Thanks to their televisions, computers, Blackberries and iPhones, people living in the industrialized world now have access to a previously unimaginable quantity of news. This must be the most obvious recent transformation in the mental environment of humanity. It may be as crucial as the rise of pervasive advertising several generations ago.
Our minds are now filled, as never before, with the brute facts of public information. News comes to us faster than ever, from more places than ever.
It stands to reason that this must change our sense of the world and our place in it. Since the CNN network switched on in 1980, cable channels have steadily increased news reporting almost everywhere. Meanwhile, bulletins appear on our computers or in our pockets.
How can we calculate what this has done to us? We should begin with the fact that much of the news consists of killings, genocide, bombings and wars. We can agree that it's a good thing to keep up with the news, but is an all-day diet of visually documented horror good for us? I normally follow the news and I've been involved in writing it for a lifetime. But on some days I find it oppressive. My guess is that others do, too.
Usually, bad news leaves us frustrated; most of the time there's nothing to do about it except feel disconsolate. On the BBC the other day, just after describing the Ethiopian food crisis, reporters brought us news from Rio de Janeiro, where huge districts controlled by drug gangs are too dangerous for police to visit except in armoured vehicles. This week's police raid killed dozens of people, including three police officers who died when their helicopter was shot down by drug traffickers. (BBC: "Authorities insist the latest violence should have no bearing on Rio's ability to stage the Olympic Games in 2016.") After that, we heard that drug cartels fighting for market share in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexico-U. S. border commit several murders a day. The local murder total for 2009 recently reached 1,986, which was 815 more than last year.
If there isn't enough melancholy-inducing news, someone can invent briefly credible fiction, like the man who recently claimed that a helium balloon, floating somewhere above Colorado, was carrying his little boy; after extensive media coverage, the public learned the incident was a publicity stunt.
On my brief underground walk to the Toronto subway from home I find that, whether I like it or not, I keep abreast of all the most dreadful calamities. Little TV sets arranged on the walls of my mall send out urgent messages of disaster. Brief texts inform me of bombings, hostage-takings and murders. A few minutes later, in an office-building elevator, I learn of more disasters from the same source, a TV wire service's product sliced into tiny fragments. These bulletins are news, in a sense, but they aren't exactly information, just bits of data stuffed in between commercials.
This is the shape of news at its most insistent and intrusive. It pursues us everywhere. You even find it in hospital waiting rooms, where patients sit in glum rows, uneasily passing the time until their doctors are ready for them. Many have genuine personal reasons for anxiety. Who admitted this extra torture into hospitals (and sometimes the waiting rooms of dentists as well)?
It's as if a cruel, perverse god had said: Let's see if we can't make this experience even more disturbing for you. Free-floating anxiety is characterized by psychiatry as a morbid state of mind, typically without basis in fact. But what if the facts are inescapable? What if you are reminded dozens of times a day of the dreadful lives lived by most people in much of the world? No wonder anxiety has been called this era's most common mental illness.
News was once self-selected; you turned it on or you didn't, according to taste, mood and time of day. Now it's become mandatory, a kind of ambush, the way music did many years ago with the rise of Muzak. Call it newzak. Try as we might, many of us can't switch it off.