“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” William James, 19th century American psychologist and philosopher
When my partner, shocked at my willful ignorance about the day’s trending news, enlightened me about what I’d missed – British teenagers condemned for stripping naked on top of a sacred Malaysian mountain – I knew I’d made the right decision in tailoring my daily digest so as to minimise the mainstream dross.
As a former journalist and a news addict in recovery, I’m a firm believer in the power of the press. Yet for a long time lately, I’ve been pondering the value of what we generally assume to be news – the idiocy of the human race, the latest and greatest amount of blood to be spilled, the fall from disgrace of the celebrity held up as a flawed role model for us to admire, mock or loathe.
It all begs the question – what’s the point? To put it in less nihilistic terms – what purpose does the news serve, does it do us any good, and how can we, as information consumers, manage the flow in a purposeful way?
Stemming the flow
I’ve devoured dozens of journalists’ autobiographies in my time and still read voraciously because of a fundamental belief in the role of the media to shed light on issues, events, ideas and people that can illuminate our understanding of the world.
To state the obvious, the news has gone through dramatic changes, digitisation being the most blatant. Increased democratisation and broader access to information is undoubtedly a good thing. But it’s hard not to agree with AC Grayling when he describes the internet as a toilet bowl – just because there’s more output, doesn’t mean it’s all worthwhile.
Of course that’s a value judgement, but then that’s partly the point and an increasingly important one – with the mass if information out there, it’s down to us to choose what we attend to.
And just because something is trending – like the teenagers stripping on a mountain – doesn’t mean we have to follow the pack and tune in. In fact, we might be better off if we don’t. Time is finite, why waste it ingesting pointless fare?
Alain de Botton argues that news should take a responsible approach to meeting our needs, it should tell us about what is important and why. The trouble is that everything these days is presented as urgent, requiring our immediate attention, to the point where the news has a denaturing effect – we care less for the Other on the screen because our senses are bombarded by the “continuous and relentless” updates.
Whereas disaster and famine should heighten our empathy and compassion, it desensitises us, if not through super-saturation, then from the fact we are more inclined to physically as well as intellectually switch off. That’s when we’re not swiping across to the next thing.
This was the premise behind de Botton and co’s alternative news stream, The Philosopher’s Mail, which proposed that: “Good media is crucial to a good society. Yet, in modern society, the media often plays a hugely detrimental role by stoking anger and fear. It generates false and unhelpful pictures of the lives of others and of the world we inhabit. It distorts our sense of what is normal.”
Hence it falls to us to wrestle back control from the newsmakers and decide for ourselves.
The digested read
In his manifesto for a more thoughtful approach to the work-life balance, The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris suggests we cultivate our “selective ignorance” because “just as modern man consumes both too many calories and calories of no nutritional value, information workers eat data both in excess and from the wrong sources.”
The Dalai Lama apparently follows a similar “low information diet”, as documented by Pico Iyer. The Dalai Lama actually spends the first few hours of the morning taking in both the horror and the glory via a select few news outlets so as to “meditate on the roots of compassion”.
For my part, I turn to a select few influencers on Twitter, journals I follow via Feedly, and a host of blogs I keep track of either directly, accessed via a folder on my internet toolbar or via Flipboard. Don’t get me wrong, I still sit down to Channel 4 News, I still devour the paper on a Saturday, but I experience both with full attention because I’m no longer possessed by the insatiable and unrealistic desire to know and read everything – because not only is that impossible, it’s futile, unhealthy and unhelpful.
As a result, I’m more rather than less informed because I’m no longer swamped. I’m reading around areas that interest me and so the news, as I’ve filtered it, serves a purpose as opposed to distracting my attention.
To quote the late great Bruce Lee: “One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.”