The Media

A Little Digital Diet

The start of the school year, completing my summer debate research for Big Sky Debate,IMG_2162 and a great little trip up to Glacier National Park have certainly slowed down my posting here lately,something I’m pretty pleased about.

It’s not just that my posting has been light. In the past week or so, I’ve dramatically cut down my consumption of digital media—not checking my e-mail very often (as at least a few of you have noticed), skipping the morning newspapers online, and even reducing my committed addiction to Google Reader.

And you know what? It’s been good. It’s been more satisfying to wait for and read about the news once the narrative has developed into something coherent rather than being little more than a desperate race to provide tidbits of information. As wonderful as modern technology has become at the rapid distribution of information, it’s perhaps struggled to develop commensurate tools for the dissemination of a coherent narrative and even the truth.

David Ulin in, one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in the past couple of years,The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, captures the impact of our desire to constantly know the details of what’s going on as quickly as we can:

What am I looking for? Something, everything, a way of staying on top of the information . . . it doesn’t matter. The looking is an end unto itself. I Google myself, or read the Google Alerts that pop up in my inbox, links leading me to reprints of my pieces in regional papers, blog posts critiquing me and/or my work. It all seems so important in the moment, and yet none of it sticks. Meanwhile, I can tap into whatever momentary obsession gnaws at me—Obama’s poll numbers, the reopening of the Etan Patz case, the state of the New York Yankees’ bullpen—and read not one article about it but a dozen, watching video, looking at photographs, recycling the same information, the same quotes and figures, in different configurations, parsing and reparsing as if it might yield something new. That the conversation rarely changes is not a problem; rather, it is entirely the point. I don’t want to be challenged but to be soothed.

Of course, Ulin is traveling ground that Thoreau covered in Walden, well before the advent of breaking news on Twitter and RSS feeds:

Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe” — and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

Oddly enough, one of the things that most made me realize the benefits of stepping back from the stream of information was the success of the Billings Little League team at the World Series. Of course, finding time to watch the games was ideal, but when I couldn’t, it was much more pleasurable and informative to wait for a fully-developed story than to follow it on Twitter. The latter met my modern desire for immediacy, but was never as satisfying as the former, even if I had to wait a few hours or even a day for the results.

Is the game of politics profoundly different? I suspect it’s not. If I miss one day of Denny Rehberg making a fool of himself and fail to read and post about it, it’s not like I won’t get another opportunity, after all.

It’s not that I am going to give up the benefits of rapid access to information. I suspect I’ll get back to blogging, tweeting and e-mailing just as actively as before, but as for getting away from the stream once in awhile?

There’s nothing wrong with that, and both the world and I will get along just fine if I don’t pay attention for a few days at a time. Once again, Thoreau:

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

Time to go read some Walden again.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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