By Rebecca Russell
Do you feel like you can’t keep up with the news lately? Did the announcement that parliament has now come back from its summer break have you (like me) in hysterics, wondering – if the BBC can produce multiple daily reports on Brexit whilst politicians are on holiday in Magaluf – how many more stories could possibly be reeled out when they actually turn up to work?
There’s so much happening in the world, and simply not enough time to follow it all. Whilst we kept track of the devastating floods in Houston, we didn’t do so well with the flooding in southern Asia. Similarly, last years’ terror attack in Brussels garnered far more media coverage than those in Ankara and Baghdad. Accusations of Eurocentrism leave us feeling guilty when we focus our gaze locally – although such attention may be justified, as UK, EU and US politics have hardly provided the easiest news stories to comprehend. There are missiles here, unorthodox presidents there, and EU-UK relations nowhere. Apparently, Britain’s drugs policy is ‘failing’, but I don’t know what the drugs policy in Britain is. The list of things we need to ‘talk more’ about is endless: why do we feel like we can’t keep track?
It could be easy to blame technology for us being overwhelmed. We can glean the latest news from social media outlets, online newspapers and daily smartphone summaries, and if something confusing happens in the world, we can scroll on over to Google for enlightenment. We have access to a vast amount of information: more information than it is possible to absorb. Once upon a time, newspapers were printed on actual paper, and limited space meant a limited number of world affairs could be discussed. The internet means more articles are published, though the resulting decline in people paying for good journalism means we get rather more ‘views’ than ‘news’.
Hundreds of articles are available to tell you what everyone else thinks about a single Labour policy; we can fill up on these opinions and have no room left for concrete facts about these world events. Furthermore, sites such as Facebook use algorithms to target reports to your tastes; you tend to read the news, or ‘views’, that reinforce what you already believe, meaning there’s an awful lot out there that you’re far less likely to ever find out about.
Despite all this, I don’t believe we can lay the blame solely on technology for our seeming inability to keep up with current affairs. News outlets are simply trying to meet society’s demand for information, a demand that is going unchecked. We have come to see ‘being informed’ as a right, rather than a responsibility; our attitudes to consumption have changed to reflect this shift. We believe we deserve to be kept informed, and so we mindlessly devour surplus news, validating our consumerism using the modern notion: ‘freedom to know’.
Our society is obsessed with absorbing information for information’s sake, but news stories should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. C.S. Lewis hit the nail on the head when he said that ‘a sick society must think about politics, as a sick man must think about his digestion’, yet neither must ‘regard it as the natural food of the mind’. A sick man must think of his illness in order to get better, just as a sick society must remain aware of current affairs. To not have this information would be fatal, but to have it and think on it for no ultimate end also has consequences: philosopher Rolf Dobelli claims that ‘the human brain encounter[ing] a barrage of ambiguous information without being able to act upon that information’ could lead to a sense of victimisation, and even depression.
News outlets supply thousands of stories a day because they know we are compelled to scroll, click, and scroll further. We must start actually reading, as opposed to simply viewing, the news – removing the passivity which prevents us from actually doing anything about the society we see reflected by the stories we read. We must remove the pressure that has become ingrained in our culture to stay informed simply for the sake of it. Maybe, then, we wouldn’t constantly be playing catch up, just trying to stay afloat in a mass of rolling news.
The Huffington Post recently claimed that 72% of Trump voters feel able to keep up with the news, compared with 58% of Clinton voters. Perhaps we are less phased by the news if we’re happier with the state of our country. Logically, it follows that reducing our passivity by taking action means we will be happier. You don’t have to protest and e-petition; there are much simpler solutions. Do you see the poor being overlooked? Give generously. Do you feel that Brexit is driving people apart? Go and chat to a stranger.
Rolling news allows us to stay better informed, but we will only feel better informed if we consume it wisely. Then, and only then, perhaps this age of information can become a cure, and not an illness.
Photograph: Erich Ferdinand via Flickr and CreativeCommons