News without Action is Dead: And Most News is Dead

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning paper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides some insight into some problem you are required to solve? … most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to anything meaningful. This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information-action ratio”… [we receive far more information than we act on and most of the information is irrelevant to us.]

A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its content.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

We should consider this in the context of the modern internet and social-media infrastructure. When I think about the news that I react to and get me worked up, I realize that very little of it has an impact on my life. The pandemic, true, impacts my behavior — but little more than how I shop, or that I wear masks, or how we run school. But that’s old news. The news did not cause me to get my COVID shot. The news simply created anticipation. My action was caused by getting an email that allowed me to sign up for the shot.

Postman notes that news about weather causes us alter our behavior, as in the Texas freeze. If you’re in Texas, news about when the power will come on will cause you to alter your choices. But all the conversations about wind farms, natural gas, nuclear power, privatization of the grid, and so forth? Does that cause any real action or have any impact on our behavior? You might argue that it might affect voting, but it really doesn’t — because that happens only every two to four years and doesn’t really express the broad range of opinions we hold.

Perhaps that’s why we have the internet mobs — we want information to produce action. But like the telegraph, the Tweet or Facebook post demands that its content be burned. It expects to be forgotten — the action as insignificant to our lives as the useless information that caused the action.

So we fulfill our need to believe that our actions have meaning through telling ourselves the lie that our actions are actions. But they’re not: they’re digital ghosts, as incapable of touching the world as the news that animates these spirits.