Two Quotes About News (Or, Why I Don’t Keep Up)

I don’t read a whole lot of news. In fact, the only consistent source of news I consume is a daily brief from Quartz1. There are two quotes—one new and one old—that explain my habit of not staying up to date on the latest headlines.

The first comes from Robert Dobelli in a piece titled, Avoid News:

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.2

—Rolf Dobelli

The second comes from C.S. Lewis in an autobiography titled, Surprised by Joy. This perspective is very intriguing because it’s context is rooted in the flood of wartime news in England during the Second World War:

No doubt, even if the attitude was right, the quality in me which made it so easy to adopt is somewhat repellent. yet. Even so, I can hardly regret having escaped the appalling waste of time and spirit which would have been involved in reading the war news or taking more than an artificial and formal part in conversations about the war. To read without military knowledge or good maps accounts of fighting which were distorted before they reached the Divisional general and further distorted before they left him and then “written up” out of all recognition by journalists, to strive to master what will be contradicted the next day, to fear and hope intensely on shaky evidence, is surely an ill use of the mind. Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired a taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an acres has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.3

—C.S. Lewis


1. You can sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief here.2. Read Robert Dobelli’s full article, titled Avoid News, on his website (PDF). My favorite quote is, “You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?”3. You can purchase Surprised by Joy on Amazon.

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ericdodds

Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

2 thoughts on “Two Quotes About News (Or, Why I Don’t Keep Up)”

  1. This is spot on.

    It’s funny you would write about this now, as I’ve recently been rereading two amazing media critiques – “How the News Makes Us Dumb” by C. John Sommerville and “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman.

    While the former was published in 1999 and the latter in 1986 (!), their timeliness seems only to appreciate in value as the years roll by, revealing just how prophetic their messages truly are.

    If you’ve never read “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, I’d encourage you to do so. It’s in my my top 5 for nonfiction. While I could quote an unraveled DNA strands’ worth of text from it, I’ll (nigh impossibly) choose just one passage from it:

    “In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different roder from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.

    What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplace, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

    In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

    And I love the C.S. Lewis quote. In my humble little opinion, mainstream knowledge of Lewis’ works is plummeting as his writings are relegated to merely a ‘Christian’ categorization. Remarkable, then, that he had things of value to say that weren’t simply for those who still believe in bedtime stories.

    Then again, who reads at all anymore?

    -_-

    1. Jacob,

      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. As you might have guessed, Postman’s work started my thinking on this subject years ago. I need to revisit his book—I agree that it is indeed prophetic.

      “I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result… Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

      Fascinating. I’m sure you’re familiar with Marshal McLuhan’s proposition that “the medium is the message.” One of the most interesting elements of this entire conversation is how Postman’s and Lewis’ and McLuhan’s theories apply to the tools we use for communication today. The velocity of news stories traveling across Twitter, along with the limitations of the medium for robust communication, seems to be a rocket booster for the tragic outcome that Postman fears in the quote you referenced.

      Your point about C.S. Lewis hit the nail on the head. Once society has deemed a certain philosophy as irrelevant, untrue, or simply distasteful, all proponents of that philosophy are thrown out with the bath water whether they have valuable things to say or not. Said more simply, opinion becomes the primary arbiter of people’s world views, which is absolutely frightening. Civil discourse has been gutted by both the popular media and the media through which its content travels.

      I have a strong suspicion that you’d really enjoy reading a gentleman by the name of Michael Sacasas. As far as I can tell, he’s one of the only modern-day thinkers who’s actually thinking critically about the criticism of technology and the inevitable debt that technological progress imparts on society (and individuals). His blog is here: http://thefrailestthing.com/

      Also of note is Adam Thierer. Though I’m still figuring out where I stand, I tend to lean more towards Sacasas’ standpoint. You can find Thierer here: http://techliberation.com/author/adam-thierer

      I think I will sleep better at night knowing that there is one more person who thinks about this as critically as I do.

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