28 December 2009

I'm Unkie Dave, and I'm a newsaholic

On Stephen's Day TV3 reported that Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan had been diagnosed with cancer. This report was picked up and commented upon by a number of political blogs, including Irish Election. In a subsequent post on Irish Election a number of commentators speculated upon possible courses of action should the report prove to be true, would the Minister resign, when would he resign, and who would be most likely to take over from him, all while both the Minister and his department refused to comment on the matter to mainstream media.

Surprisingly (or rather, surprising to me) there was considerable backlash in the comments section on the appropriateness of such speculation in the face of what is a personal tragedy, especially at Christmas, and consequently the speculative post was deleted.

This casts an interesting light into the murky area of what is and is not newsworthy, what levels of privacy public representatives are entitled to expect and what exactly are the boundaries of the public's right to information concerning elected officials, especially in our current era of instant access and real-time news.

I have no comment to make on the Minister or the appropriateness of either the original news reports or subsequent speculation. On the public reaction to the timing of these reports and speculation however I will say that those reporting are neither to be blamed or praised, for all they are doing is feeding our unquenchable thirst for immediacy. The same hand that we grasp tight for live-blogging Cop15 or leaking the holder of the Christmas Number 1 an hour before the official results are reported cannot then be slapped away for running with a story on the health of the man in charge of our economy, it is only doing what we have demanded of it.

In his book 'Flat Earth News' Nick Davies documents the pressure the mainstream media is under to report the news first before any of their rivals, with quality and fact-checking frequently sacrificed in the interests of speed. He calls this worship of speed within the media 'churnalism':
"You can see the clash of traditional journalism and the new high-speed churnalism in the official BBC guide which is given to all staff on News Interactive. On the one hand, it urges: 'Your story MUST be accurate, impartial, balanced and uphold the values of BBC News... NEVER publish anything that you do not understand, that is speculation or inadequately sourced.' And then, as if there were no contradiction at all: 'Get the story up as fast as you can... We encourage a sense of urgency - we want to be first.' It then goes on to recite the five-minute target for breaking news."
- 'Flat Earth News', Nick Davies, p70-71
We live in an age where we are information consumers; information is a commodity that is traded, exchanged, bartered, horded and stolen, and our appetite for consumption is insatiable. We demand the instant and immediate, and our suppliers are only too happy to accede to our demands.

But in recent weeks I have been reflecting on the worth, if any, of real-time information; if the information I consume has no direct bearing on my own situation at that exact moment, or if I have no ability to positively affect the situation with which the information is concerned, what value is the immediacy of that information to me? Of what use to me is the instant knowledge of a failed bombing on a plane a thousand miles away? Of what value is the immediate reporting of the death of an actress in California or unresearched speculation on China's role in the failure of Cop15? Why in any of these situations is fast better than slow, when I have no ability to affect these events directly or indirectly, nor do they have any immediate effect on me?

In 1991 at the dawn of the first Gulf War, before embedded reporters and the death of print media sacrificed on the altars of 24-hr rolling news stock, before Twitter and the indexing of real-time results from social-network status updates, before the birth of Google or even the widespread adoption or awareness of the internet itself, Paul Virilio said in interview:
"Immediacy, ubiquity, omnivoyance are the elements of the politics of tomorrow. For the present, nobody controls real time. Nobody seriously poses the questions of its effects... All distances are reduced to zero. This global reduction will have fateful consequences for the social being, for morality. It is time to found an ecology of the media.

...The threat is that of fusion and confusion. No politics is possible at the scale of the speed of light. Politics depends upon having time for reflection. Today, we no longer have time to reflect, the things that we see have already happened. And it is necessary to react immediately. Is a real time democracy possible? An authoritarian politics, yes. But what defines democracy is the sharing of power. When there is not time to share, what will be shared? Emotions.

A change in our relationship to time has recently taken place. Before, we had the past, the present and the future. Today, the choice is nothing more than that between deferred time and real time. Humanity no longer lives in the present, but rather in the tele-presence of the world. On the level of morality, of aesthetics, of ethics, major political questions immediately arise."
- 'Desert Screen', Paul Virilio, p32-33
Beyond the Public Sphere and on a purely personal level, why do I need to know that my friend in New Haven is having a coffee right now, or my sister's cat in London is asleep on the chair? Real-time remarks on Facebook and Twitter give the illusion of intimacy but in reality are a barrier to true dialogue; lulled as I am by the false sense of communication that comes from passively consuming status updates I invariably fail to reach out and have direct and genuine contact with family and friends.

But as Charlton Heston might have said, "Tweets don't kill communication, people kill communication". It is the way in which we use these technologies to feed our information consumption that is destroying true social interaction, eroding cognitive analysis and disrupting the deliberative decision making process. On any given morning before I have even got out of bed I have skimmed through 200-odd posts from RSS feeds and checked Facebook, Twitter and a forum or two that I belong to, all on my iPhone. I am seemingly addicted to information consumption, and judging by the pervasive demand for real-time information from all areas of our society, I am not alone.

Thanks to the combination of the seemingly infinite availability of information and our own inability to self-regulate our individual consumption, we are rapidly approaching what I call 'Peak News', where the level of information that we consume on a daily basis surpasses our ability to process that information to any meaningful degree.

I have been debating how best to stave off this Peak on a personal level, starting with a cull in the new year of my online addictions. First on the chopping block are my feeds, if something is worth knowing about it will still be worth knowing about an hour, a day or a week later. Next up are my anti-social networks, Twitter first, then Facebook, they serve no purpose other than as a prop to my delusional belief that I remain in close contact with those outside the 3km radius in which my life revolves. I have yet to decide on the forums, for at least there some semblance of actual dialogue occurs, even if the actual value of that dialogue is somewhat questionable. I've also taken out a number of subscriptions to offline, real-world, dead-tree, peer-reviewed journals, looking for a quality and depth of information rather than quantity and speed.

I have no interest in cutting myself off completely from the flow of global information and live hermit-like on the Skelligs of blissful ignorance, rather I want to move away from my current paradoxical situation of reactionary passivity, where I rage at the immediate and yet do nothing about it, and progress to a measured position of knowledge-based activity and proper communication.

I'll still be pretty grumpy though.

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At 11:17 pm, Blogger Aidan said...

You'd like Sky News' internal staff motto;

"Sky News, Never Wrong for Long".

Print it first, retract and clarify later.

Their sheer desire to beat every other news source is incredible, and the back slapping beating anyone else to a "breaking news" is absurd.

Incidentally I saw Rupert Murdoch's obituary on the server this week...

At 11:04 am, Blogger Snag Breac said...

Interesting post Dave. Don't have much to add, but still!
Hilarious sky staff motto!

perhaps you should move to the midlands, where there is no real sense of urgency in the longford leader...front page articles have been: Turf stolen from bog!, and an article on how longford missed Jedward on the Late Late Toy show thanks to a power outing...

At 11:48 am, Blogger Jonzer said...

Congrats. Although I dipped my toe into Facebook I was immediately turned off by the "just had an enormous dump" / "never drinking beer" immediacy of drivel that was poured into the flow in gallons from people I have know or know well yet only communicate with me through one-sided comments on the last five minutes of their life. I gave up when people would not attend functions I had emailed them or talked directly to them about would not turn up because it did not appear on Facebook. I am glad to be free.


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