Dao Du Jour II, Day 48: The Bad News

Chapter 47: Looking Far

“You don’t have to go out the door

to know what goes on in the world.

You don’t have to look out the window

to see the way of heaven.

The farther you go,

the less you know.

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Why do we read the news?

“To see in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote, “is a constant struggle.” These days, the struggle is, as we like to say, real.

The first thing to consider is that, in a deep historical lens, “the news” is a relatively recent development. It could only emerge on the back of a nexus of technologies capable of storing and shuttling information widely across space and quickly in time—the printing press and the telegraph, initially, then radio, television, computers, and the internet. 

From another perspective, though, “the news”—and the desire to know it—is ancient. Before civilization—that is, before technologies that could store “bits” in “its”—what we call the news was produced and consumed by a small number of people over a tiny territory. And for everyone except from the very, very earliest humans, the storehouse of past knowledge—disciplined by the iterative process of learning through feedback from the local environment, preserved and passed on orally by the elders from generation to generation—was much more complex and valuable compared to the details of the day. On average, basic life conditions wouldn’t change all that much from one day, week, month, or even generation to the next. Hence a psychological and cultural orientation toward the past: the time of the ancestors, who gradually pass from history into legend and myth. You had to hunt, yes, but you “did not have to go out the door” or “look out the window” to know what is what, in the most vital sense of the phrase.

Consider that this is the information ecology in which we evolved.

The second thing to consider is whether a kind of cognitive optimum, a balance between signal and noise, is necessary for a minimal level of sanity. Every organism has to “make sense” of its social and natural environment, to pay attention to certain things and ignore others in order to survive. Every organism, in other words, has a tacit ontology and axiology, what its nervous system identifies as real and valuable. We are no different; or rather, the way in which we are different makes making sense harder for us. 

If so, it follows that the default settings for that optimum developed prior to civilization. From there, it would follow that civilization is driving us slightly mad, and at an exponential rate.

This would explain a lot of things.

But it would be too hasty and easy a conclusion to draw. Evolution produced us: creatures that are capable of understanding (at least partially) the conditions of their creation, and of creating culture—symbolic forms of thought and communication that shape and are shaped by their environment. Calling us an “evolutionary mistake” is incoherent if you believe that evolution is nothing but “mistakes,” random mutations of genes and natural selection of environments; in fact, the very idea of mistakes makes no sense if evolution is not in some sense a sense-making process. If you buy Neodarwinism, you are not entitled to any value-judgments, because you are committed to value being a purely human construct. You are not entitled to claim that hunter-gatherer societies  were/are better than agricultural, industrial, and informational societies—only different. You are not entitled to claim, for instance, that secular humanism is preferable to religious dogmatism.

The third thing to consider is that we have gotten really good at acquiring information about “the earth” outside of our door and out our window. So good, in fact, that we have begun to entertain fantasies about leaving it. We have become really bad at acquiring wisdom about the way of heaven. “The news” has become a deluge, constantly flooding our homes and pouring through our ears and eyes; we live in the informational equivalent of water world. In that kind of information ecology, it is hard to think, hard to be still, hard to make sense—sense can only be made if there is leisure: free space and time set apart from the business of the world.

I speculate that the roots of organized religion—ritualized, collective worship in the broadest possible sense of the term directed toward the heavens in the broadest possible sense of the term—can be traced to this basic existential situation. Periodic retreat from the present—the news of the day, the business of the world, and so on—resets the mind, reconnects it to heaven, reminds it of the great inheritance on which it rests. Something like a sabbath, in other words, was a cultural invention in order to cope with a more complex information environment. Leisure, in Joseph Pieper’s words, is the basis of culture.

If true, it would follow that the erosion of sabbaths would re-introduce the problem. We would have to turn elsewhere.

This would also explain a lot. Conspiracy theories. Rapture ideologies. Cancel culture. Identity politics. Meditation apps. It would explain, in Philip Rieff’s phrase, modernity produces a kind of “anti-culture.”

Knowing heaven while neglecting earth is just as ignorant as knowing earth and forgetting about heaven. Wisdom is a divine thing, information a human thing. Knowledge, perhaps, is a bridge between the two. We must not retreat into heaven, or get lost in the world. We must find the middle way.

But the middle way always depends on the context. And these days, we should probably err on the side of heaven. The Trump era (which spans before and after his presidency) is if nothing else the near total victory of “the news” in the war for our attention. The production of “fake news” is the sign of the cancerous hypertrophy of information production; since there is too much information to make sense of, the signal/noise ratio in the culture is thrown out of balance, and people begin producing a simulation of the news in order to try and restore it.

Being informed is only desirable to the extent that we can fit the information we acquire into scaffolds of meaning, and climb those scaffolds to help us see new information that can help us build better scaffolds. The most important kind of information we are receiving now is not external, but internal—what our bodies, our hearts, and our minds are telling us about the information ecology we have built. More, at long last, is no longer automatically better. Paradoxically, a kind of intentional ignorance has to be coded into the choice architecture of our built environments in order to build a sustainable civilization. And sustainability needs to be understood not merely or even mainly in ecological and economic terms, but in psychological and cultural terms.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”