Too Much Of Nothing: In many respects it is the power of a free press to keep history’s images vivid and clear that renders it so important to the life of our democracy. It was the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who said it best: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
THERE WAS A TIME when the risk of losing something fundamental to the health of our democracy was powerfully motivational. Not today. Survey after survey has exposed a worrying disdain for democracy on the part of the young. Would 18-35 year-olds risk their lives, as their grandparents did, for the right to vote; to express themselves freely; to be informed by a free and independent news media? I’m not entirely sure that they would.
In the ears of the young, one of the central pillars of democracy – “Freedom of the Press” – must sound hopelessly old-fashioned: an antique concept from a time when people still read newspapers. That’s an activity their generation has largely given up, along with most other opportunities for absorbing the printed word. But, are these same young people aware that New Zealand’s practitioners of public relations outnumber its journalists by roughly 10-1? It’s entirely possible that those staccato bursts of supposedly factual and objective information, which their devices deliver to them as “news”, is something else altogether.
Do they care? If they knew they were being lied to by people paid twice as much as journalists to present the actions of public and private institutions in the best possible light, they very likely would. To realise they were being lied to, however, they would first have to have acquired a broad general knowledge of the world.
In modern parlance: they would need to possess their own personal Google. This would allow them to identify nonsense when they encountered it. Unfortunately, growing up with the Internet and its miraculous search engines has made the acquisition of general knowledge redundant. Why bother to commit the basic elements of science, art, literature and history to memory when you can just ask “Siri”? Always assuming you know enough to ask Siri the right questions – and that Siri is wise enough to supply you with an extensive selection of answers.
That’s the thing about democracy, and the free and independent news media which, alone, permits it to function. It presupposes an electorate that knows that it does not know; an electorate which is constantly asking questions so that the sum of what it knows can grow; an electorate which is then able to take what it knows and test it against what others claim to know. Without a free press, citizens are at risk of believing what they’re told. Moreover, without the open debate that a free press encourages, those same citizens cannot discover they are wrong.
These are the attributes whose absence allows us to denounce the news media of dictatorships. These latter may boast many newspapers, television networks and radio stations, but because the regime refuses to acknowledge that it does not know everything, the media it controls is blighted by exactly the same certainty. New ideas about how to improve society are denied a platform. Debate is forbidden. Inconvenient facts are over-written with lies deemed more serviceable to the regime’s long-term interests. History fades away, like a polaroid photograph exposed too long to the sun, leaving only a shiny white surface.
In many respects it is the power of a free press to keep history’s images vivid and clear that renders it so important to the life of our democracy. It was the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who said it best: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
But how do we struggle against a regime that does not suppress our memories, but succeeds in convincing us that we have nothing to remember?
Isn’t this the true danger which the Internet poses to democracy? Not that it suppresses information, but that, by declining to test and filter it, as journalists and their editors do, it causes us to be buried beneath its onrushing storm of data? True or False? Useful or Worthless? Important or Trivial? How are we to know? And why, if the data – the information – is entertaining, should we care?
Early last week, a story published in The New York Times revealed that more and more young people are forgetting the Holocaust. “Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.” Gradually, but unmistakably, the polaroid of humanity’s most evil crime is fading.
Gradually, but unmistakably, the Internet’s unrelenting data blizzard is turning everything to white.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 August 2019.