In 1996 I was a freshman in high school. I didn’t have a cell phone and neither did my parents. I had my home phone number memorized and I had other important numbers written in a notebook that I always carried with me. If I recall correctly, we didn’t have a computer at home, yet. Once we did get one, we had dial up internet through America Online (AOL). My parents still have AOL email addresses (kind of wild to think about). You usually called someone on a house phone via landline. This meant the potential of having to talk to someone you had no familiarity with and navigating introducing yourself and what your business was (important skills to learn that don’t happen for many kids any longer). Obviously, most of you reading this don’t need a history lesson in communications technology but I think it helps to remember the mediums by which we used to communicate and how different they were from today’s technology.
Today, I can send a friend a message on the other side of the world and they’ll receive it instantly. We don’t really have to remember phone numbers anymore and, compared to the late 90’s, we have vastly more computing power sitting literally, in the palms of our hands. We have the ability to communicate with each other so fast and I presume it will only get faster. We also have the ability to broadcast ourselves in a much more profound way than ever before. Social Media, Video Uploading, Blogging, and Podcasting technologies have given so many people the ability to get their voice heard with very little in the way of barriers. I’ve read numbers between 300-500 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. According to YouTube’s website, One Billion Hours of content is viewed daily. But how much can one person pay attention to? How much information can one person reasonably know? And, YouTube is just one web platform of many…
In recent years I have often thought about the differences between news/media outlets in my childhood versus today. In the 90’s, news via Public Local TV Stations, Local Radio, and Daily Local News Papers was about the extent of your options to receive information about what was happening in the world. TV was my method of choice. There was no thought back then (for me anyway) as to whether the news was biased or accurately depicted the whole truth of the subject matter. It was on TV so it must be true, right? That was my assumption as a kid. Also, there’s the issue of limited choice. You can’t know everything but in today’s world you can read, listen, and watch everything on the internet. As a freshman in high school, the news was on at certain times of day. Local news had a time slot and national news had a time slot. There were a few major channels to choose from and that expanded once we had Cable TV, but the choices were still fairly limited. And, simply being on TV made those sources authoritative in many ways. At least for me anyway.
Today, you can curate your own 24 hour news stream. Of course, that assumes you are privileged enough to have access to the technology to utilize the internet. You can hear everything from sound bites from major news organizations like NPR to commentary from individuals like myself. I assume a burden of truth telling in my writing and I presume an organization like NPR does the same throughout their media production. Of course, I’ll get things wrong but I think the greater burden one has to assume when producing content on the internet is the burden of nuanced perspective. I try to assume a situation is, more than likely, far more complicated than what I see. I try t remember this as I write about various things on this blog.
Media tells a story because story is far more interesting than isolated facts. We all tell stories because, again, stories are much more interesting than isolated facts. When we receive information from the outside world we tend to try to organize that information in some coherent narrative so that it makes sense. That being said, what happens when we are able to communicate at the speed in which we currently communicate and how is our attention held?
Well, first off, again, we can’t know everything. Does anybody have time to decipher the 300 hours of content that just go uploaded to YouTube in the last 60 seconds? Is there any organization in the world that can Police content at that volume? News media streams from all over the world. It’s hard to know what’s factual at all times and even harder to know precisely how it’s all connected. However, our minds are going to try to find a cohesive connection among it all. When I was a teenager there wasn’t that type of global awareness and what you heard about the rest of the world came from a few sources and you certainly couldn’t get information in real-time. As Wuhan China started it’s lock-down when the Coronavirus was initially spreading there were YouTube videos of people in the city showing what was happening, as it happened. At those moments back in the first part of the year, who knew how things would progress?! I certainly didn’t. Since then, the flood of information about the virus, social unrest, and the economic downturn has been relentless. All this plus we’re entering Presidential Election Season, which is yet another thing that it’s hard to know everything about. The reality for me is that sometimes I ignore the news for a few days to allow my brain to cool off. Sometimes I make up doomsday scenarios because that’s the narrative my mind creates off of a few facts, that’s usually when I ignore the news for a while. The reality is actually extremely complicated and not easily discernible from a few stories in the media. We have to work hard to remember that.
The other thing to try to remember is that sensationalism sells. Click bait is a thing and I fall for it too. We naturally look for the threats in our environment and that’s why negative news receives so much more attention than positive news. Add to that the assumptions we might have that we don’t realize and the speed at which information comes into our conscious awareness, and I think it’s easy to see why we’ve become so polarized as a society. It’s hard to process such a large volume of information (that may or may not be true) and ‘feel’ informed without making a bunch of inaccurate assumptions. It’s a settling feeling to believe I understand what’s happening around me but maybe it’s better to understand that I don’t know? And be comfortable with not knowing…
Instant gratification is about satiating the minds need for comfort. In a time were we can access more information than ever, yet we have shorter attention spans, how do we reconcile the two? Or, can we simply learn to be comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’. What if we’re just addicted to the need to ‘feel’ informed and therefore we over-simplify things because it more aggressively meets that need? What if we’re running after information high’s that make us feel like we’ve got it all figured out?
What would it mean for us all to slow down in our interpretation of the stories we are told not only by media but by everyone? What does it mean to have a balanced skepticism?