Left distended, gagging and glum by their hefty 24/7 media diets, a smattering of intelligent people are battling information obesity by applying the bariatric clamps on their news consumption. Anything to end the painful and disorienting gorging, they cry!
The most notable self-experimenter in media self-denial would be technology columnist Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, who reduced his social media use to a trickle and canceled all news notifications on his phone for two months. Instead of consuming online news, Manjoo switched to print newspapers and achieved, he thinks, an increase in news literacy. Eve Peyser of Vice divorced herself completely from the Internet for five days by decamping to an off-the-information-grid cabin in the woods. Reporting back, she said the test left her “calmer than ever.” Semi-retired business executive Erik Hagerman has outdone both journos by moving permanently to the sticks where he has avoided all news media since Nov. 8, 2016. Hagerman hasn’t gone all hermit on us: He still makes the 30-minute trip to Athens, Ohio, each morning for coffee. But while at the coffee shop, as New York Times writer Sam Dolnick informs us, Hagerman often dips into a cone of silence—white noise from his headphones—to jam the inevitable incoming waves of contaminating news that might travel from a stranger’s lips to his ears.
Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan didn’t resort to a Manjooian stunt, but she too buys into the news overload notion, dispensing Weight Watchers-like remedies for the malaise: Read printed newspaper headlines, even if you don’t read the newspaper itself; take breaks from social media; disable alerts; don’t take your phone to yoga class; devote yourself to a good newsletter, a public radio briefing, an evening newscast and a single news app.
Has news technology really become that oppressive, that unavoidable? A recent American Psychological Association survey says a majority of adults who follow the news regularly say it causes them stress. But our age didn’t invent the pushy, ever-present, time-sink of media. Historian Heidi Tworek notes that with the emergence of newspapers came satires about people over-hungry for news—the implication being that the less consumed the better. (See two Ben Jonson plays from the 1620s, The Staple of News and News from the New World Discovered in the Moon.)
Almost without fail, cultures greet the advent of new communications technologies with great optimism, but soon, the information ecstasy turns to information anxiety. The telephone came first. It was a boon. By 1897, it was a bane, as the New York Daily Tribune griped about “telephone mania, a modern disease from which only the friends of those afflicted suffer.” The power of radio animated the nation when it arrived in the 1920s, but by 1932 a New York Times writer was calling the radio experience a passive thing with a “dazing, almost anesthetic effect upon the mind.” An ecstasy to anxiety oscillation has greeted every subsequent communications technology—movies, television, satellite TV, computers, video games, the Internet, the smartphone. First, it’s the greatest thing. Soon, news articles and studies push back, observing how the new technology zombifies users.
Scholar Adam Thierer calls such overreactions “technopanics,” akin to the moral panics described by Stanley Cohen in 1972. For Cohen, moral panics arose when societal changes or fads disrupted the status quo and “editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people” rushed to the “moral barricades” to “pronounce their diagnoses and solutions.” It’s easy to sympathize with the people who describe themselves as overloaded on news media. The 24/7 news cycle of Donald Trump speeches, the North Korean clash and other top news seem both irresistible and inescapable. Plus, technology has made news-conveying screens ubiquitous—on your desk, all over your home, in your pocket, and in bars, fitness centers, and building lobbies. Even my gas station broadcasts news from TV screens built into its self-service pumps.
But our technopanic history shows an American knack for taming new technologies. The most radical information processing technique is to simply ignore the news. At this, many Americans excel. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of adults under age 30 got no news on any given day! They achieved this benchmark without the benefit of the teaching of Manjoo, Peyser, Sullivan or the guy in Ohio. Maybe a couple of the survey respondents should compose a pitch letter on the five ways to best avoid the news and address it to a New York Times editor.
These news refuseniks aren’t alone in their ability to stiff-arm media. Who doesn’t know somebody who lets his New Yorkers pile up in the parlor, unopened; who never watches TV news; who skips the newspaper if he doesn’t get to the day it’s published; who would rather die than listen to NPR; who keeps Twitter and Facebook off his phone?
Observing the unread newspapers and magazines littering my cubicle, the blur of my Tweetdeck page, and the clutter of my RSS feed, I can hardly claim that news overload doesn’t exist. But could it be that I—and some of you—deliberately leave the information hose running because it’s part of our strategy to stay informed? I’m sure that some New York Times subscriber somewhere reads every column inch of the newspaper just because it lands on his doorstep. But most Times subscribers learn to sip from the Times faucet what they need and leave the rest.
If you think news overload is a crisis, stop acting so helpless. Feel like you’re drowning in the news? Learn how to swim.
The Columbia Journalism Review says Manjoo overstated his temporary divorce from the Internet. Over the years, Time magazine has served a rampage of technopanics on its cover (see this page). Send technopanic observations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts demand that you read them. My Twitter feed will see you in court if you unfollow me. My RSS feed is the honey badger of media.