So last night I get a news alert from CNN: This year Europe received one million refugees.
I read that, and wondered, not for the first time: what am I supposed to do with this information?
Don’t worry, this isn’t another indictment of the 24 hour news cycle, or some empty complaint about the relentlessly depressive nature of a lot of news (in general, not even lately). This isn’t something about whether we have the information we need or we deserve, or whether we can or should be doing anything, anything at all, for the apparently innumerable intractable problems that surround us, so much so that we end up making blockbusters of movie after movie that talks about nothing but the end of the world… because, presumably, one thing that will be for sure after that is that it will be quiet.
It’s about a shift in attitude, and it’s meant to be positive, not to bring anyone down. It’s meant to be freeing.
This is about a simple question that we need to start asking ourselves more frequently.
Here it is:
We have to start asking ourselves this question about a great many things, in a great many areas of human endeavor.
We have to ask why not in a negative way, not wailing or crying about how bad we have it. This isn’t dark or cynical. We have to ask why in a way that can bring about new solutions and in a way that maybe requires to throw away some old notions or to stop doing things the way we used to.
Because it’s time.
The question I’m talking about, the why in the way I mean it, refers to questioning things we’ve been repeating for a long time without thinking or maybe without really trying to figure out if there’s a better or different way for something.
We have spent many decades building stuff and coming up with ways to do stuff and creating organizations that can consistently both build and come up with way to do stuff.
A lot of it is fine, really. This isn’t about throwing it all away.
But a lot of it is just not really useful anymore. It needs to be replaced, or simply removed.
Example: the news. CNN informs me that a million refugees went into Europe this year, via a notification on my phone.
To start somewhere, out of the many many things that happened in the last 12 hours, why did I get a notification for that and not for something else?
Easy: Many people (certainly in the news) have been freaking out about refugees. CNN wants readers. So some programming person somewhere saw this article come up and had to choose the ONE notification they would send out for the next 12 hours, because they know they can’t send a million or we’ll just delete the app, because they know we don’t pay much attention anyway… and he chooses something that is simultaneously “Serious”, “Newsworthy” but that also will almost certainly catch the eye. A MILLION REFUGEES!!! WHAT THE….
Yeah, sensationalism. So this CNN person (or more likely a group… think of it, this one notification sent to millions of people the result of a 30-minute meeting someone had in Atlanta a few hours ago).
But still, why? Well, CNN is (nominally at least) in the news business, so it must do news. And this is how we do news now, isn’t it?
This is what I imagine Jeff Zucker wakes up every day to, that scream inside his head. ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANT? MORE TWEETING OR WHATEVER? JUST TELL ME I’LL DO IT. Jeff has a tough job, no two ways about it.
Back to the point: CNN is trying to survive, doing news or the closest approximation they can manage while still being able to cut to commercials about Viagra and golf courses. That’s fine.
CNN was the inventor, really, of the 24-hour news cycle. They were (actually) serious once. Real journalist-like. They just decided that the world had become too connected and too complicated and that the previous diet of news only in the morning, evening, or night, was not enough. That we needed news ALL THE TIME.
Fine. It was just an extension, really, of what had happened earlier. It used to be there was one news program that everyone liked. Everyone had their favorite TV news anchor. The most “trusted.”
Before that, Radio and newspapers held more sway. And even before that, just newspapers, or just a few printed pages every day, really, of things that were happening around towns. Around big towns specifically, because…
There. Right there.
There’s the why.
With the industrial revolution came the need for people to be closely together. Cities grew. As cities grew, they became more concentrated. People didn’t know each other anymore.
The old mechanisms for knowing what the hell was going on had broken down. If there was some pest killing all the chickens in the vicinity, you couldn’t rely on the old lady near the water hole anymore. If there was an impending band of roving asshats that was going to rob people you wouldn’t find out until they were on top of you. In this new, hypercompressed, always-on city, you couldn’t even see two feet in front of you, the smell and the dust and the ash and the pervasive rumors and bullshit so thick you needed someone to parse some of this stuff and tell you, well, simply, what you just had to know.
This is the why.
See, there is a why. There’s always a why. Always a reason. This one in particular started to get left behind pretty early. Once day, astute newspapermen (and yes, they were all men back then, trust me) realized that the more blood you talked about, the more papers you sold. People seemed to like it. Morbid curiosity? A twisted new way of finding entertainment? Perhaps finding that your life wasn’t really that bad because, look, there’s that other guy that just got run over by a truck and now can only eat with a straw, look at that, how horrible, and how’s he progressing, that saint, in his recovery? He’s a hero, that’s what…
Ok, I went too far. I said I wouldn’t get dark, or cynical, moving on.
The point is, the news had a point. There was a why. There was a reason. Over time, the reason mutated, changed. Over time, we added the profit motive (well, that one jumped on board pretty much at the beginning but the notion that there’s more profit margin in abstract thought sold for entertainment than in manufacturing something still hasn’t quite cut through some people).
Over time… over time, though, we just started doing it… well, because. Why do we watch the news? To be informed, to be good citizens, etcetera. True. True. To do our jobs… maybe, for some of us. But a lot of it, a lot of what we consume as “news” is really just filler. Useless. Even significant and perhaps tragic events are not really important to a lot of us, sad as that may sound. I’m not even going to go into the issue of how we selectively decide to freak out about the same thing depending on where it happens. I am talking about the objective value of the news, for example…
A small building collapses in somewhere in St Louis, MO. A few people killed and a few injured. No foul play… no crazy terrorists. Just an accident. Bad plumbing. Ok. Well, surely everyone in the vicinity should know about it, and gathering information and summarizing it for them is an eminently useful and worthwhile thing to do. They may have to find out if there’s family or friends hurt. City officials might have to revisit their building codes, or something. Perhaps, even, the whole State or the whole country might have to have a discussion about structural integrity and such. But the actual, specific continued coverage about the collapse, the victims, the bystanders, is irrelevant to anyone outside a 50-mile radius of that building. And yet, the “news” would spend two days with wall-to-wall coverage, and the rescue, and so forth. Charities would be set up. You know how it’d go.
But it shouldn’t be this way. There’s local news, and there’s global news, in that there’s things that affect us locally (“crossing two miles down my house is flooded”), nationally (“a few drops of rain in Chicago freeze air traffic”, heh), or world-wide (“Aliens land on White House lawn, demand rent-controlled apartment in NYC”).
This wasn’t a conspiracy — this is something that evolved naturally. We were doing one thing, and we kept doing it and now we’re still doing it even if it is not really useful and even if it, sometimes, it starts to hurt us. Because I’m all for entertainment, but there’s really no need for me to be informed about every tragedy in the world just because CNN has to fill its front page. There’s a lot of people in the world. Bad stuff happens all the time. So I don’t want to hear about a train crash in Thailand, horrible as that might be. I choose not to look at that, not to be uninformed, not because I don’t care, but because it serves no purpose. Whatever “good” can come from this information (safety concerns? worrying about trains I take? donate money? what?) surely is diluted by the obvious immediate “bad” that comes from having to process this stuff non-stop.
So it’s not about the news, or about CNN, although they do probably need some help to pull out from that sense of fully saturated colors tinted in desperation that I get from their every broadcast “pleeeassse watch us! we’ll have monkeys playing poker! Squirrels in space!!! ANYTHING!!!.”
I’m just saying that we have accumulated lots and lots of habits and systems and gadgets that are no longer necessary. They may need replacement, or rethinking. They may need just to be removed.
The opportunities are everywhere. We just have to look for purpose in what we do, in what we have.
Inertia is a powerful force, but it’s not all-powerful. Questioning, finding purpose in the things we do, is clarifying, and while it sometimes leads to uncomfortable problems that don’t have easy solutions, it invariably ends up being a useful exercise.
Just give it a try.