How not to read the news
In “How Not to Use a Cellular Phone,” an essay first published in the early nineties, the late author Umberto Eco described what seemed, at the time, like the most obnoxious kind of cell phone user imaginable. It was the person who is anxious to show us how much in demand he is “for complex business discussions,” and who conducts these conversations at great length in public spaces like airports or restaurants, thinking that the impression he makes is “very Rockefellerian.” Eco observed:
What these people don’t realize is that Rockefeller doesn’t need a portable telephone; he has a spacious room full of secretaries so efficient that at the very worst, if his grandfather is dying, the chauffeur comes and whispers something in his ear. The man with power is the man who is not required to answer every call; on the contrary, he is always—as the saying goes—in a meeting…So anyone who flaunts a portable phone as a symbol of power is, on the contrary, announcing to all and sundry his desperate, subaltern position, in which he is obliged to snap to attention, even when making love, if the CEO happens to telephone…The fact that he uses, ostentatiously, his cellular phone is proof that he doesn’t know these things.
At first glance, Eco’s point might seem dated. Few people these days regard the mere act of using a cell phone as a status symbol, and if anything, the sight of someone actually talking on one has begun to feel slightly quaint. In fact, of course, the essay isn’t dated at all. The only difference is that we’ve all been transformed into the sorry figure whom Eco describes. Like him, we’re expected to be available at all times for emails, texts, tweets, and even the occasional phone call, and we don’t have the consolation of thinking that it makes us special. Instead, we’re all uniformly vulnerable to constant interruption, not only by friends and colleagues, but by strangers, spammers, and nonhuman sources of distraction. I’m thinking, in particular, of the news. The gap between an event in the world and its dissemination, analysis, and dismissal online has been reduced to invisibility, and it’s only going to get worse. During the election, there were times when I felt like a slave to information, which is just one step away from noise, and I took steps to insulate myself from it. At the time, I thought it was a temporary measure, but now it looks more like a way of life. Which, in a way, may be the only truly positive outcome of this past year. It forced me to do what I never would have been able to accomplish voluntarily: to take a step back and think more critically about my relationship to the unending deluge of data in which we live.
You could make the case we have a moral obligation to be informed of all events as soon as they occur, or that unplugging is a form of denial in itself, but those who lived through even more stressful times knew better. In a letter dated December 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert A. Heinlein described his own “mental ostrichism” to John W. Campbell:
A long time ago I learned that it was necessary to my own mental health to insulate myself emotionally from everything I could not help and to restrict my worrying to things I could help. But wars have a tremendous emotional impact and I have a one-track mind. In 1939 and 1940 I deliberately took the war news about a month later, via Time magazine, in order to dilute the emotional impact. Otherwise I would not have been able to concentrate on fiction writing at all. Emotional detachment is rather hard for me to achieve, so I cultivate it by various dodges whenever the situation is one over which I have no control.
It’s a statement that seems all the more remarkable to me the more I think about it. Whatever his other flaws, Heinlein wasn’t a mental weakling, or a man inclined to avoid confronting reality, and the fact that he felt the need—as a form of preventative mental hygiene—to delay the news by a month is tremendously comforting. And it reassures me that I’m justified in thinking hard about the way in which I relate to the information at my disposal.
To put it bluntly, there’s nothing wrong with reading the paper every morning, absorbing what seems to have mattered over the last twenty-four hours, and then turning off the spigot for the rest of the day. It’s how people got their news for most of the twentieth century, which certainly wasn’t lacking in meaningful events. (Increased coverage doesn’t always lead to greater understanding, and you could even make the case that the sheer volume of it—which has diffused the impact of what is truly important and paved the way for the rise of fake news—has inhibited our ability to respond.) It may even turn out to be more useful to postpone these confrontations to a modest degree. When Napoleon was the Emperor of France, he developed a strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence that he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved, or that the passage of time had put it into perspective. The news works in much the same way. There are very few items that can’t be better understood after a day or two has passed, and for those rare events that are so urgent that they can’t be ignored, there will always be a chauffeur, as Eco puts it, to whisper it in our ears. As Heinlein understood, when you can’t help something in the short term, you have to manage your relationship to it in ways that maximize your potential impact over the long run. It’s measured in years rather than seconds. And it starts right now.