Friday, September 3, 2010

Synthetic Nature

One of the consequences of the television age is that a democratic duty that once required effort and concentration—copious reading at a minimum—has been oddly “naturalized.” By that I mean that news from very distant places—and on extraordinarily complex matters—now reach us as sounds and pictures—just like all of the things that reach us in our ordinary daily life. Watching news has a certain kinship to watching leaves moving in the wind; observing the leaves we see which way the wind is blowing.

We can and mostly do live our ordinary lives without much reasoning (unless our work requires it). Under a democratic rule, we could not perform our duties as citizens like that, with nary a thought. To be well-informed and responsible citizens demanded something more than casual, habit-based spontaneity. That’s still true, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem to be. Television news coverage, running 24/7 these days, produces the illusion that we are well informed—not by arduous reading of long, structured, printed accounts, including in-depth articles that grapple with complexity but by a kind of highly selective condensate of news rendered by catch-phrases, rapidly-moving images, and the entertaining real-time clash of opposing views.

There is no golden age I’m longing to recover. The well-informed, responsible citizenry has largely always been a myth—and the wider the franchise and lower the age limit the more mythic it has become. Over against this is the pleasing fact that many eligible voters do not bother voting. My intent, instead, is to note the interesting fact that matters inaccessible to our senses have now become a kind of synthetic nature we can monitor quite casually while doing something else—much like we might monitor the approach of a thunderstorm. In earlier times we had to make deliberate efforts. We had to rely on reports to see into the distance, and judging the credibility of those who brought us news was very much part of the job.

The very nature of the institutions creating this synthetic nature skews and bends the message we receive. They fiercely compete for eyeballs, and the mere presence of a pair will do. The motivation is commercial. News has taken on intense sensory forms; it’s more compressed; more brief; images flicker to hold our wayward attention; it's more and more embedded in implicitly emotional clusters. This entertains, and entertainment draws more eyeballs than thought or duty. These tendencies, of course, deform the theoretical aims of journalism—to inform a responsible public. The paradox is that we feel informed but we are not. The general movements of public opinion more and more resemble weather—somewhat predictable and somewhat chancy—and less and less reflect distinctly conscious, responsible human intentions.


  1. Here, Here! Just this evening, while watching another beautiful sunset behind the Defense, Thierry and I caught a glimpse of the news being shown on our neighbor's TV and both shuddered then sighed our relief at not having a TV of our own!

  2. You put this sad thought so beautifully.

    Yes, indeed, the passions flow over us like weather and it is best, I find, to avoid the TV and radio coverage during the run up to an election! Dip carefully into the print, from which one can quickly reteat if it, too, is wallowing in the newest outrage.