“Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.”
I don’t watch the news anymore, and I don’t get the paper. It took too much time to read, and often it would put me in a bad mood. There was too much to disapprove of, too many unsettled and unsettling stories. So I cut it out.
Television news was no better, mostly celebrity misbehavior and crises of some kind: fires, diseases, bombings and market trouble. I used to turn on CNN first thing in the morning, and listen while I made breakfast. One day I quit.
Initially, I feared I would feel out of the loop, that suddenly I would not know what was going on in the world. My peers would be exchanging crucial details about the state of the universe, and I’d have to ask sheepishly, “What’s swine flu?” or “Who’s the US president right now?” How embarrassing.
I pictured giving up news as some sort of sacrifice. I’d be gaining more time, and protecting my pleasant mood, but only at the penalty of knowing considerably less about what’s happening in the world. A worthy trade, I figured at the time, but I really did believe I was giving up something important. I even felt irresponsible, for deciding to focus on the ins and out of my own life while I ignored the plight of the world.
Now I realize I was not giving up anything of any use to anyone. The news never really added to my knowledge in any meaningful way. It just added a steady stream of limited and unsubstantiated viewpoints on select issues to my head, which is already full of limited and unsubstantiated viewpoints. The news doesn’t inform you about what’s happening in the world. The news only informs you of what’s on the news.
The Grand Scale of Life on Earth
My city has 650,000 people, each of whom experiences enough during his or her waking hours to fill eight feature-length movies, every day. Much of it would be unremarkable: TV watching, grocery shopping, cleaning. But some would be quite meaningful and far-reaching. You wouldn’t have to go too far to find people who experienced life-changing events today: children were born, friends were made, epiphanies were had, hearts were broken.
Even the so-called mundane events may carry unseen significance. While organizing my files in my living room today, I came up with about twenty or thirty ideas of things I may want to do in life: trips to take, skills to learn. I’m in the habit of writing such things down when I think of them, so there is no doubt some of them will end up actually happening a few years down the road. These things could change my life, yet they will ultimately hinge on something so completely boring: David sorting through a messy stack of papers on his floor, on a nondescript Sunday.
I’m just one person. There are 200 others in my building, over a million others in my province, 30 million in my nation, 6.5 billion on the planet. Thinking about the numbers involved, you can see how much volume there is to “what’s going on,” even in just a small area.
And that’s just the people. There is much more to this planet than what members of our species are up to.
Yet the local newscast runs maybe fifteen stories that happened today, across this city and around the world.
How do they choose them?
They choose what sells. And what sells?
- Things everyone is already talking about – The topic du jour. They change so fast, I won’t bother using today’s stories as examples. In the past it’s been the O.J. trial, the Vietnam War, Enron, Monica Lewinsky. Ok, one modern-day one: Susan Boyle.
- Things people are afraid of at the moment — Two weeks ago it was swine flu, today it’s nuclear war with North Korea. Economic collapse is still running strong, at the time of this writing anyway.
- Things that happen to famous people — Oprah’s life, Obama’s life, Britney’s life. Not your life. Not mine.
- Things that give people a chance to really dislike someone – Stories with a clear villain are always big sellers. The more appalling, the better. The more ‘right’ the viewer feels, the more of an ego rush the story provides. The type of ‘enemy’ they provide runs the gamut from serial killers to adulterous politicians — anyone who can be readily hated by the majority of the audience.
- Things that will affect people on a large scale — New laws, elections, giant companies going bankrupt. That’s understandable, but most of the things that will affect your life in a big way will not affect a million other lives at the same time. No journalists will show up to cover your child’s illness, your recent breakup, or your new career.
Of course it is unreasonable to expect the news to cover everything. But we do often expect it to cover the really big stuff, or at least provide a representative sample of the world’s happenings which, taken together, convey “the state of the world.”
In reality, they only offer small, questionable slices of information, and only about the topics that promise to arouse the curiosity of the most people possible. The vast majority (and I mean 99.9999%) of the world’s happenings could never capture the attention of enough people to make it into any sort of publication. But they’re every bit as real, and every bit as significant.
When it comes to news organizations, their goal is to capture attention in large swaths, not to educate you. In order to optimize how much attention they can capture, they aren’t afraid to dramatize, sanitize, spin, or exaggerate the real story before giving it to you.
I am not attacking news organizations, that’s not the point of this article. This is all just smart business. And I’m not attacking news-watchers either. Watch or read the news if you like. But to make my point I need to expose the fallacy of the news’ ability to inform someone of “what’s going on in the world” in any meaningful way. It really doesn’t have that capability. However, it does provide — and market — the illusion that one is able to get a solid sense of what is happening around the world by keeping track of their newscast.
Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.
~ Thomas Jefferson
We’ve been accumulating knowledge our whole lives, so it may seem like we’ve got a pretty firm handle on what the world is and what’s happening in it. We go to school, we watch documentaries, we hear people talking about things. We see photographs and illustrations. Our parents and friends teach us what the world is like, or at least what they think it’s like. Over time we piece together an image of “the world.”
We read books too. People who want their information in deeper and larger doses will go to the library. Yet something you read in a non-fiction book is neither first-hand nor second-hand knowledge. What you read is probably just the author’s best understanding of the subject, remembered spottily, romanticized a bit, edited a lot. At best it’s an opinion, which you can take or leave, depending on your own opinion of the source.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with trusting somebody else’s opinion; we need to collect other people’s explanations in order to make some sense of the world we live in. But it’s a real stretch to start taking the things we read and hear as facts, yet that’s the standard practice for most human beings.
When you think about it, almost all of what we think of as “knowledge” is really just someone’s opinion. Most of our knowledge is unquestioned hearsay. If it came from anywhere except your own senses, it’s an opinion, a belief. Most of the time we are completely unaware of the source of our beliefs, we just know that we feel like we know something for sure.
Not that opinions are worthless, not at all. We don’t have much else to go on, much of the time. But they are still ultimately just assertions on your part that a certain thing is the way you think it is, even if you’ve never actually seen it. In our heads, we build a whole world out of opinions, and sometimes forget that it isn’t actually the world itself in there, it’s just a patchwork model, with a lot of holes and ill-fitting pieces.
No matter how many information sources a person accumulates in a lifetime, and no matter how reliable they are, they’ll never amount to more than just drops in the ocean. There’s too much to know, when the subject is something as big and complex as a planet. Not every topic has been written about, by any stretch, and no person could ever read even more than a small amount of it, even if they invest a lifetime. Not everything has been photographed, even though you could spend eighty years sifting through Flickr and never see the same shot twice.
The truth we must confront is this:
Nobody knows what’s going on in the world, not even close.
These days I often hear people refer to “the state of the world.” What is the state of the world, can anyone tell me? Knowing how unfathomably enormous the world is, and how completely impossible it is to ever see more than a relative speck of it, any accounts of “the state of the world” must be extreme generalizations. So extreme as to make them completely meaningless.
What people are referring to when they use terms like “the state of the world” is their current thoughts about the world. Unlike the world itself, those thoughts have limited complexity, and are probably dominated by two or three things that that person has seen in the news recently. To a given person, the “state of the world” might invoke little more thought than “Endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, GM is going under, and kids don’t play outside anymore.” Great stretches of missing information are readily filled in with prejudices and assumptions.
“The state of CNN” might be a more accurate phrase.
Nobody has “seen the world.”
Travel is by far the best and most reliable source of information about what’s going on in the world, because direct observation is the only first-hand source. But you can’t go everywhere. I figure I’ve seen maybe a few thousand of Canada’s 5.6 million square miles, most of which I just whipped by at highway speeds, without seeing any details. Even travel rock-star Chris Guillebeau will not have seen more than a minuscule portion of the earth and its people by the time he’s set foot in every country in the world.
The world seems small nowadays, because the information age feeds us data from locations all over the globe. Protests here, a war here, an innovation here, an election here. But these are just tiny filaments of data, from sources that are ultimately unknowable. It’s like peering at the world through a thousand different keyholes. In any given keyhole we can see something, but we can’t see its context, or its causes and effects.
So What Now?
I hope you’re not upset to discover that you know relatively nothing about the planet you’re standing on. I think it’s great news.
The lesson here is this: any thoughts you have about the world as a whole can be safely tossed out. They can’t be correct because the subject matter is so overwhelmingly complicated and huge, that it defies generalization. Nobody knows the whole world, or its current “state.” Even the most well-traveled, well-read, and well-educated person in history never knew more than an infinitesimal fraction of this great planet. There is just too much of it. And that’s awesome.
Knowing that you don’t know what the whole world is all about, or what humanity is all about, is very liberating. The curses of cynicism, boredom and world-weariness are born from the erroneous beliefs that a person can actually know that the world is a terrible place, or that people are rotten, or that there’s nothing new under the sun. Those are all just thoughts, they represent no reality.
Thinking is not knowing, thinking is believing. Sensing is knowing. You can know a news report about a person, but you can’t know a person through a news report. You can know photographs of a country, but you can’t know a country through photographs.
The best we can do is to be intensely aware of what is going on in the very room we are in. The concrete, physical context of our lives, where our bodies are and where our minds are, is what’s relevant and knowable.
Look around the room. Listen. That stuff that’s going on around you, the sights and sounds in your immediate range of perception: that’s the world. Those are the facts.
Think about what happens when you become engrossed in the television or the newspaper. The more time you spend at it, the less aware you are of the room you’re in, which is the physical reality of your life. So the more second-, third- or fourth-hand data we absorb, the less we know about the world, and the more we merely believe about it.
For most people, the map quickly replaces the territory. Their beliefs determine what they see in the world, rather than the other way around. And whatever map you’re working from, it’s not exactly trustworthy: it was likely drawn from fifty thousand different sources, each of which has agendas unknown to you. Toss the map whenever you notice you’re looking at it, rather than the landscape before you.
If you want to make an assessment about the state of the world, what you can see with your own eyes, right now is the only first-hand information you have to do it with. Everything else is derivative: second-hand at best, but usually much worse.
Honor the first-hand stuff, and you’ll be living in the real world. Honor anything else, and you’re only cherishing opinions.
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