Not Slow At All

Michael Metzger

July and August are what is known as the “slow news” season. But that might not be the case at all. Just depends on how you define slow and news.

Welcome to the dog days of summer. In the UK and a few other places, it’s called the silly season. News agencies fill the summer months with what turn out to be largely frivolous news stories. It’s the same in the US, where it’s called the slow news season.

But what if the summer news cycle isn’t slow after all? What if we’ve forgotten what news and slow actually mean?

News comes from the Medieval Latin nova, literally meaning “new things.” New things don’t come into existence every day—at least newsworthy ones don’t—so it was assumed news didn’t happen every day. Newsworthy events occurred periodically, so there was no slow news season. There were lots of no news seasons, however.

The news industry changed all that. It came into existence in the seventeenth century with periodicals, as in the Grub Street Journal.1 Periodicals were based on the idea that newsworthy events only happen periodically. Popular periodicals however caused avid readers to clamor for more material. The news industry shifted to publishing dailies.

To make this shift, “the news business had to pretend that the news is daily,” writes C. John Sommerville. The fake-out worked because the industry claimed it was focusing on facts, which comes from the Latin something happened. Something happens every day, so the “news product” became daily. But this makes us dumb, Sommerville says, because we know all sorts of stuff but lose the ability to make sense of it all.

There’s increasing support for his claim. In her book, Mind Change, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield notes that consumers of daily news—hard copy or online—have a great capacity for quickly processing rapidly presented information. But they have difficulty synthesizing the data into the overall context. The neural pathways in the sped-up brain are shallow and impatient, craving more, more, more—faster, faster, faster. The result is folks who fidget mentally, flipping endlessly between facts and imagining slow as dull.

This ought to give Christians pause. Sommerville, a Christian, notes how the faith is not about gathering all sorts of information but rather gaining God’s perspective on events. It’s wisdom, sorting out what’s genuinely significant. But that requires recognizing that slow is not slow as we imagine it. It’s standard fare and newsworthy events are rare.

If you want to begin reframing how you imagine slow and news, watch Babette’s Feast (folks with sped-up brains can’t sit through it. It’s too slow). Or spend an evening watching Avalon, Barry Levinson’s emotionally rich film about his family coming to Baltimore. To get the full effect, turn off your iPhone.

Reading biographies or history works just as well, as slowness carves out deeper neural pathways, helping us see a richer picture. The same happens when you visit an art gallery or listen to good music. These slow activities yield people who enjoy a capacity to see how one thing layers onto another. As Greenfield puts it, these people “can convert information into knowledge in a way that emphasizing fast response and constant stimulation cannot.”

The New York Times features this byline: “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” If the editors properly defined slow and news, they’d see there’s very little that’s fit to print every single day. Yes, I still read The Times and The Wall Street Journal. But I peruse the articles selectively and circumspectly, as Mortimer Adler recommended in How To Read A Book. I’m looking for what’s newsworthy. Those articles are few and far between. But they remind me we’re always in a “slow news” or “no news” season—and that’s fine.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (Downers Grove: University Press, 1999), p. 86.

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6 thoughts on “Not Slow At All”

  1. Yep,a flood of data and information and a famine of knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
    One chapter of the book of Proverbs,a day, is daily news.Slow becoming ‘Quick to listen’.

  2. Metz,

    Was it you, who first told me about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death?

    Postman speaks of a similar phenomenon, focusing on the effect that television has on us, especially in the “Now this. . . .” news programs.

    “‘ Now . . . this’ is commonly used . . . to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see . . . and means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.” [p. 99-100]

    Ironically, though, I find that we’re now being bombarded not so much with endless snippets of facts, but with questions. It’s the ‘You’ll never believe the results of whatever test!’ or ‘What did Hillary say in response? Shocking new developments in ________ case’. . . . – and we’re to click on something or to tune in for the answer, an answer which is often not forthcoming.

  3. Mike Metzger

    Marble

    I don’t know if I first introduced you to Postman (knowing your curiosity, you’d have bumped into him sooner or later), but I do so much appreciate his insightful writing. “Amusing” as well as “Technopoly” come to mind. They should be required reading for all serious people (as well as Ellul’s “The Technological Society”).

  4. Thanks Mike… Great thoughts as always.

    As one who just made it through a 1000 page bio on the life of Walt Disney I can attest to the beauty and at times, agony, of “slowness.” It certainly gave me much insight on the development of what has no doubt been one of the most influential institutions that our country has ever produced.. The bio on Steve Jobs had a similar impact.

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