Monday, 6 March 2017

But if the medium is the message, shouldn't you NOT watch television news?

I never read the local news. Never. What's the point? I know there are murders, rapes and creeps nearby as a general concept, but I see no value in knowing the specific cases. And there's great harm in poisoning your mind. My world is not the world in the news, it's in the backyard and the local park. I don't voluntarily watch horror movies either so why would I read this news? At least I know The Exorcist is fake.

The local news isn't real in any important sense. My life doesn't match the lives of people depicted in the news at all. I don't behave the same way or do the same things. Sure, those people are close by, geographically-speaking, but that usually means very little.

There are parts of my city I've never been and will probably never travel to. Not because I avoid those places. I just never think about them. My life and whatever's happening in that suburb are mutually exclusive. It might as well be going on in Dunedin or Manilla, and it does. Whatever happens in those cities has the same effect on my life - none.

The national television news is equally pointless. Individuals have no control over world events and vanishingly small ways of impacting them, so the event's influence on our lives is negligible. Thirty minutes of reading a major newspaper would be better than three hours of television. It won't have all the salacious video, but maybe you don't need to see those pictures. And really, you're better off spending thirty minutes reading material directly important and of immediate use to you.

If it interferes with your life, eliminate it. Focus on things that actually matter to you.

Because once you stop consuming television, two things happen. First, you have absolutely no frame of reference for what people who do watch television talk about or the way they talk about it. Second, your life pretty much reverts to focusing on your local geographic environment (neighbourhood, town, etc.) and the people in your life who may be geographically distant.

The best framework for modern culture is to distinguish geographic distance from psychological distance. Psychological distance explains how we're familiar with things that feel physically closer than things that are geographically closer but unfamiliar or unsettling. It explains the disparities in the feelings of proximity we have with others in online communities compared with the proximity with people a short distance away but culturally distinct.

So a meetup with online friends in another city will probably seem closer (less of a journey), than the yearly trip to the next suburb (much closer, geographically) to visit relatives.

You might say this is all stupid and supports ignorance or that we should watch news critically.

But I cannot disagree with this sentiment more. Television news is mind poison. Of course, everything should be considered critically, but there is nothing redeeming about television news at all. And a litany of things wrong, dysfunctional and dangerous about it. There is no reason to watch. You should read online, read blogs, watch online documentaries and all sorts of other things. I see no reason whatsoever to watch CNN or BBC.

The notion that you can watch television news critically while immunising yourself from it is laughable. Do you really think people can parse, deconstruct, analyse and interpret the flood of out-of-context images, narrative, biases, assumptions, graphics and edits of a 90-second news story, and do so while a subsequent 90-second deluge plays after it? I'm a journalist, and I can barely keep up.

Even if you could maintain an impenetrable critical posture, your view of the world of ideas is limited by what you see and what you critique. You may hate CNN, but if that's what you watch and rail against, you'll invariably assume CNN represents some portion of the political spectrum of the country. When in fact, it may represent no one at all. You aren't getting the worldview of the people who agree with only some of CNN's positions, but not others.

In any case, the argument for television news is not that it covers stories in-depth, because that would be preposterous. It's that news provides video coverage of events, particularly live coverage. But why is this good? Tell my why watching a car chase or a boat hijacked by pirates live is somehow better than watching it on YouTube later? Then tell me why it's important for me to watch it at all. Just because we want to see something exciting or titillating doesn't mean we should see it, and probably argues that we shouldn't.

Television news was created for an age when the box was the only source of video, so there was some justification for editing and packaging it in a manageable form because there was no other way to deliver it. But today, we don't need BBC to package an event when YouTube offers multiple video angles shot by many different people. Television news isn't a live experience, it's the live experience the networks want you to have.

Cellphone networks are capable of supporting on-demand real-time video calls. Certain apps allow people to push those real-time feeds from their phones onto YouTube to a million people - for free. When a "live event" happens, like the next 9-11, who really thinks people will want to have some idiot re-contexting the live experience for us? They'll simply connect to an open video feed of a cell camera on the ground.

The truth is, most people watch television news because they think other people are watching it, and they want a common, shared model of the world, whether they agree with parts of that model or not. But in my opinion, it would be better if people didn't have a homogenised a priori model and instead formed a shared model based on the outcome of arguments from their own individual viewpoints and opinions. Hey, I can dream, can't I?

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