Hi there. My name is Michal and I have a problem. I read too much news. When I wake up, the first thing I do is open Facebook and read news. I read during breaks from work, although sometimes it certainly feels that I work during breaks from reading news. If I don’t get my fix, I am anxious and feel out of touch with the world. You have probably nodded to a few of these. Reading news is a bit of an addiction in our age. The anxiety gets worse when there are big events, although over time I am finding myself growing more cynical, colder towards tragedies. When Charlie Hebdo happened in 2015, I was stuck to the screen. I still remember dressing into work-out clothes in 2016 only to stay in the rest of the evening to see how the Turkish coup unfolds. The last three London attacks in the past six months? I was barely phased, and that’s not to mention events far less covered by media, in non-Western countries, even if hundreds die.
Information overload & lightning-paced news cycle
At any point, there is just too much information for anyone to follow, including tragedies (try guessing how many mass shootings there were in the US since the Las Vegas shooting on 1st October; the answer is 38). The enabling factor here is technology that has been geared towards delivering us news 24/7, via notifications of all kinds. This has two effects. First, people face so much information that they are unable to properly follow any single to its conclusion. Second, the constant coverage of tragedies makes it harder to care about issues, and as such we grow colder and more distant even to issues of bigger salience. This is especially true of US mass shootings which happen on almost weekly basis.
Let me illustrate these two points on the coverage of three major mass shooting incidents. I use Google Trends and my measure is how long it took for the coverage to go down to 1% of its peak popularity.
It took 10, 14 and 55 days for Orlando, Las Vegas and Sandy Hook respectively. That is a rather quick news cycle, given that Las Vegas shooting was labelled as the “worst mass shooting in the modern history of US.” The one before? Orlando.
Short attention is screwing us over
The pattern of quick news cycle, subdued response and moving on is repeating across issues, such as Paradise Papers or Panama papers. This inability to follow issues to their conclusions, or to be invested in them to care over the long term is harming our governance, because instead of being informed, we are being distracted by a never-ending stream of “important” news. One organization that is apt at leveraging this is the National Rifle Association. They have a clear pattern of communication every time a mass shooting of sufficient proportions happens – it goes dark, and patently waits for the next “news cycle.” President Trump is now regularly accused of distracting from important issues too, leveraging similar technique as NRA.
Naturally, NRA also donates a lot of money to representatives to keep them in good faith. And so do other donors, with yet another demands, such as passing the tax bill that would significantly reduce the taxes for the rich. The bottom line is clear, as long as these representatives believe that they can be voted again, despite legislating *against* their constituents, there is little incentive for them to change.
The problem is systemic
Too much information is not the only problem with this. The other is how social media are changing the information landscape that now favours low-quality, viral information over thorough analysis and veracity. I won’t treat this in detail here, as I have written about it in my other blogpost. The takeaway should be that this is a systemic issue, one in which too much information and low-quality information reinforce one another, to the detriment of the whole society. This means that our response also has to be systemic, tackling the social media as well as the enabling technologies such as smartphones, and notifications of all kinds.
The question here is – how do we deal with technology that makes us “on-line” 24/7? One of the main drivers here are smartphones. Their adoption increases every year, becoming increasingly the most used platform for accessing the internet. It seems that we are already past the lock-in stage, starting to realise the unwanted social consequences of smartphones but not being able to easily control it anymore (Collingridge). Jasanoff mentions that smartphones were ruled to be part of our identities, such that police can no longer search them without a warrant. It is hardly imaginable that the world would go back to “dumbphones.” Where we could possibly have bigger influence is with the newer technologies, such as Smart Watch, Virtually Reality Headsets and Enhanced Reality Glasses (like Google glasses, but not a failure). Depending on how these technologies develop, it is feasible that they too will become part of our identities. In such case, it is a necessity to push for better collaboration between developers and the society. To avoid harmful social consequences, Collingridge argues that “it must be known that technology has or will have, harmful effects” and that “it must be possible to change the technology in some way to avoid the effects.”
But what do we with the already establishes smartphones? Well, we should understand them and their risks beyond the biological ones (remember when the problem was getting head cancer? https://youtu.be/xPsCrtcEb-Y?t=133 -> warning: video is cringy and not real). As Jasanoff says, it is a challenge to “develop sufficiently powerful and systematic understandings of technology, for us to know where the possibilities lie for meaningful political action and responsible governance.” However doing so, together with my suggestions for how we should regulate social media, could help us better control for the amount, and quality of information currently in our society. In turn, we might find an interesting leverage for improving the functioning of democracies, which is to say the functioning of our societies.