Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 23, 2017

recency illusions

In his book Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough writes,

Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans — white, black, and Hispanic — disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast. They strike inside the Pentagon, inside the U.S. Capitol, at a courthouse in Boston, at dozens of multinational corporations, at a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners. People die. They rob banks, dozens of them, launch raids on National Guard arsenals, and assassinate policemen, in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. There are deadly shoot-outs and daring jailbreaks, illegal government break-ins and a scandal in Washington.... 

In fact, the most startling thing about the 1970s-era underground is how thoroughly it has been forgotten. “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war,” recalls a heralded black militant named Sekou Odinga, who remained underground from 1969 until his capture in 1981. “And they always say, ‘What war?’”...

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States,” notes a retired FBI agent, Max Noel. “People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

Why do so many people today — including the newly elected President — believe that the social fabric is more seriously frayed now than at any point since the Civil War? To some extent we must blame the historical ignorance with which Americans are congenitally afflicted. But I lived through the period that Burrough describes, though I was young, and while I remember many of the events he describes I also remember not being alarmed by them; nor did I know anyone who was. People were concerned, to be sure, and saddened, and puzzled, but not alarmed.

And yet on social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency.

Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended ... I can live with that.

14 comments:

  • Thank you for this post, sir.

  • Sometimes Tolstoy comes near to saying what it is: the more we know, he tells us, about a given human action, the more inevitable, determined it seems to us to be; why? because the more we know about all the relevant conditions and antecedents, the more difficult we find it to think away various circumstances, and conjecture what might have occurred without them—and as we go on removing in our imagination what we know to be true, fact by fact, this becomes not merely difficult but impossible. --Isaiah Berlin, The Fox and the Hedgehog p. 73.

  • Interesting. As a Britisher who moved to the US in the late 90s, I have always had the same feeling about the IRA bombings that we endured in the late 70s and early 80s - yes, it was scary, but for the most part people just shrugged their shoulders. I always attributed this to cultural differences, but maybe social media also has a role...

  • Thanks for this perspective. Am adding atop my Where To Find News page - http://jasonmolin.net/2016/08/where-to-get-news/ - as a great reminder to keep bending news habits toward meals rather than bites.

  • A bit late to the party, perhaps, but a welcome adjustment to anyone's information diet. I made this same decision years ago. Thoreau got it right long ago, quipping about the new telegraph service: "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

  • Do you have any suggestions for a good monthly news source?

  • I gave up on newspapers for similar reasons. There were too many column inches to fill and not enough story to fill them, so it was the same stories every day, frequently with no new information but just another take or an interview with someone else who didn't know anything new. National TV news is similar.

    Local TV news is a waste - after covering todays fires, car crashes and shootings, there's just time for sports, weather and a feel good story.

    I was in the bookstore recently and most of the current events titles just seemed needlessly biased. It's easy to find stuff that fits my own bias online and the opposite bias is too hard to take seriously. What ever happened to the illusion of objectivity? And I'm not sure I can wait until today's stories are covered as historical events!

    Mostly I get my news fix these days by fact checking whatever new outrage pops up in my facebook feed. That keeps me informed of what seems important to others while allowing me to run down the true stories.

    So I would be interested in knowing what monthly or quarterly journals you are looking at.

  • Walt, I think I *can* wait until today's stories are covered as historical events! In fact, that's my goal.

    I don't really have a system: I read The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, National Affairs (for which I also write), and let's not forget all the excellent stuff on the social implications of technology published here at The New Atlantis. I also check Longform.org for interesting stories. My list is evolving!

  • Brilliant. Thank you for the reference

  • thank you

  • Paris Review!

  • I first came across the argument that the most fundamental problems with the news are related to its frequency (the more rapid the updates, the less conducive to actual understanding and the less likely to track genuine importance) in an essay published in First Things by C. John Sommerville. It's a pre-internet piece, but it's easy enough to see how the core argument applies to news in the age of Twitter.

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1991/10/why-the-news-makes-us-dumb

  • Great point here. Actually sounds a lot like C. S. Lewis' view on keeping up with the news (you have to unlearn much of what you have learned, etc. - incidentally also the opinion of Yoda).

  • Perspectivedaily.de and correctiv.de are good examples in slow journalism

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