When I found out that I would have a long wait at the doctor’s office where my phone didn’t get reception, I immediately started looking for a good magazine. I found People, Newsweek, ESPN, and so on, but I was disappointed when I noticed that all the magazines were several months old. Finally, I found two current magazines, which would have been great except that they were Women’s Health and Pet Fancy.
What would you do if faced with such a terrible choice? Needless to say, I now know a lot more about animal hygiene than I did before I went to the doctor.
News Is Only News If It’s New
The situation at the doctor’s office made me wonder: Why are we disappointed when the magazines in the waiting room are old? Why would we rather read the latest Pet Fancy than a four-month-old issue of Newsweek? After all, we are willing to watch re-runs of TV shows, and we sometimes see movies more than once. We read old books, and we listen to classic rock. Yet, we never read old news. It seems that news is only news if it’s new.
If this is true, then it means that when we are sizing up an article and deciding whether or not to read it, one of the primary elements we are evaluating is its immediacy. Sure, we look at the author, the topic, the length of the article, and so on, but the content itself—political crossfire, thinner TV models, thinner models on TV, etc.—is often secondary to how recently it was reported.
We even have a whole vocabulary to describe how new the news is. News is more valuable if the channel we are watching is the only one reporting it (an “exclusive”), and it’s even more important if the event itself is occurring as we are informed about it (“breaking” news). The question is: Why do we have a kind of information for which the primary value is immediacy?
When Immediate Is Essential
Of course, there are times when knowing something immediately is not only helpful, but also essential. If a life threatening event such as a storm, flood, or terrorist attack comes along, the faster we know about it the better chance we have of survival.
It can also be nice to be notified in the moment when a friend goes into surgery or when a major world catastrophe occurs, so we can pray and offer our support.
And When It’s Not
But after reading about various brands of cat litter for a while, I started to wonder if much of the stuff I read every day only seems important because it’s new.
I was one of those people who originally heard about Michael Jackson’s death from Twitter and, at first, I marveled at how quickly the news spread through social media. But then I saw countless tweets that read something like, “I can’t believe it’s been 30 minutes and CNN still isn’t reporting MJ’s death! #FAIL” or, “Twitter trumps the mainstream every time! Long live the King of Pop #thriller #bad”
Sadly, by placing such an importance on which source provided the fastest way to consume information, we were completely ignoring what was actually important about that news—a man was dead and three children became fatherless.
You’ll Probably Miss Something
If you’re like me, you’ve probably had the feeling that if you don’t get online soon you’re going to miss something big. Once I get my news fix, I can usually go back to normal and do some work … until an hour or so later, when I get the twitch again.
My problem is simple—my information consumption starts with a clock instead of a compass. I judge what’s important by the timestamp on the post or the issue date of the magazine instead of by a clear sense of direction, purpose, and significance. And if I don’t start correcting this soon, it’s just going to get worse thanks to the “real-time Web,” Google Buzz, Twitter, and dozens of other more-better-faster news sites that are coming online every day. It’s like constantly trying to drink from a fire hose.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fire hoses. Like we pointed out before, there are a few cases in which having information quickly can be important. However, we have to remember that even firemen only use fire hoses when it’s really, really necessary. Keeping a fire hose on all the time would be silly. So relax. No matter how fast or plugged in you are, you’re going to miss something. But most of what you’re going read isn’t really important; it’s just new. It’s not significant; it’s just recent.
Give yourself a break, live on the wild side, and click that “Mark All as Read” button on your RSS feed reader every now and again. You just might find time to dig out your compass, and let it guide you to something important.
John Dyer is a web developer in Dallas, Texas, and he writes about issues related to faith and technology at www.donteatthefruit.com.