Saturday, July 01, 2006

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

"Naturally one wouldn't condemn a dog on newspaper extracts."
--C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Bob Mitton recently blogged about news and information overload. It seems to me that there are two separate but related issues: the value of "the news," and how to filter information so as to get the best from what is available (of course, this involves defining "best").

I'm ambivalent about the first issue, the value of the news. It seems to me that news could be moderately valuable if it would stick to being actual news, rather than Tips on Beating the Summer Heat, Can Automated Sprinkler Systems Really Kill You, and Recipes to Improve Your Love Life. Even what masquerades as actual news often falls into the categories of manufactured news (usually polls), entertainment news (the celebrity publicity mill), and personal tragedies ("There was a four-car pileup today...."). This last category is particularly odious, partly because it takes precedence over other news ("If it bleeds, it leads") and partly because it has relevance only to the people involved, who don't need to find out about it on the news. Real actual news--events of political or social significance that have a potential effect on the reader or an actual effect on enough other people that the public in general should know about them--is an ever-shrinking piece of the information pie.

But the larger question is to what degree even real, actual news is of benefit, expecially to the Christian. That is, what does it mean to be an Informed Person (or an Informed Christian) and to what degree is being "informed" a Good Thing?

It seems to me that Western technological society is addicted to the ephemeral. It's most obvious in fashion, where clothing styles that just months ago were considered fresh and attractive are now derided as outdated and ridiculous. There is quite obviously no improvement going on; just a marketing system that urges people to replace clothing more quickly than it is worn out. The addiction of some people to the news is very much like the addiction of others to fashion. Very, very little of what is disseminated by AP, UPI, Reuters, and other news-gathering organizations will be of any historical consequence, let alone eternal consequence. For that matter, very little of what gets discussed on talk radio or on blogs will be of lasting importance.

Asking whether a person is informed is rather like asking whether a measuring cup is full. The question is, "Full of what?" Or, "Informed with what?" If we are to be informed with something that is worthwhile, we will have to overcome our cultural addiction to the ephemeral, and stop imagining that the most recent thing published on a topic will also be the most useful, relevant, and important. It's not true. The most important things have been put into writing a long time ago. "It's all there in Plato," as the Professor said to Peter and Susan.

So to answer Bob's question, my problem is not figuring out how to "filter the noise of our information culture to find relevant information," it's rather finding the time and the quiet and the energy and the desire to read the important books that I already know about but have never read for myself. I don't think I need to amass large amounts of extra information; I think I need to delve deeper into what I think I already know. Bob writes, "news has become entertainment rather than information"; I think amassing quantities of ultimately useless information is itself a form of entertainment. And I, like virtually everyone in my culture, am addicted to various forms of entertainment. As Neil Postman wrote (in yet another book I need to get around to reading), we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. What I need to be doing is digging deeper into the well of life.

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