Thursday, April 9, 2020

The News As A Substitute For Life

            No matter where one goes in modern technological society, it is hard to escape the news.  People are reading newspapers and magazines in some form, whether hard copy or online.  People are listening to the news on the radio and they are watching the news on television, sometimes all day on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.  People get news from websites on the Internet and from social media like Facebook and Twitter.  And, of course, people exchange news with each other as a kind of gossip.

            In the old days, people also got news through gossip as well as through letters. Formal announcements have frequently been made by town criers in communities throughout the world.  However, learning about other people’s events and experiences did not occupy such a large chunk of one’s time the way that it does today.  As life has become more frictionless and more mediated, more passive and more reactive, people are becoming number and number.  Not enough of any significance happens to them to form the foundation of a meaningful life narrative and to stimulate them fully to life, to make and preserve organic imprints and to prepare for death with a surrogate immortality.  News allows people to experience meaningful life events vicariously, to feel, in many cases, the abrasive friction that comes from other people’s important life events.  And it allows people to experience important life events without taking the abrasive roles of putting themselves in danger or in an embarrassing situation.

            Now as people have become numb to organic stimulation, they continue to respond to the mechanical and digital stimulation of modern machines.  Although they are no longer able to fully absorb the flowing, blendable, continual stimuli from organic, natural and traditional sources, they have been reconfigured to respond to the defined discrete stimuli of all the machines that they use in daily life.  The defined discrete modalities of news items, factoids, and data are ways that people can still absorb life events and experiences as a result of their having been psychologically reconfigured from the mirroring and modeling generated by modern technological entities. These vicarious events and experiences are somehow absorbed to become a part of the news gatherer’s own life.  People talk about news items with one another as if they had participated themselves directly in the news event or news experience.

            This merging with the people involved in the news-based event or experience works in democracies and authoritarian governments in different ways.  In a democracy, the merging with important news figures is based on the notion that any citizen of a certain age has the right to run for office in government or to work and study in such a way that he can do something significant in business, law, the arts or the sciences, or any other area of life that could potentially create the opportunity for newsworthy events or experiences.  In a country with an authoritarian government , there are certainly ceilings as to how far an average person can climb in government.  To the extent there is intense political and economic inequality in such a society, there frequently can be limitations for many if not most people as to how far they can climb on the ladder of success.  In such cases, the newsmakers provide examples for those ambitious people at the bottom of the ladder.  Examples of people who can help guide any person who wishes to at least dream of being one of the important newsmakers.  In authoritarian societies, the people with power provide primarily opportunities for the average person to identify and dream, to participate in a collective surrogate immortality with all the other average people who identify and dream.  In many ways, the powerful people hold power that make them almost like human gods.

            This is a little different from democracies, where the newsmakers act as examples for people who believe they have the capacity to be their own newsmakers.  So that the identification and dreaming with the newsmakers is more fragile and more shallow.  It is more contingent.  People identify and dream with the contingency that it occurs only until they can potentially replace the newsmakers themselves.

            But the conduit to the newsmakers is the bits of news, the factoids and data that surround them.  Now Trump is very interesting because he is an authoritarian president trying to navigate his policies in a country that is still a democracy.  For his supporters, he is a classic example of a person who serves as a vehicle for the formation of a collective surrogate immortality.  His supporters look up to him and would never dream of rising to his unique level of power.  For his opponents, they challenge him as if he is an ordinary but deranged person operating on an attainable level.  And both groups receive affirmation of their points of view from the news sources that back their position.  Fox for the supporters; MSNBC and CNN for the opponents.  In other words, what we call the factoids or data or bits of news are, particularly in today’s world, influenced by the flowing blendable continual beliefs of the news stations that present them.  This gives the impact of the presentation of news an extra kick to it.  And it acts as a tool by which people can pull themselves out of their growing numbness.

            News today becomes a kind of addiction.  Some people stay glued to their 24 hour news stations or go from one news website to the next.  It becomes a means by which they can avoid the reality that they have very tenuous vacuum lives in their primary experience external worlds.  News becomes a means by which they can use emotion-arousing factoids and data to feel alive.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow

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