No News Isn’t Good News

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Travel broadens the mind—unless your destination is a news-free bubble.

In London I supplement a daily fix of print, online and broadcast news by talking to primary sources including politicians and their back-room teams, in person, on the phone, by email and via Twitter and Facebook. During the past week I’ve been in California, a state at least as self-absorbed as any in the Union and especially in the run-up to the Oscars, but even here it’s easy to keep in touch. True, the local media is just that: local. (As I write, a freeway crash tops local TV news headlines ahead of the turmoil in the Middle East.) Yet all you need is a decent broadband connection or a smartphone to find out what’s happening further afield and to consult trusted voices on what any event or phenomenon might mean. So the past few days, spent in the hermetically sealed universe of a rock band on tour (a long story and not one for this blog), without TV or radio or internet or even a reliable mobile signal, have been salutary.

Earthquakes—both metaphorical and, tragically for Christchurch, literal—barely rattled the smoked glass panes of the tour bus. The experience reminded me what life used to be like, before the internet, and then before technology got cheap and easily deployable. The extraordinary upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt and the wider region, and the rekindling of the Iranian opposition, have inspired a debate about the role of the social media in fomenting protest and the push for democracy. That debate has tended to focus on the citizens of the repressive regimes concerned. (Here is a particularly interesting take, by Paul Mason, a BBC journalist.) But my sojourn in a news-deprived bubble made me think how profoundly the easy, unmediated availability of news and views in all forms has changed our thinking in the freer world too.

One curiosity is the way we seem to think every story is our own story. Our governments and international institutions once struggled to convince us of the interconnectedness of nations and systems; we didn’t instinctively grasp that our own lives might be affected by political instability the other side of the globe or by reckless financial gambles or sloppily drilled wells or grumbling volcanoes. That realization would seem to come naturally in an age in which we can all join Iran’s green revolution simply by changing the color of our avatars. And there seems little doubt that younger generations, notoriously difficult to engage in domestic politics, identify more strongly with what my colleague Bobby Ghosh calls the Arab youth quake than with their own elected representatives.

Of course, there must be questions about the depth of that identification, the depth of that understanding. What use is political activism or humanitarian concern if all that’s required is a few key strokes and the comforting sense of being on the side of the angels? But lying in the bunk of a tour bus, knowing nothing but that you know nothing, it’s hard to be too critical of the increasing trends to faketivism, as I think of it, and fauxlanthrophy. The eternal problem of information is how you use it. But better to have the choice. I’m heading back to London today and I can’t wait to plug back into the news continuum.