Rolf Dobelli's ideas about not needing news are dangerous
You don't need to cut yourself off from the world in order to flourish, as Rolf Dobelli claims – it's all about healthy moderation
Imagine you are not reading this – you are not on the Guardian's website or reading the paper. In fact, you never visit the Guardian, and you cut yourself off from every other news site or paper. Imagine a news-free life – no radio, no television news. What would you miss? According to the Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli, the answer is not much. In fact, your creativity, insight and concentration could all flourish without the addictive habits of the news junkies whose activities are constantly punctuated by the drip drip stimulation of novelty.
As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist? He ploughed on: news is bad for your health, very bad for your mental faculties, and bad for your emotional state.
Journalists benefit, like any profession, from being challenged on the social value of what they do. Just the fact that more people than ever before are reading and watching your news content through websites with traffic running into tens of millions is not necessarily an argument for its social value. It's good to question the craving for immediacy: what do we really need to know about in real time? Dobelli argues that real insight and understanding is never instant. It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn't do complexity. At one level Dobelli's bestselling book The Art of Thinking Clearly is a manifesto for slow thought. We have had the slow food movement, now it's the turn for slow thinking.
At another level Dobelli is making an argument about something that I suspect we are all going to have to reckon with: let's call it mental clutter. Our minds are full of information and, as Dobelli points out, the capacities of our short-term memory are limited and that can act as a "choke point" for the long-term memory. While we may become expert at skimming and multitasking, we risk retaining less and less.
The web may have unleashed infinite possibilities of information and speed, but it still has to be absorbed, assimilated and considered by our clunky old brains if we are to develop any insight or understanding. It's these last two which are now scarce, and crucially, what both require is concentration. The ability to focus, to persist with complexity and to consider ambiguity or uncertainty: these are the mental abilities we put at risk by flitting from one story to another.
It becomes harder and harder to develop powers of concentration. This is the nagging anxiety of many parents. Their child may be super-quick on the iPad but has largely given up reading, where the stimulation is slow release. Much like our problematic relationship with food in the abundant west, how do we raise children with the capability to focus and concentrate on something that isn't about instant stimulation – children who can forgo the mental equivalent of a hit of sugar for something of more nutritional value? What's needed is a mental "eat your greens". A US professor told me that he could see in his students' essays the disrupted thought patterns as they checked online or their phone.
In a recent interview with the US scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, he discussed with me how interest in mindfulness is growing in many quarters in the US as a way to develop powers of concentration. He told me that one Silicon Valley corporate executive had suggested that the basic mindfulness techniques Kabat-Zinn has developed in healthcare to deal with pain could become widely adopted as a way of ensuring a kind of cognitive fitness. Think of it as jogging for the mind. Kabat-Zinn added that he had noticed that the adoption curve for mindfulness is proving much steeper than it was for jogging. People are searching for mental space.
It's thought-provoking stuff, but Dobelli's argument doesn't stack up. He has chosen the wrong target: it's not news per se that is the problem, but the formats in which we now consume news and the habits of constant interruption and brief attention they generate. What he admits is that he still reads longer-form journalism and books. Furthermore, he relies on well-informed friends (many of them perhaps news junkies) to ensure that he roughly knew what was going on in the world.
Lucky him to be so well-connected to the well-read and interested, but free-riding is not a serious option for everyone. The whole point of news sites and newspapers has always been to introduce you to events and ideas you might not otherwise encounter. Cut yourself off from all of that and you limit your understanding and engagement in life. You isolate yourself from the collective conversation that news sustains and inspires. In the end it closes down your world to a very small space of who you know and what they know. It denies curiosity, one of the great human appetites that news both satisfies and feeds. It restricts your understanding of the huge diversity of human experience.
Yes, the news is often disturbing and challenging. It may indeed raise our anxiety levels. But at that rate, life itself should carry a health warning: human experience can raise stress levels. Reading of the Boston bombing and the death of Martin Richard today brought me to tears, but retreating from such engagement with tragedy into a safe cocoon of personal equanimity is cutting yourself off from the stuff of life. If we retreat into fortresses of ignorance, what understanding do we have left of our shared life as humanity? At its root there is a responsibility to know and understand the world and age you live in. That is at the root of democracy: that we all have a responsibility to make decisions about how our society is ordered. How is democracy possible if people don't want to know?
Surely, rather like sugar or alcohol, it's all about healthy moderation rather than the extreme of opting out altogether. Cut down on the skim reading, and set aside time to concentrate. Editors need to think about how to encourage concentration rather than provide ever more challenges to it.
But it's a very dangerous argument to advance that we don't need news. It fits well into Aldous Huxley's dystopia of totalitarianism, Brave New World, in which the population are happy and docile. All kinds of vested interests have sought to limit news – burying bad news, for example – to suit their agendas. The supply of news is one of the first casualties of authoritarianism. Dobelli's argument is dangerously cavalier. He sounds like the spoilt child of an information-abundant age. Some problems are nice to have.