[They were intrigued] even by the fact that I read papers and watched the news on television from time to time (a habit which seemed to them and outrageous eccentric, peculiar to me alone; none of them were the least bit interested in anything that went on in the world, and their ignorance of current events and even recent history was rather astounding. Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled to learn from me that men had walked on the moon. “No,” he said, putting down his fork.
“It’s true,” chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way.
“I don’t believe it.”
“I saw it,” said Bunny. “It was on the television.”
“How did they get there? When did this happen?”)
This episode in The Secret History used to amuse me and seem proof of the almost cultish introspection of the characters. Yet, in an intimidatingly abundant media, where ignorance in some form is a given as there is always more, more, more, this particular section strikes me now as a description of people who have actively chosen what to consume.
It has long been considered that some media, more than others, is an experience of passive intake. David Foster Wallace has written about the cycle of loneliness and addiction that television can cause, whereby watching TV seems to solve loneliness, filling our living rooms with familiar characters, yet this seeming solution lands us sitting alone in a room staring at our furniture for an average of six hours a day.
The news has an even more pointed agenda than just your average TV show. This all begins with the assumption that the news is offering you The Truth. And somehow, more than missing out on other information, missing out on The Truth about now is a quick path to being perceived as ignorant and uninformed. But what is really being offered?
More or less, all of the 60 second sound bites and pithy, clickbait articles are aimed at causing shock, anxiety and unease. Because if we are uneasy we will keep sitting with our dinner and staying to see the ads. To sooth our anxiety we will keep clicking to find out how it turned out, but the point is not that anything resolves, because a new exercise in anxiety must always be introduced to keep us looking.
It doesn’t actually matter if too much of what is said is true. The fact that the media is a filter of reality, a version of events, with an endless agenda to placate and direct, means that while “The Truth” is what is presented, what really happened is not particularly important.
Because of the shock value and the social pressure to seem like we know what’s going on, we are driven to get as many of these nibbles of information as possible. To assist with this, our friends are always there to help us out on social media, driving clicks to the most entertaining articles and videos.
And here is the thing about the news. It’s entertainment. Shocking and engrossing, just like an episode of Game of Thrones and just as easy to talk about at work. But not necessarily cheering, enlightening or fulfilling.
In this overabundance of accessible information we will always have a fear of missing out, so learning deeply is not all that enticing. But if we realise that all media equally aims to entertain (some with more authoritarian motives than others), we can choose what to consume and in what portions.
The information we take in shapes our thinking about the world and fills us with our talking points, so our decision about media becomes a decision about who we are. If we choose to consume passively then who are we?
Just like the characters in The Secret History, who focused on Greek myth and classic literature to the detriment of other information, I have come to think that less is more. Less time spent scrolling to fulfill an expectation of what I should know about vaguely, but not too intimately. Less time passively lolling in my living room staring at my furniture. Less anxiety, unease and shock.
My media of choice lives in books.