Recently celebrity philosopher Alain de Botton has been travelling around the country spruiking his new book entitled ‘The News’. Driving his work here is a thesis which suggests there is a lack of reflection at a private and collective level within the contemporary modern world. Not far removed from this, de Botton appears in this new piece to contain his argument to the news arguing that the proliferation and immediacy of the news cycle has created an endless quest to accumulate more information and a situation where reading the news becomes, as it were, an end to itself. News, in other words, is empty and delivers little real impact on the self because we are never allowed time nor adopt specific emotional connections to the content to have it mean anything to us. I found it amusing, perhaps even poetic, that in all the instances I’ve seen de Botton speak so far to the media in this, he’s allotted perhaps 10 minutes. Perhaps the media isn’t aware of the rather powerful symbolism of that gesture.
The cows are calling.
I don’t wish here to take away from de Botton’s thesis nor deter anyone from reading it. It’s a powerful thought and one that is well timed in the current media rampage that we all experience daily. Furthermore I find it really quite frustrating when people make comments about other people’s ‘news literacy’ such as ‘oh who reads the Herald Sun anymore?’ or ‘people only care about sport and nothing more’. Such high horse comments only serve to further solidify boundaries between intellectual and everyday persons (or the punters perhaps). In my view, intellectuals enjoy the nonsense world of sport just as much as the punter enjoys diving into more serious things. de Botton seems to agree in a way arguing that the news needs to become more meaningful to people – making connections to them that go beyond the headlines. As an aside, I think this is difficult to achieve and dare say it expects too much of some of our news organisations.
In this piece however I want to expand on what de Botton is arguing by suggesting that it’s not only the news that is complicating our lives but a lot of different ‘cows’ that are calling us. Cows? Well, recently when driving home from work I stopped on a very lonely country road to check my tires next to a paddock. When I got out I noticed that an entire herd of cattle had stopped what they were doing and were watching me. It was unnerving at first, like that eerie moment in The Birds. And then almost simultaneously they all began mooing to me trying to get my attention. Now I know it’s not the case (for you agricultural scientists out there), but it felt that way and it was amusing at the time.
As a metaphor it works for my piece too so bear with me. In essence, I think, there’s a huge range of cows that are presently mooing for our attention and which cause us to constantly have our senses darting back and forth from this place to the other. It’s a sort of ‘restlessness’ that means we rarely have time to settle on anything too long before we’re soon interrupted by something entirely different. As a sociologist, I get surprised when philosophers and everyday social commentators consider this to be quite new however. In the context of the world history, admittedly, perhaps it is. But social theorists from Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin and perhaps the underrated Siegfried Kracauer were all wary of the debilitating influence of what we call Western Modernity (the development of the city, culture industries, money economy, etc) on the self and our ability to ‘think’. Perhaps Adorno and Horkheimer were one of the more famous of the lot when they pronounced woes on the culture industries for not creating ‘enlightenment’ (as was the promise of the arts) but constructing a culture of distraction and meaninglessness which takes us away (for them) from the problems of capitalism.
Two particular cows that moo the loudest.
Ok before someone accuses me of being a communist, I want to iterate that I’m not inclined to what we would call the ‘Frankfurt School’ or the Marxists of the post war era. I am interested in Simmel who amongst those theorists above was not part of this order but still was concerned with what he called the Tragedy of Modern Culture. In short, Simmel way back in around 1903 and onwards argued that modern life had grown too enormous and that all the things that we used to develop our self or accumulate into our lives for the benefit of our ‘self’ were now competing rapidly for our attention. He argues that we cannot simply ignore it because it’s everywhere, but at the same time, we cannot deal with it very meaningfully either. We’re stuck for Simmel in a conundrum of constantly returning back to this ‘objective culture’ (which could be art, music, movies, consumption, media, law, philosophy, etc) but receiving little to no lasting satisfaction from them. I think this is where de Botton’s thesis (sort of) lay. Interestingly, for Erich Fromm (the Marxist from before) this is a real problem for our society because we constantly return back to the consumer market to get our ‘hit’, so to speak, but that consumerism never really provides lasting satisfaction. So we’re stuck for him in a perpetual cycle of going to the shops to obtain some momentary happiness only to find we must return when the gloss on our new iPhones no longer satisfies.
I don’t wish here to make us all redundant and lacking in critical thought – a criticism levelled often at the Marxists. Rather, here I want to use what Simmel and others thought by arguing that in our modern culture as it is today, there are a heap of ‘cows’ all mooing for our attention which we cannot possibly satisfy nor be satisfied by to a great degree. While each individual has perhaps many of these domesticated ungulates calling out to them daily, for the purposes of analysis I reflect on just two that maybe speak to de Botton’s thesis.
The Mass Media.
More recently I’ve discovered some television shows that are really addictive watching. The first of these is now over and was called True Detective and the second is ongoing called The Americans. Both are quite riveting in my view but of course I still have my favourite series such as The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory which I tune into during those moments when I want to be ‘dumb’. But what’s so addictive about things like the television series that have an overarching plotline and story that unravels every episode is that they constantly want you calling for more and cursing the time between episodes. Interestingly, I think, these series are really quite different to a book. Books (even when they’re part of a larger series) draw you in, don’t stop for ad breaks and certainly generally don’t stop half way through the series for the downtime in television ratings. And yet, books take time and demand more attention than sitting down to watch television.
The problem with this particular cow is that while it wants your attention she stands in a massive group of cows all wanting your eyes and ears that we call mass media. But of course, they only give you drips and drabs so that you become addicted and like the shopper in Fromm’s arguments, you return back frequently. But ultimately, it’s quite rare (and this is where we could argue about the value of mass media) to watch a television series that you can stop, reflect on deeply and use to make you a better person or a better citizen of your community. Granted perhaps there are a few movies, television shows and even books that create a deep sense of reflection and present stories for acculturation and authentication of your own sense of self. But for the most part I think Kracauer was right when he said that media (ok he was talking about films here) ‘make out of the misery of the public the virtue of distraction and totally forgets in doing so the public’s need for enlightenment’ (cited in Frisby, 1987, 158). Yet we shouldn’t be too disparaging over the mass media either. Rather what I am suggesting here is that like the consumer object, the film and tv show drag our attention constantly back weekly perhaps even daily taking away from other ‘moments’ (see below).
One thing that the aforementioned authors do not consider of course nor could anticipate is the world of social media. I find the word ‘social’ just a little bit underwhelming when we consider that for the most part, we’re largely anonymous when we come together in spaces like Twitter. But like mass media, the siren call of the social media cow is relentless and loud – and that can be quite literal. I found myself in the interesting position the other day of having three conversations going at once. I was talking to my son verbally about his ongoing battle with his Star Wars obsession, while being pinged in a Facebook messenger chat with a friend from the UK and while being dragged into a Twitter discussion by someone wanting me to talk on something else via my smartphone. While it sounds somewhat amusing to say, I’m not a very good multi-tasker! To try and give attention to all three was near impossible but also, to give 100% of my attention and mindfulness was equally problematic – similar to what Simmel says.
It is within this space that I find myself constantly being interrupted so much so that when I write for work, I have to switch off everything and listen to the sound of rain on my smartphone (yes…I know). But ultimately this is probably a good example of what Simmel meant by having all these things surround us demanding our interaction and yet we can devote little to it and derive, perhaps, little real meaning from them. In a sense, and I’ve stated this before, Twitter is one very large group of endless cows all calling and demanding attention. At the risk of sounding slightly unpopular, I think a lot of what happens in Twitter is exactly this, seeing if you can moo the loudest to attract as many people to moo with you to the passers-by. At the same time however, I don’t want to detract from the ability for Twitter to create groups of meaning and shared symbolic value. Thinkyness in large part was derived from the experience of tweeting and entering into this moo-experience. But I guess what I’m trying to argue here is that Twitter, like every other cow out there including the news, is mooing loudly demanding you come pay attention to it – but perhaps never be fully satisfied from it.
For all the cows?
I'm called a cow
I'm not about
To blow it now
For all the cows
(Dave Grohl, For all the cows, 1995).
To wrap up – what I’m trying to say here is nothing particular new. Alain de Botton makes a living and does a great job and exploring these things but I think this stuff has been floating around for a while. His thesis resonates with all of us quite well – the news (as a cow) demands our attention daily and constantly delivers new information that quite frankly, we cannot assimilate fully nor do many of us explore thoroughly. We accumulate piecemeal chunks of news that we can talk about and even debate, but rarely does this go further – especially in news programs itself. I want to suggest however that de Botton needs to open that meadow up wider to include all the other cows that constantly call for your attention – including mass media and social media in a sense.
I want to admit to you now, before I sign off this rather long winded piece, that I’m no doubt both a cow and a participant in the meadow. I am addicted, I think, to mass media as a listener and I operate actively in social media by getting my ‘moo’ on. However, what becomes interesting is when you ask yourself the question ‘why does it matter?’
As a passing gesture, I present to you a picture of my two year old son. I was astounded to learn the other day that while I was tending to the great twitter cow, I had missed him saying my other son Ollie’s name for the first time. It was a gentle (maybe not so) reminder that we’re all confronted with these cows daily, but that maybe we need to sometimes ignore them so not to miss things that really do have a lasting impact on our sense of self. My wife, more intelligent than I, says to me often ‘no-one will miss you more than your family if you were gone’. To take time, reflect and ignore the incessant mooing though is no easy feat.
Spreading the word
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Thinkyness came about from the charming @Perorationer who often tweets Jan & Noely in the morning with a random article he has found that would make you think, could be anything from Women in the 1800's to a potential world wide wine shortage which we would then discuss, obviously this led on to us tweeting each other #Thinkyness articles [...] more
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