinations, using excitement as a barometer. Then, ruthlessly define boundaries and cut out the noise that doesn’t serve you. By blocking out the noise and subscribing only to niche creators in your interest area, creative thought can flow unencumbered. In turn, your unconscious mind can retain the clarity of thought necessary to synthesize inbound information flows.

The Recess brand is endlessly fascinating, as is the emotional zeitgeist it taps into. Witte’s product articulation and broader social commentary thoughtfully frame the need for an antidote to modern times. The anxiety economy can be overwhelming, but you decide what information flows in and out. This realization is daunting, yet equally empowering.

Remember, you pull the levers.

Adrian Grant-Alfieri