Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, November, 1994.

Narco Journalism

by Michael Brockington

The world has shrunk like a sweater in the wash. The unfortunate paradox of our global village is this: as the world grows smaller it becomes more complex. Bouncing signals off satellites transports us around the globe in seconds, allowing information from once-remote areas to multiply without bound. The area of the globe to which a satellite can transmit is called its 'footprint', which evokes thoughts of a giant Monty Python foot coming down from the heavens. The image seems weirdly appropriate because we are surely being crushed by the sheer toxic mass of information pouring from the sky. 

It sometimes seems the media are engaged in building a model of the world that is actually more complex than the underlying reality. And once you've constructed a reproduction larger than the original, the problem becomes clear -- where do you put the damn thing? Not inside my head, doesn't fit. Virtual reality may provide a solution, someday, a parallel world of pure information where everything actually makes sense because, well, we designed it that way. But for now, we can only struggle with the media blitz, and thank god for the speed of light, our only defence against being overwhelmed by up-to-the-minute new briefs from the rest of the universe.

 "The public's right to know" has become the justification for a cancerous media pumping out ever-more-trivial information at ever-faster speed. With no hint of irony, governments produce Freedom of Information legislation, in a classic example of opening the stable door after the horse has bolted. 

Do we have no right, I wonder, to be ignorant? Does the public have no right at all not to know? 

Occasionally, the courts insist we be ignorant. "The defendant could not be named," we read, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." But broadcast injunctions and publication bans are increasingly futile. The world has grown too small, too transparent. In Canada, despite a nation-wide publication ban, anyone with a fax machine or access to the Internet can feast on the details of the Teale/Homolka trial. Information cannot be quarantined or destroyed; it can only be made obsolete by newer news. 

My own relationship with the media is diseased, and I would be ashamed to describe it if not for the fact that I suspect I am hardly unique.

 For years I refused to subscribe to the newspaper, like any thinking person. Then a year ago I began spending weekends at my Mom's house. She gets a daily paper, and I found myself falling into a pattern of reading a week's worth of papers as soon as I arrived. This became more important than other activities, sometimes consuming the entire visit. During the week I stayed clean. Bulimics and others with eating disorders may find this binge behaviour familiar.

 Three months ago, over my objections, my partner decided to take a promotional subscription to a daily. In a remarkably short period of time, I found it impossible to start my day without thoroughly reading the paper. Because 'news' devalues rapidly with age it must be absorbed right away. The process can take several hours and in the end produces no satisfaction. It leaves me only with a feeling of having read too much, and a sick urge to read more. Weekends are difficult. Alcoholics who remember back when the bars were closed on Sunday will understand.

 I have reached a point where I'm so informed that I'm deformed. I feel obscurely guilty when I skip an article. And it is freedom of the press which led to this enslavement.

 The discussion around O.J. Simpson has become rich with the lingo of addiction. People speak of themselves as O.J. junkies, needing their daily fix. I recognize now that I am addicted to information, that I am powerless over my desire. I also believe, like so many addicts, that I am allergic to the thing I crave. 

I no longer count myself a thinking person. I have no time to think -- I have to read the paper. This might put me in the minority but only, I think, because my addiction is to print rather than television. 

At some point my values were warped, and what it was once my right to know it has become my duty to know. I might prefer to be ignorant of many things. Details of criminal trials, war atrocities, the sexual habits of celebrity-creatures -- none of this enriches my life. But I am not permitted to ignore it.

 Ignorance has become immoral -- this is the heart of my disease -- because it can only be deliberate. It is no longer possible to overlook, only to look away. "I didn't know," is an obsolete, bankrupt excuse. "I didn't know!" cry the engineers who built the ovens, the spouses of sexual abusers, the Archbishops, the Presidents.

 And we answer: "You had noright not to know." It is half a century after Nuremberg. What else can be said?

 So. I feel guilty when I skip an article.

Being ignorant is a full-time job. It can no longer happen except through careful planning and ruthless execution. Consider O.J. -- again. Or did you really think we could avoid him? 

Let me summarize my exposure: I heard a few radio bulletins when Simpson first disappeared, but never saw the live coverage of his freeway flight. I didn't care. I don't follow sports, rarely watch the news. I tried my best to skip over newspaper reports. And the frightening thing is, despite all my efforts I now know O.J. Simpson better than most of my blood relatives.

 O.J. is everywhere. I have been unwary in conversations with friends, careless in reading the Op-Ed pages. Recently, I was ambushed by Murphy Brown doing a slightly fictionalized satire of the O.J. feeding frenzy. His picture is omnipresent, like icons of Stalin in post-war Russia.

 And what emerges from the jury selection process is the supreme uselessness of this torrent of fact in arriving at any sort of judgement. It's like an algebraic equation that cannot be simplified, that refuses to be solved. O.J.'s lawyers have realized a key principle: trial by a nation of his peers can only result in a hung jury.

 On October 18 the trial judge finally bit the bullet and ordered prospective jurors to stay clear of newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and to not enter any bookstores. In just a few seconds these people were transported from infobahn to info-ban. They might as well become Amish.

 Under such conditions I believe I would go mad. Talk about cruel and inhumane punishment. Jailed criminals have more freedom then these would-be jurors.

 A short time later the judge indicated he will also sequester the jury, once chosen. What message does that send? 

That the media are toxic to justice. That jurors are the new pariahs of American society, sacred and untouchable. That it is not enough for Justice to be blind; she should also be deaf, and just to be safe, we best do something about her sense of smell.

 Information is dope; this is my conclusion. Overdose induces paralysis. Welcome to a brave new world of Narco-journalism.

As the media generates more information more quickly we have little time to absorb it, less time to think about it, no time to act. 

The geek-speak of computer science has evolved a very useful word: 'thrashing'. It describes a multi-processing computer loaded with so many tasks that it spends all its time switching attention from one job to another, with no time left over to perform any actual work. In a human context, 'thrashing' perfectly describes the effect of media overload. The consumption of news can easily use up every waking hour, at the expense of action. Yesterday's new has to be forgotten to make room for today's influx. The greater the flow, the more agressive competing information providers become in campaigning for our attention. Although almost certainly an unintentional development, this abundance of information has become a marvellous tool of social control. It generates apathy -- 'compassion burn-out' -- and convinces us to leave decisions to an elite of advisory experts. 

Someone once pointed out that we have a transportation system designed so velocity of travel far outstrips the speed of our natural reflexes. The consequence is extravagant carnage on our roads. The media have reached a similar phase of development, moving too quickly for mental reflexes to cope. People complain about TV eroding our attention span. They neglect to point out that a short attention span is essential for keeping even marginally informed about the state of the world.

One, two, three hundred years ago news from elsewhere was a rare resource. In the simplest of economic models, it had value because it was scarce. That is hardly the case today. A paper might cost 50 cents, and the endless flow of information through your TV set is too cheap to meter. News is now so abundant as to be worthless. It can't survive independently, but exists like a parasite on the substrate of advertising.

 One, two, three hundred years ago, local autonomy was vital. Diplomats, local governors, military leaders, captains of ships at sea had to make their decisions -- sometimes decisions that would affect the health of their nation -- based on local information. The time-lag of long-distance communications made central authority impractical. 

High-speed communications technology enabled centralized decision-making. The sheer proliferation of information that is a side-effect of this speed has made centralized authority essential. Because the resources required to process increasing quantities of data are so vast, local duplication is un-economic. Local equates with parochial, and independent action becomes reckless because it is ignorant of the 'big picture' only available to central authorities. Consider two meanings of the word 'authority'. "One who is empowered to act" v.s. "one who possesses extensive information." What distinction is left today between the two?

 On a personal level, we see the same dynamic: mass information fosters individual paralysis. We are anaesthitized by endless newzak. I can't leave the house until I read the morning paper. "Think globally, act locally" is a classic double-bind, a prescription for thrashing.

Feeding the pipe requires relentless coverage. Investigative reporters, ambush journalists, 'leaking', 'outing' and America's Funniest Home Videos. We have almost achieved the Big Brother ideal of total surveillance. And we accomplished this far more efficiently than the Communists ever could -- just as our economists always claimed -- through market forces and public demand. I am Winston Smith, only I pay for my TV and happily spend any spare time videotaping the activities of my family for possible network broadcast. In this world of perfect irony, the best way to stay out of the news is to be a media informant, the classic un-named source.

 This is the now. What will things be like when the pipe has 500 channels? The death-toll of journalists seems unusually high in Somalia, in Bosnia, in Algeria. Perhaps we can view these correspondants as symbolic redeemer-figures, cathode Christs dying for the sins of the world. 2000 years ago we could make do with a single saviour, but the population has exploded since then and the wages of sin are much inflated. 

This view is comforting in a way, and I can certainly understand why some may wish to believe it. But I have grown skeptical, my compassion somewhat singed. What these hot-spots are developing, I believe, is simply a new approach to public relations. And would we really be any worse off if all the world's press agents were re-trained as snipers?

 I'm no authority. I only ask you to think about it.

Contributor's description: Michael Brockington can't be trusted with a typewriter.

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