Could it be a civic duty to tune out the news? Journalist Oliver Burkeman floats this provocative idea in a recent essay published in the Guardian newspaper. We owe it to society — and to ourselves — to tune out a good deal of the time, he says.
Burkeman’s essay makes the case with more detail and nuance than space allows here, and he writes with a charming lucidity that makes reading it a pleasure. For me, his most important observation is that the digital revolution has upended the problem of scarcity as it applies to information. For all of human history up to the present, humans had too little information; suddenly, information is everywhere. What’s scarce now is attention.
Today, we carry more news in the palm of a hand than it is possible to digest. So, how do we choose where to spend our limited bandwidth? Purveyors of information battle for each fleeting increment of our time, and they have found that their best weapon is our existing set of interests and biases. If we read a little bit about a subject, and thus signal our interest, their algorithms pounce on us to offer more of the same.
Fed an endless diet of information tailored just for us, we can easily fall into a distorted version of the world. Just as easily, we can find others through social media who share and reinforce that view. We get the feeling that each day’s news confirms our worst fears and begin to wonder whether the world is coming unhinged. All of this is a function of information merchants trying to seize our scarce attention and hold it as long as they can.
“It’s easy to assume that the reason you spend so much time thinking about the news is simply that the news is so crazy right now,” writes Burkeman. “Yet the news has often been crazy. What it hasn’t been is ubiquitous.”
An example: The other day someone asked me if I heard what the city councilman in Georgia had said. With a few keystrokes, I learned that the mayor of a small town (perhaps 1,500 residents) about an hour from Atlanta was accused of saying her people weren’t ready for a black city administrator, and a member of the city council chipped in his opinion that interracial marriage is not Christian.
For my acquaintance, this was alarming evidence that hatred is spreading across America. I suggested another possibility: Information is so easy to come by that every stupid thing said by every small-town volunteer can be dangled before her worried gaze. Until recently, she would never have known that Hoschton, Georgia, was even a place — much less that its officials say bigoted things.
This news economy flattens the importance of information. A bigot of great power or influence is an important story; a bigoted councilman in a town smaller than my kid’s high school — not so much. But news algorithms will feed reports of bigotry endlessly to news consumers with an appetite for them, whether the example is large or small. It’s how the machine competes for their limited attention.
If knowing every incident of bigotry or violence or environmental depredation were making us a better nation, this would be a service. It’s not. “Marinating” in this news environment, as Burkeman puts it, “seems to make things worse.”
“When the news is hard to come by,” he counsels, citizenship means seeking it out. But when the glut of information drives us apart, the good citizen must put forward effort to avoid the excess and elude the algorithm.
This is because information merchants pander to and reinforce our biases. Their job is to hold us rapt as long as possible. “These new incentives favor horse-race politics and hot-button culture-war issues,” Burkeman writes, “plus rapid-fire argumentative ‘takes,’ designed to confirm readers’ existing prejudices, or trigger scandalized disagreement.”
Who wins under such circumstances? Demagogues, narcissists, shills and stars: those who succeed by dominating our thoughts and riveting our focus on themselves. Who loses? All those who cherish lives and communities built on something deeper and broader than viral sensations. “It’s not simply that we spend too many hours glued to screens,” Burkeman adds. “It’s that for some of us, at least, they have altered our way of being in the world such that the news is no longer one aspect of the backdrop to our lives, but the main drama.”
I say this as a 40-year newsman: Knowing the news is not an end in itself. It is a means to living a better, fuller life in a healthier, more robust community. If and when our obsessions with newsfeeds sour life and weaken the community, a citizen’s duty is to tune out — for a healthy hour, day or week. The algorithm can’t control you if you’re not online.