Heard the above segment on Talk of the Nation in my car earlier and started immediately thinking – Why would you ever assume that instant information is valid or valuable?
Is instant coffee any good? Worth drinking?
Are instant mashed potatoes any good? Worth eating?
If you answer yes to either of the above questions you’re either just being contrary or are a truly disturbed individual.
So, operating from the premise that instantly prepared things are generally of pretty inferior quality, why would we assume instantly prepared news would be anything but an inferior product?
Why would anyone be surprised that the majority of news they get via Facebook and/or Twitter would be anything but the information equivalent to Sanka? Since I love to beat analogies into the dust, why not extend this to 24-Hour Cable News programs or “Special Reports” on TV or radio in the heat of a disaster or other crisis?
As a society we seem to have turned into Veruca Salt. Not the mediocre alt-rock band of the 90s, mind you, I’m talking about this character:
We seem to have forgotten that patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s vital to making good choices and good decisions. Acting on instant information is, after all, likely to produce instant-quality actions.
We’ve become a culture that ingests unrefined data. The only TV reporting I saw on the tragedy in Boston yesterday was the hour or so I caught at the gym, and it truly did not matter which network that “reporting” was coming from. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and the broadcast networks were spewing equally unfiltered, unedited data, and then the talking heads on all the networks were vomiting forth ill-considered speculation and opinion to try to fill the space. A brief perusal of my Twitter feed came up with exactly one post that wasn’t cringe-inducing, and that was Patton Oswalt’s brilliant statement.
The difference between what Patton said and what pretty much everyone else seemed to have to say was pretty startling. I’ll give Mr. Oswalt some credit. He may be a comedian, a professional clown, if you will, but the nature of his brand of stand-up comedy is that it’s thoughtful and deeply considered. So, this is a man who is in the habit of stepping back from a situation, looking at it and trying to get to the most honest and commonly understandable thing about it. In contrast, the punditocracy just gushed out raw, poorly thought out sound bites. The social media universe was just cluttered with people flailing, saying dumb, emotional things and then repeating the dumb emotional things that other people had posted.
If you spent the day and evening consuming the instant-news from the TV and interwebs yesterday you probably felt like shit when you went to bed. My son came out of his room at about 9 pm last night all wound up over the bunches of bombs that had been found (that turned out weren’t) the Saudi Arabian guy who was arrested (who wasn’t) and a half-dozen other things that were flying about online and on TV that in the light of the morning all turned out to be little more than rumors.
To my mind there are a couple of pretty awful results of the constantly connected, instant-consumption info world. The first is that 24-hour, non-stop tragedy online and on the cable news channels distorts the reality of the world. What happened yesterday was horrific and tragic for the people directly involved, and it was pretty scary if you lived in or were visiting Boston. But beyond that relatively small segment of the population, what happened yesterday didn’t really have an actual tangible impact. Sure, anyone who heard about it felt empathy and sorrow for the people the explosions actually really happened to, but unless you deliberately engaged yourself in following it via the web or cable news you could have quite easily gone about your normal business and even had a pretty good day.
If you did let the info shit-storm consume you though, well then I bet you had a pretty terrible day. Probably didn’t sleep very well, and probably woke up fearful and uneasy this morning. The same thing happens on days when there is no tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. pick something every day to beat on over and over and over again. Fiscal cliff anyone? Sequester? Pick your political story or scandal de jour. They are all made out to be the end of the world, because the end of the world sells more ads.
When I was a child the world was no less interesting or infested with newsie stuff than it is now, but you could find out, basically, what was going on by watching Walter Cronkite for a half hour right before dinner. Walter was great, but he was no genius. The days’ important events can still be basically summed up in about 20 minutes by any halfway intelligent news copywriter. By stretching those events into 24 hours of non-stop reporting their importance in the lives of you and me get distorted and magnified.
The second bad thing comes of that distortion and magnification is that we make choices based upon our perception of reality, and if our perception of reality is distorted by the way the news and interwebs magnify and overemphasize the dangers we face we’ll make stupid choices. Dumb, uninformed citizens are bad. Dumb, frightened, uninformed citizens are dangerous to themselves and to society as a whole.
The phrase I found myself saying a lot in the past day or so is “consider the source.” When you choose to get information from a TV network, a newspaper or online source, consider the motives of that source. And stop being surprised when instantly produced products are bereft of quality.