How the news took over reality
published by The Guardian, United Kingdom
The afternoon of Friday 13 November 2015 was a chilly one in Manhattan, but that only made the atmosphere inside the Old Town Bar, one of the city’s oldest drinking haunts, even cosier than usual. “It’s unpretentious, very warm, a nurturing environment – I regard it with a lot of fondness,” said Adam Greenfield, who was meeting a friend that day over beers and french fries in one of the bar’s wooden booths. “It’s the kind of place you lay down tracks of custom over time.” Greenfield is an expert in urban design, and liable to get more philosophical than most people on subjects such as the appeal of cosy bars. But anyone who has visited the Old Town Bar, or any friendly pub in a busy city, knows what he and his friend were experiencing: restoration, replenishment, repair. “And then our phones started to vibrate.”
In Paris, Islamist terrorists had launched a series of coordinated shootings and suicide bombings that would kill 130 people, including 90 attending a concert at the Bataclan theatre. As Greenfield reached for his phone in New York, he recalls, everyone else did the same, and “you could feel the temperature in the room immediately dropping”. Devices throughout the bar buzzed with news alerts from media organisations, as well as notifications from Facebook Safety Check, a new service that used geolocation to identify users in the general vicinity of the Paris attacks, inviting them to inform their friend networks that they were OK. Suddenly, it was as if the walls of the Old Town Bar had become porous – “like a colander, with this high-pressure medium of the outside world spurting through every aperture at once.”
It wasn’t the first time that Greenfield, a former designer for Nokia, had guiltily worried that mobile phones might be making our lives more miserable. But the jarring contrast between the intimacy of the bar and the news from Paris highlighted how vulnerable such spaces, and the nourishment they provided, had become. Suddenly, the news was sucking up virtually the whole supply of attention in the room. It didn’t discriminate based on whether people had friends and family in Paris, or whether they might be in a position to do anything to help. It just forced its way in, displacing the immediate reality of the bar, asserting itself as the part of reality that really mattered.
If we rarely notice how strange such interruptions are, it is because for many of us these days, this situation is normal. We marinate in the news. We may be familiar with the headlines before we have exchanged a word with another human in the morning; we kill time on the bus or in queues by checking Twitter, only to find ourselves plunged into the dramas of presidential politics or humanitarian emergencies. By one estimate, 70% of us take our news-delivery devices to bed with us at night.
Suddenly, the news was sucking up virtually the whole supply of attention in the room
In recent years, there has been enormous concern about the time we spend on our web-connected devices and what that might be doing to our brains. But a related psychological shift has gone largely unremarked: the way that, for a certain segment of the population, the news has come to fill up more and more time – and, more subtly, to occupy centre stage in our subjective sense of reality, so that the world of national politics and international crises can feel more important, even more truly real, than the concrete immediacy of our families, neighbourhoods and workplaces. It’s not simply that we spend too many hours glued to screens. 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. The way that journalists and television producers have always experienced the news is now the way millions of others experience it, too.
From a British or American standpoint, the overwhelmingly dominant features of this changed mental landscape are Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. But the sheer outrageousness of them both risks blinding us to how strange and recent a phenomenon it is for the news – any news – to assume such a central position in people’s daily lives. In a now familiar refrain, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof bemoans his social circle’s “addiction to Trump” – “at cocktail parties, on cable television, at the dinner table, at the water cooler, all we talk about these days is Trump.” But Trump’s eclipse of all other news is not the only precondition for this addiction. The other is the eclipse of the rest of life by the dramas of the news.
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. Yet the news has often been crazy. What it hasn’t been is ubiquitous: from its earliest beginnings, until a few decades ago, almost by definition, the news was a dispatch from elsewhere, a world you visited briefly before returning to your own. For centuries, it was accessible only to a small elite; even in the era of mass media, news rarely occupied more than an hour a day of an educated citizen’s attention.
The profound experiential shift we have recently experienced is not merely down to the fact that the news is now available around the clock; CNN pioneered that, way back in 1980. Instead, it arises from the much newer feeling of actively participating in it, thanks to the interactivity of social media. If you are, say, angry about Brexit, it is possible to be angry about Brexit almost all of the time: to encounter new and enraging facts about Brexit, and opportunities to vent about Brexit, in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as the mid-2000s. If you had fulminated then to your family and colleagues as even respected peers, novelists and philosophers now routinely fulminate on Twitter, you’d have alienated everyone you knew.
One crucial difference is that raging on Facebook, or sharing posts or voting in online polls, feels like doing something – an intervention that might, in however minuscule a way, change the outcome of the story. This sense of agency may largely be an illusion – one that serves the interests of the social media platforms to which it helps addict us – but it is undeniably powerful. And it extends even to those who themselves never comment or post. The sheer fact of being able to click, in accordance with your interests, through a bottomless supply of updates, commentary, jokes and analysis, feels like a form of participation in the news, utterly unlike passively consuming the same headlines repeated through the day on CNN or the BBC.
And yet, as you might have noticed, this changed relationship to news is not a recipe for a greater sense of happiness or personal efficacy. To live with a part of your mind perpetually in the world of the news, exposed to an entire planet’s worth of mendacity and suffering, railing against events too vast for any individual to alter, is to feel what Greenfield, author of the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, calls “a low-grade sense of panic and loss of control”, so normal it has come to feel routine.
We may be familiar with the headlines before we have exchanged a word with another human in the morning
Of course, not everyone has the freedom to spend hours each day scrolling through social media, and to this extent, overidentifying with the news is by definition a problem of the privileged. But the creeping colonisation of our personal sense of reality by “current events” has also seen the emergence of a strange new moral imperative – a social norm which holds that ignoring the news, or declining to grant it preeminence in our lives, is an irresponsible indulgence, available only to the fortunate.
According to a principle dating back to the Enlightenment, responsible democratic citizens are those who strive to keep informed about the nation and the wider world – a duty that has been held to be especially critical during times of rising authoritarianism. Today, though, this principle is often taken to imply a duty not to turn away from the news. The instinct to look elsewhere is treated as both a sign of privilege and an obliviousness to that luxury. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. It is increasingly taken as a given that in order to help, or even just signal solidarity with, those most directly affected by the events reported in the news – undocumented immigrants facing the Trump administration’s cruelties, say – it is morally obligatory to remain immersed in the news itself.
It’s becoming clear, however, that there is a problem with this attitude, quite apart from the impact on our personal happiness. There are reasons to believe that a society in which so many people are so deeply invested in the emotional dramas of the news is far from the embodiment of an ideal democracy – that, on the contrary, this level of personal engagement with news is a symptom of the damage that has been done to our public life. This raises a possibility alien to news addicts, committed political activists and journalists alike: that we might owe it not only to our sanity, but also to the world at large, to find a way to put the news back in its place.
This changed relationship to news is not a recipe for a greater sense of happiness or personal efficacy
Many of us can still remember when the news used to be a pleasant distraction from everyday life, the desk-bound office procrastinator’s preferred form of escapism. Five years ago, the essayist Alain de Botton wrote a book called The News: A User’s Manual – and even then, it was still possible for him to locate the appeal of the news, in part, in its role as a haven from our daily troubles. To consult the news, De Botton wrote, was to discover “issues that are so much graver and more compelling than those we have been uniquely allotted, and to allow these larger concerns to drown out our own self-focused apprehensions and doubts. A famine, a flooded town, a serial killer on the loose, the resignation of a government … such outer turmoil is precisely what we might need in order to usher in a sense of inner calm.” It is remarkable how rapidly things have changed. Today, the news is very bad indeed at ushering in a sense of calm. More and more, it is not a source of escapism, but the thing one yearns to escape.
This feeling represents a new and acute phase of a long-term historical shift: we used to live in a world in which information was scarce, but now information is essentially limitless, and what is scarce is the supply of attention. The first people to make serious money from providing news, according to the historian Andrew Pettegree, were a group of well-connected citizens in 16th-century Italy, who sold a handwritten briefing to a handful of wealthy clients. What enabled them to turn a profit was information scarcity: it wasn’t easy to find the information in their bulletins elsewhere. The coffee houses of 17th-century London, often credited with creating the first public sphere in which ordinary people could discuss politics, worked the same way. In exchange for a small admission charge, customers received access to other people who were up to speed with events, and to a plentiful supply of pamphlets and newssheets. Such opportunities to engage in informed political conversation were hard to come by, and thus worth paying for.
But as advances in technology made it easier to distribute news – and more news providers began to compete for readers – a subtle inversion began: the reader’s attention, not information, became the truly valuable commodity. Beginning in the 19th century, entrepreneurs such as Benjamin Day, the founding publisher of the New York Sun, hit upon a revolutionary business model: sell a paper for less than it cost to produce, pack it with lurid stories, then make your money selling space to advertisers, who were effectively buying access to readers’ attention. This naturally encouraged exaggeration and fabrication; Day once ran a series of articles claiming that the leading astronomer of the era, Sir John Herschel, had discovered a population of bat-winged humanoids on the moon. But serious political and investigative reporting thrived too, by exploiting the inefficiency of the arrangement. Advertisers needed readers, and most readers might be drawn by the gossip columns or sports reports – but an editor, as broker of the relationship between the two, could siphon off some ad revenue for higher-minded coverage.
The entire subsequent history of mass media, as Tim Wu explains in his book The Attention Merchants, might be seen as a process of improving the efficiency with which the available supply of attention could be mined. Success accrued to those who discovered undiscovered seams of it (as when radio invaded the living-room, co-opting attention previously used for reading or conversation) or found ways to seize it more aggressively (as with the debut of colour newspapers). And a smartphone with Facebook or Twitter installed on it represents the apogee of this trend. It is a device designed to soak up the tiniest remaining pockets of attention – on the train, in the bathroom, in bed – while monitoring your every click and swipe, recording what you linger on or scroll past. Social media platforms use the vast quantities of data thus generated to ensure that you see exactly the kind of content that people like you can’t resist engaging with, presented in as compelling a fashion as possible. Meanwhile, advertisers can be charged a premium to reach such highly targeted, and thus more valuable, segments of the audience.
As more and more users understand, this use of data to tailor content algorithmically is the force driving the addictiveness of digital technology: software companies are locked in an arms race, fighting to discover ever more hyper-efficient means of extracting a share of the same finite resource of attention. So their survival and growth depend on getting you hooked on their products. But it also explains why the news has come to dominate larger and larger tracts of the public mind.
In a situation of information scarcity, the news is content to remain a psychologically separate world, which people access only at intervals; indeed, it needs to remain separate, like a fenced-off theme park or a private members’ club, if anyone is to make any money by charging admission to it. But in a world of information surplus and attention scarcity, the reverse is true. In an attentional arms race, every news provider – and ultimately, every news story – competes against all others to worm its way into consumers’ minds. This race, Wu writes, “will naturally run to the bottom: attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage [what psychologists call] our ‘automatic’ attention.” What all this means is that as news comes to dominate public consciousness, extreme, lurid and even false stories come to dominate the news.
We might owe it not only to our sanity, but also to the world at large, to find a way to put the news back in its place.
News fares well in an attention economy – after all, it has a claim to being inherently more worthy of attention than, say, movies or sports; it is ostensibly the serious stuff happening in the world. And the spectacle of a mentally unstable president with his finger on the nuclear button are guaranteed to make millions click, as is the prospect of wartime-style disruptions to food and medicine in the event of a “no deal” Brexit.
But there is also ever more pressure for every story to pull its own weight by going viral, and ever less incentive to divert a portion of a news organisation’s (diminishing) revenues to slower and more serious reporting. These new incentives favour horse-race politics and hot-button culture-war issues, plus rapid-fire argumentative “takes”, designed to confirm readers’ existing prejudices, or trigger scandalised disagreement. In the final analysis, the commercial imperatives don’t even necessarily require a story to be true, so long as it is maximally compelling: fake news is not an aberration from, but rather the logical conclusion to, a media economy “optimised for engagement”.
It’s worth stepping back to notice how strange it is, considering the underlying purpose of news, to spend this much of our time thinking about it. If our interest in news has evolutionary origins, that’s because there are obvious survival advantages in staying aware of local and immediate threats to one’s own life and tribe. One major achievement of civilisation is that we’ve expanded our capacity for caring to include news that doesn’t affect us personally, but where we might be able to make a difference, whether by voting or volunteering or donating. But the modern attention economy exploits both these urges, not to help us stay abreast of threats, or improve the lives of others, but to generate profits for the attention merchants. So it pummels us ceaselessly with incident, regardless of whether it truly matters, and with human suffering, regardless of whether it’s in our power to relieve it. The belief that we’re morally obliged to stay plugged in – that this level of time commitment and emotional investment is the only way to stay informed about the state of the world – begins to look more and more like an alibi for our addiction to our devices.
We used to live in a world in which information was scarce, but now information is essentially limitless, and what is scarce is the supply of attention
The resulting sense of alienation is familiar to any online news addict, even if we don’t always grasp its causes; it makes itself known in the deflating sense that so much time spent online is time wasted, although we apparently can’t stop ourselves from wasting it. (Surely even users of cigarettes don’t hate themselves for their dependency as much as the users of Twitter do.) Slowly, we are beginning to understand what it really means to say that attention is a scarce resource: that it is radically finite, so that every moment spent paying attention to a given news story is one spent not paying attention to everything else.
When you “pay attention”, in the words of the Google employee turned philosopher and technology activist James Williams, “you pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t … with the heart-to-heart talk you could have had with your anxious child, [or] the sleep you didn’t get and the fresh feeling you didn’t have the next morning”. The stories that dominate the news don’t merely wrench attention away from other news stories. The resource being depleted is your life.
But if this remains hard for some of us to see, one reason is the assumption, prevalent in the social media age, that there is an inherent moral virtue in keeping up with the news, especially political news, and that failing to formulate a position on the major issues of the day is to fail in one’s highest duties as a citizen. Perhaps you have felt that ridiculous yet discernible pressure, on social media, to emit an official opinion about every natural disaster, celebrity death or Trump administration policy announcement, as if each of us were the ambassador of a small nation, from whom silence might be interpreted as callous lack of concern.
“Telling people to ignore the news feels wrong in today’s chaotic world,” concedes the self-help author John Zeratsky, although he nonetheless recommends it. Staying engaged just seems like “the ‘right thing to do’ for grown-up, informed citizens and savvy, growth-oriented professionals”. And when engaging with the news is an article of faith, the idea of disengaging, even partially, naturally sounds like heresy. But it may be a heresy we urgently require, and not only for our personal sanity. The proper functioning of democracy may depend on it.
One reluctant heretic is Robert Talisse, a political philosopher at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who until recently held a belief that is naturally common among political philosophers: that politics is really important and thus there is no upper limit to how much time you should spend on it. On this theory, “the way to do democracy is to do it perpetually”, as he puts it, “and if we find that democracy has any troubles or problems, there’s always the solution of: more democracy.” Recently, though, watching his own and others’ growing fixation on news, he has been haunted by a contrary thought. For one thing, it is highly debatable how much it truly counts as democratic participation to engage with the news online, or whether it merely feels that way. But even if it does, who’s to say that’s always a good thing?
What if participation in politics is a virtue in the same way that, for example, staying fit is a virtue? A person who visits the gym occasionally is doing something good; if she goes regularly, she’s being really good. But if she spends every free moment at the gym, so that her friendships and work are starved of attention, she is doing something pathological. That is because physical fitness is a largely instrumental virtue. It is good because it enables you to do other things, so if you do it to the exclusion of all else, you have missed the point. If you do it so strenuously you injure yourself, you have missed the point in a different way: now you can’t pursue fitness well, either. There is a case to be made that our fixation with the news might work the same way. By according political news such centrality in our mental landscapes, we may be squeezing out the very things politics was supposed to facilitate, and simultaneously doing injury to democratic politics itself.
To see the damage more clearly, consider what has happened to the “public sphere” – the place where democratic debate is supposed to unfold – in the era of social media. In the dreams of its hippie pioneers, the internet was supposed to expand this sphere massively, creating a new global agora, where people who had previously lacked a voice could participate in the decision-making process, leading to better and fairer decisions, which would garner much wider support. But it is becoming ever clearer that what the internet is really doing is eroding the boundary between the public and private spheres, making measured conversation, let alone consensus, increasingly difficult. Our changed relationship to the news seems to be making the news itself worse.
The spectacle of a mentally unstable president with his finger on the nuclear button are guaranteed to make millions click
In 2013, when Donald Trump was still a mockable reality TV star, and Twitter wasn’t yet known affectionately among its users as the “hellsite”, the German-Korean cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han published a prescient book entitled In the Swarm, which argued that digital communication was gradually rendering politics impossible. Healthy political debate, he argued, depends on respect, which requires that participants retain a sort of mental distance from each other: “Civil society requires respectfully looking away from what is private.” But digital connectivity collapses distance. Social media blurs the distinction between making considered public comments on the news and impulsively emitting snatches of one’s half-formed private impressions of it; and it rewards and amplifies the most extreme expressions of emotion. When there is a direct pipeline running in both directions between the news and the deepest recesses of everyone’s psyches, the result – obvious in hindsight, perhaps – isn’t that it is easier to reach consensus or resolution. It is that every topic of public disagreement spirals rapidly into psychodrama.
A functioning public sphere also depends on collective access to a shared body of facts about reality, to serve as the stable ground on which to hash out our differences of opinion. But with such an enormous surplus of information, filtered on the basis of what compels each user’s attention, that shared basis of facts is soon eroded. Meanwhile, the algorithms of social media invisibly sort us into ever more separate communities of ever more similar people, so that even if you are discussing, say, movies or sport, you’re increasingly likely to be doing so with those who share your political affiliations; the more you engage with politics, the more everything becomes political – and, research suggests, the harder it becomes to understand your political opponents as fully human. This is a situation ripe for exploitation by demagogues, who understand that their power consists in turning the whole of life into a battleground divided along political lines, thereby maximising their domination of public attention.
Given all this, the idea that being ceaselessly preoccupied with the news might be a useful way to defeat authoritarianism, or to achieve any other laudable political goal, begins to look extremely unconvincing. If you spend hours each day on social media fuming about your opponents, you are still participating in the corrosion of democracy, even if you are participating from a morally impeccable position. And so the conventional wisdom among the politically clued-in – that what this moment calls for is more engagement with the news – may be the opposite of the truth.
The belief that we’re morally obliged to stay plugged in begins to look more and more like an alibi for our addiction to our devices
To disengage from current affairs, though, is still mainly to court accusations of selfishness and unexamined social advantage. A year ago, the New York Times profiled Erik Hagerman, an Ohio man who had imposed a news blackout on himself since the 2016 election, even going so far as to pipe white noise into his ears while visiting his local coffee shop, to drown out talk of Trump. The article went viral – of course it did – and Hagerman was widely met with moralising scorn. (Or would have been, anyway, if he had ventured online.) “Not everyone gets to be ignorant,” the writer Kellen Beck, speaking for many, fumed on Mashable.com, in an article labelling Hagerman “the most selfish man in America”. “People whose families are being torn apart by the deportation tactics of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement don’t get to be ignorant. People who are affected by gun violence don’t get to be ignorant.” But “as a white male who had the opportunity to make (and save) a lot of money, [Hagerman] isn’t directly affected by many of the things that happen inside his country and to his fellow citizens.”
But the assumption behind this argument – that choosing to pay less attention to the news is automatically a reprehensible indulgence – is a holdover from the era of information scarcity. When the news is hard to come by, there is virtue in putting in the effort to seek it out. But when news is everywhere, and when marinating in it seems to make things worse, what demands effort is avoiding it, or at least some of it. In an age of attention scarcity, living a meaningful life entails not paying attention to almost every important issue; the greatest saints in history were never asked to care about as many instances of suffering as you’ll see if you scroll through a feed of international news today.
Whether or not withdrawing your attention is a selfish act depends on what you do with the time and energy freed up as a result. (Hagerman bought 45 acres of wetland at the site of a former coal mine, the Times reported, and was engaged in restoring it before donating it to the public, a project that he predicted would take the rest of his life and most of his savings. There are more selfish ways to spend your time.) But screening out much of what matters may simply be the precondition for making any kind of difference at all.
In light of the domination of so many people’s thoughts by politics, Talisse argues in a forthcoming book, Overdoing Democracy, it may even be that one critical form of activism is to spend time not doing politics – or, in the case of social media, things that feel like doing politics – and instead to dedicate attention to nurturing domains in which politics cannot intrude. From this perspective, to decline to talk about Brexit or Trump at the pub or the watercooler isn’t a matter of burying your head in the sand, but of proactively protecting some parts of life from becoming overwhelmed by current affairs. It is often suggested that the cure for our societal divides is to spend more time with people from the “other side”. But Talisse advises consciously engaging in social activities that are not driven by your political commitments at all – in which the question of political sides doesn’t arise to begin with. Talisse, who lives in Nashville, spends his free time these days attending bluegrass gigs with his wife. “I have no idea what the people sitting beside me [at the gig] are like politically,” he says. “It’s not that, as a Democrat, you go somewhere where you know that Republicans hang out. It’s that you immerse yourself in activities where there’s no occasion for politics to be part of what’s going on.”
When news is everywhere, and when marinating in it seems to make things worse, what demands effort is avoiding it, or at least some of it
As a prescription for rescuing constructive democratic engagement, Talisse knows this sort of advice is liable to sound rather mundane, even naive. But when you are building a sanctuary from the horribly addictive dramas of national and international politics, that is probably inevitable: precisely because the news is so addictive, you should not be surprised if the alternative feels rather humdrum by comparison at first. And he stresses that he isn’t suggesting people stop engaging in more conventional forms of activism: “I’m not saying don’t go to protests. But it can’t be the only thing that you do. So, actually, I’m saying that democracy is more demanding than you think it is, because you have to do this other thing, too.” We have to protest. But we also have to weave the social fabric that politics is meant to support.
After Trump’s election victory, he recalls, numerous US publications ran articles giving advice for handling political arguments over Thanksgiving, concluding that, if civil political discussion with your Trump-voting uncle threatened to become too stressful, you should probably just stay home. Yet this, Talisse points out, is to accept the unspoken premise that, when all is said and done, political commitments are more important than family life. And that’s upside-down: one primary purpose of democratic politics is precisely to help guarantee the universal enjoyment of things such as a family life. At Thanksgiving with your Trumpist uncle, the point is not to seek agreement or compromise, but to grasp that we are not fully defined by our political allegiances – and that, as Talisse puts it, “in order to treat each other as political equals, we must see each other as something more than citizens”.
Of course, it isn’t especially fair that we should have to give this matter any thought at all – that we, as individuals, should have to take the lead in reducing our immersion in politics and news, when the problem results from an attentional environment structured to maximise the profits of the technology corporations. But it may be the only practical way for us to begin to foster a change. If the colonisation of everyday life by the news is damaging both to ourselves and to democratic politics, we ought not to collaborate unthinkingly with that process. Far from it being our moral duty to care so much about the news, it may in fact be our duty to start caring somewhat less.