On not watching the news

I don’t watch the news. I don’t think that’s a secret.

Why? Well, that’s a bit of a rabbit hole. Lots of reasons, really, though at the end of the day it might just be about temperament: I just don’t enjoy it (especially cable news). It makes me feel gross. But not because of the content, primarily, but because of the tenor and tone of the presentation. I might listen to a podcast that attempts to present the same information or perspective in a different format.

That aside, when I say that I don’t watch the news, people tend to ask something along the lines of “how do you stay informed?”

My answer has always been that I follow highly focused trade publications where I can trust the authors have at least some technical understanding of the things they’re talking about.

But that’s an evasion, isn’t it? Dodging from one kind of news to another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem (that we’ll get to shortly). It just means that I follow a different kind of news.

The real answer to “how do you stay informed” is “how do I stay informed about… what?”

This is two questions, really. The first question is more about filtering. How do I select from the vast quantity of information available? How do I sip from the firehose?

But this is again a kind of dodge. It’s also (I guess) sort of technically interesting but not really theoretically interesting, at least to me. You can build an algorithm for this (or at least imagine one).

What I’m interested is whether or not we can ever be informed about anything at all, as it actually is.

This might seem like a strange or useless question. Of course we can be informed! What else is the news?

We’ve gotten to the point where we have to define our terms, sadly. What do you mean when you say “informed”? Do you mean simply that you have some information about something? Or that you have some accurate information about something? Or that you’ve built some kind of conceptual shortcuts to thinking about things?

But let’s put that aside for now. Let’s think about the media. Specifically, what does the media do? How does it work? What’s it for?

Maybe it’s helpful to think about what it does by looking at a time where there was (roughly) no media. Take, let’s say, 500 years ago. You live in a town. You’re a peasant. You don’t have the concept of “media” (you may not even have the concept of “information”!). All that you know about the world is either your direct experience of the world or experiences of the world that have been relayed to you by other people. You have either your lived experience or hearsay. Your world is small, necessarily.

You, the peasant, have a very small experience of the world. But at the same time you have a much less mediated experience of the world. Yes, it’s still mediated by your mind, and yes, your indirect experiences are mediated by other people, but still. You’re closer to some hypothetical “reality”.

Now introduce newspapers. Your sphere of awareness grows. But does it? What you read in a newspaper is more mediated experience. It’s literally written by other people who have different lived experience than you, who might not even live in the same physical sphere as you, who might not approach the world using the same intellectual tools you do. This is hearsay but on a grander level, with an artifice of “journalism” built up around it to reinforce its legitimacy (another category the peasant doesn’t have access to, by the way; a way to express this is that journalism is a social construct).

If you read something in the paper, how closely does that something resemble actual reality (assuming, again, that such a thing can be approached in any real way)? It may. It may not. You have no way, short of being there yourself when the thing happens, of knowing. Your experience, your knowledge, is completely mediated by the newspaper, by the writer, by the editors, by the owners, by the reporters… the chain of mediation is incredibly long and complex. By the time the paper gets to you, with these things in mind, would you be surprised that it is by and large not “accurate”?

That’s just a newspaper. It’s pretty easy to not read a newspaper in ye olden times. You had to go to a place and buy the thing and then sit down and read it. And even when you did read the paper it’s not like there were a million different papers written with your weird proclivities, inclination, or temperament in mind. There were, what… 3? 4?

Even if you imagine that each brand of paper has its own mediative approach (that is, they tend to mediate or warp reality in a particular direction), it’s still pretty simple to arrive on a common set of facts. 3 or 4 perspectives can talk amongst themselves.

Roll this forward. The innovations in media now encapsulate more and more sense data. We move from static text, to voices on the radio, to faces on the television. We invent more and more clever ways to essentially hack the attention spans of people. We move the media closer and closer to our own bodies. What you once had to go out and purchase is then delivered to your house, then to a box that lives inside your house, and then to a rectangle that lives in your pocket. (The next step must be some kind of live-streaming implant. I’m happy to be a grandpa about that: count me out.) We could give this a catchy name like, say, the axis of sensation.

Here we reach what I consider the two pinnacles of mediated reality: Cable news and social media (more on that later). Cable news operates at such a frenetic pitch and speed that it seems desperate to overwhelm, to occupy as much sense data as it can. Watching it feels like taking some kind of stimulant.

But at least when you’re watching cable news you have those same 3 or 4 channels to watch. At least you’re a mostly passive participant, other than changing the channel if you’re so inclined. Social media on the other hand (and I won’t dwell on this too much; enough people are screaming about this at the moment), allows me to participate in my own contextualization, to essentially select from a vast array of providers who will (initially) tailor my experience to my perspective and (eventually) optimize me by optimizing my attention (inevitably) to the extremes of that perspective. We could give this a name, too. Let’s call it the axis of choice.

We start out in prehistory very close to zero on both axes, sensation and choice. As we expand into societies we start (generally) to expand along the axis of sensation, but very slowly, since we’re talking, essentially about hearsay.

With the invention of modern media, we start expanding along the axis of sensation and choice (slowly at first, only a few newspapers that you have to read) and then more quickly (10 radio stations to listen to) and more quickly (20 TV channels to watch) and more quickly (120 channels + cable news) and finally arriving at the current moment where there are more “channels” than you could hope to count encapsulating every sort of sense data imaginable thanks to the internet. The speed at which we progress along these axes increases. We have less time to adjust. And as our realities become more self-selected but at the same time more mediated (or constructed, or, if you prefer, simulated), we are in very real danger of losing touch with any grounding in reality at all.

This is what I mean when I ask “informed about what”? If I listen to the media and I hear about some war, I don’t experience the war. I’ve never experienced a war. I don’t have any way of contextualizing the story I’m being told, no way to match it against lived experience, no way of understanding it in terms of lived experience. All I have to contextualize it is other stories of war that I’ve been told before. I can overlay this story with that story and see if the stories agree, but to what end? What is this other than comparing two fictions to eachother? And how could I know?

You know what this feels like. I know you do. This mediation of reality is laid bare when the media covers (badly) something you’re familiar with. My person domain has always been computers, formerly hardware, now software. But media accounts of computer-related happenings are usually either completely wrong or at least so glossed and simplified that they might as well be wrong.

Then you move along to the next thing and forget the lesson you’ve just learned. But how can this be? If they’re materially wrong about this thing, what’s to say they’re not materially wrong about that thing? So when my lived experience disagrees with the mediated reality presented to me, I choose my lived experience. This seems obvious (don’t @ me). But how should I approach subjects extending beyond my lived experience? I could crowdsource the lived experience, but what would that be but journalism (only worse)?

Thus, how can I assume I’m informed when I read or watch or listen? Can I really say that comparing a bunch of fictions to other previous fictions is better than never being subject to these fictions at all? Or am I supposed to be content with eking out what little drops of reality I can get? Is it even possible to compare and contrast all these competing worldviews to arrive at some Frankenstein’s monster of a composite thing all pasted together?

I don’t know the answer to these Big Questions. But I think they’re worth asking. I also genuinely think they’re worth answering! It seems like being accurately informed about the state of things as they actually are should help me vote, help me help others, help me organize resistance to unjust status quos. But without some kind of critical analysis of what exactly I’m consuming (my “media diet”), how can I even believe what I see? How can I set forth a set of facts that I think we should (or even can) agree on?

The answer to this central question is unclear. All the tools at our disposal have the same simulation problem. Some weakly, some strongly.

In the meantime… I don’t watch the news. Maybe you shouldn’t either.

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