“Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.” – Howard Rheingold
“The quality of one’s life depends on the quality of attention. Whatever you pay attention to will grow more important in your life.” – Deepak Chopra
When I was growing up, there was always a discussion about crime rates in America. There was a perception that the country had become more dangerous in terms of murder rates, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy. But as I later learned these things had actually peaked in the 80’s and early 90’s and then sharply declined over the next thirty years. Why did public feelings not reflect reality?
Public feelings reflect what is being talked about in the news. In earlier times we got our news through the daily newspaper or through a television segment once a day, on a handful of news outlets. Editors chose their content more carefully because they had less space, and so bombarded us with irrelevant news less often. They also presented it in a less hysterical fashion. But as television news became a 24-hr cycle, and the internet news exploded, this need to filter went away. Now we accept negative reporting, both in the sense of more negative items – crime in faraway cities, for example – and more sensationalism in presentation.
As a results watching today’s news can be a very disquieting experience. Ask yourself – when was the last time you watched the news and came away feeling happy with the world? When was the last time you felt the problems described on the news were the same ones you could actually see in your own life? If you’re like most of us, it may have been years ago. It may have been never.
News In The Attention Economy
Today’s media operate in a different reality from those of a generation or two ago. Today technology has put media in the competition of what Thomas Davenport calls the ‘attention economy.’ What he means is that the world is always on, 24/7, thousands of channels of TV plus infinite online content, Twitter, texts, and any other digital communication I’m forgetting. Simple math says no one can look at even a tiny fraction of this in their lives. That means that to make the big bucks, you have to somehow catch and hold the attention of the viewers in the midst of all that noise.
And getting someone’s attention in a crowd is simple, if not always easy. You just have to be loud, vulgar, sexual, titillating, and/or frightening enough to drown out everyone else. If you want to get the most viewers, you also need to have something for everyone, which in this case means something to upset everyone. Which gets you exactly what we have now – a media cycle that deliberately incites discomfort or voyeurism in its viewers. It can frenetically bounce between wars, politics, natural disasters, fashion, and the latest celebrity scandal in the same five minutes, treating all topics with the exact same volume and seriousness.
Quality or truthfulness is not an important part of this equation, as the goal is simply to get eyes for a few seconds or minutes. In an earlier time when news was more rare people were more annoyed when it wasn’t good quality. But now we are all anesthetized by the constant stream of anything the media provider can think to say.
Effect On The Viewer
One problem with news as a never-ending cycle of loud and emotional content is that the viewers are only human. They have finite emotional energy and time and capacity to care. They also know that the real truth can’t be what they are hearing on the news, if for no other reason than the real truth must take more than 15 seconds to say.
The effect of this is emotional exhaustion. As a viewer, I experience a constant barrage of items which may or may not be true and always sound upsetting. Many of the items don’t directly affect me due to distance or circumstance, but the media make no distinction in the presentation. So I don’t know what to care about, or what to talk about.
This leads to a strange phenomenon – people get very emotional about things that are happening in other communities, countries, or continents, but are often clueless as to what’s happening in their own communities. They don’t know about the institutions and events actually affecting their own lives or which they may be able to affect in turn. They will get as upset about something that may happen in ten years as something happening today. How many Americans or Canadians care about Syrian refugees in Europe, but don’t know how many homeless people are in their own community? How many worry about the stock market but don’t know about university funding in their own state?
The purpose of news
That’s the real purpose of information – to be acted upon. That’s what we miss so often today and what gives us the sense of unreality as we watch the news.
A further example – how many people do you know personally who would claim to care about injustice in Israel and Palestine but who aren’t Jewish or Arab themselves? Now ask yourself how many of those same people are active in volunteering in their local community. It seems like volunteering would be psychologically much healthier in terms of their ability to feel like they are making a difference in the world.
That disconnect is one of many examples of the problem. The news tells the viewers that something matters, but they can’t do anything about it, and they don’t actually have a connection to it that affects their daily lives. This powerlessness is good for the media business, because it guarantees that their audience stay upset and their attention will be easily gathered by similar topics. It’s like the crime example at the beginning – no news person would tell you crime is getting better, because that might bring you down off the emotional roller-coaster. If crime rates drop, the news will still talk about the crime they do have without mentioning the overall statistic.
But reminders of a problem you can’t fix or deadly dangers you can’t see exhaust us. When individuals feel frustration and exhaustion communities suffer from missing the caring and effort that has been vacuumed away.
Consider Not Watching
I recommend conserving your attention and your emotional energy for what really matters. As a mature man, you should want to make an impact in the world for the better. You should also know where you can make an impact and how to direct your energy to the people and community depending on you. In other words, what really matters is what affects your family, community, or state, because you can participate in that debate and do something about the problem. And if you can’t do that at least you can prepare to weather the problem that is actually going to affect you.
In today’s day and age, that means you must know what topics you are genuinely interested in and what topics affect your family, your community, and your country, and then you must choose for yourself to reach out for this information. Instead of watching or reading the news everyday, you could probably be much happier and more impactful by spending some focused time each week on these key issues, doing your own research. You can get multiple views on the topic, formulate your own, and act.
To put it another way, clicking on a headline is one thing, but real caring goes beyond headlines. You shouldn’t let others decide what goes into your limited attention and energy. Shut down the constant stream, decide for yourself, and then learn the details of a smaller number of issues.