At the end of last year, I gave up the technologies that transmit news and social media. But I actually quit the media itself a year before that. Like all good decisions, it was made in the pub, with a friend — a neighbour, who also writes for the Guardian (though, like me, does not write not about the news). Until then I would keep religiously informed about world affairs online — via the Guardian, naturally — over breakfast every morning.
It wasn’t that I thought news to be a bad thing per se — though most of it tends to be bad news — but I no longer wished to read it. For a start, I found it was becoming boring. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 19th century, long before Twitter and 24-hour news: “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 ... we never read of another. One is enough.” It has all become a bit like a Hollywood movie: Same storylines, different characters.
That said, I would often miss the opinion pages, especially those that explored ideas that could benefit the world around us. The conundrum, however, as I saw it was that the technologies behind the new, relentless news were part of the problem, harming journalism itself.
I didn’t like how reading the news made me feel as I ate my porridge. Terrorism! Scandal! Murder! Economic growth too slow! Corruption! Celebrity says something stupid! Downing Street press release says government is doing great work! The big bad world became even badder. I also felt that it distracted me from what was going on around me — my neighbours, the flora and fauna outside my front doorstep, the land under my feet.
No man is an island though, so the big news stories inevitably enter my radar. United States President Donald Trump, I hear, has been saying and doing lots of absurd things, stopping Hillary Clinton from saying and doing a whole other set of absurd things. The liberals, centre-lefties and greens, I’m told, are getting very upset about Brexit, putting it all down to racism and xenophobia — which I’m sure some of it is — forgetting the old adage that “small is beautiful” and silly unfashionable ideas such as localism. I’ve heard on the grapevine that everyone’s been getting hot and bothered about a big, very important election, where one group of people you wouldn’t trust to babysit your children took on a handful of other people you wouldn’t trust to look after your dog.
Sometimes, I unwillingly stumble across news items when starting the fire. the Daily Mail, incidentally, makes great tinder. I often find a copy lurking in a recycling bin, and take it out to burn on the basis that its contents have probably already been recycled enough. The edition I tore some sheets from this morning appears to be full of people trying to be famous for 15 minutes and not, as the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder recommended, for 15 miles.
Friends have told me they think it’s irresponsible not to keep up with world affairs — what’s happening with the Syrian refugee crisis, the escalation of words between the US and North Korea (or somewhere else by the time this is published), or any of the countless ecological crises afflicting the world. Unless we do, they say, we cannot respond appropriately. I understand their perspective, and perhaps they are right, but the world is not going to shift for the lack of news these days.
Last week, I watched two ant nations warring to death, while I sat above them as the sun went down. On my way to the post office this morning I called in to a neighbour, to see if he needed anything. It was really an excuse to see how he was, as I know he suffers from mild depression from time to time. He told me he was fine for everything, and we chin-wagged for a while. A bit further on, I bumped into another neighbour whose car had broken down, and as we scratched our chins thinking what to do about it, he told me that an old boy I knew had just died. At the post office I overheard two farmers talking about the impact of Brexit on their livelihoods. They disagreed, but they were both laughing. On my way home, I found a dead fox on the road, and noticed a pine marten shoot into the woods, off to terrorise some creature that had no idea that this would be its last day of life.
I won’t ever get to read my own online articles — I have to trust my editor, and do — but I do read the selected comments he sends me. Some raise important, interesting points. I ought to respond to a few of the more thoughtful ones.
Vegangirl, from Anonymia, says: “But you can’t live without killing, eating, wearing and using animals. Perhaps you haven’t given that much thought, or perhaps you are not empathetic to the plight of animals and believe they are created for our use.”
Thanks, Vegangirl. I was vegan for 13 years, and detest what we’re doing to the non-human world. But avocados, tempeh and cacao nibs, shipped all over the world using fossil fuels and intensive (or even extensive) agriculture, are not vegan. Shoes made from factory-produced synthetic materials are not vegan. Vitamin pills in little plastic tubs are not vegan. Anything industrial, including industrial agriculture, is not vegan as industrialism is wiping out much of life on Earth.
Another commentator, jbhasathought, from Cyberia, has a thought: “From my perspective, it’s not technology itself that’s the issue, it’s whether or not people are joined at the hip to it.”
Thanks, jb. From my perspective, it is technology itself that’s the issue. Whether you use your smartphone once a day or 50 times, its initial production requires oil rigs, quarries, mines, factories, transport networks and armed forces and prisons to give weight to the contracts militating industrial-scale manufacturing. But, yes, apart from the mass extinction of species, climate change and the hard lives of those who spend their days on the conveyor belts of industrial civilisation, I suppose cutting down your use of tech can save a little bit of energy, and make life for us more pleasant.
Teaandchocolate, from Somewhere, says: “I love the breeze and watching the seagulls soar, but I also love the brilliance of human creativity.”
So do I. But creativity got swept up by technology and it is now lost at sea. In Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Truth’s slogans were, “War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” If he were alive today, he may have added: “Destruction is creativity.”
News doesn’t have to be bad. Media organisations such as Positive News — which I’m a supporter of — are pioneering “constructive journalism”, giving a more balanced view of what is happening in the world. I’m told the Guardian is doing the same.
We need more calm, thoughtful ideas and less sensationalist journalism that harms, celebrity news that distracts, and nonsense with underlying assumptions that aren’t questioned. We need fewer people shouting at one another, and more people listening to one another. We need to start talking to our neighbours again, to find out all of the things — good and bad — that are happening to them.
Until that starts to happen, no news is good news.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Mark Boyle writes the Guardian’s ‘Life Without Technology’ column. He is the author of books including The Moneyless Man (Oneworld) and Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi (Permanent).