Why do we follow the news?

I think I follow the news for two reasons.

1: The lofty reason people like telling themselves. “It makes me a more informed citizen” and so “I can vote smarter.” As pointed out in this great podcast episode about it from Freakonomics, Why do we really follow the news?, it doesn’t really affect my life one way or the other if I know certain facts. As journalist Mitchell Stephens said:

I think very little of the news actually today is of practical value. For one thing, we don’t live in a society that has all that many threats encroaching upon us. You know, most of us live pretty safe lives. And most of us know where to find food in the supermarket. Most of us know where to look for romance, where to live our social lives. So I think a lot of the functions that news used to perform way back when in hunter-gatherer times, in preliterate societies, it’s no longer performing regularly. Yet our itch to be aware, to know what’s going on around us, remains.

2: For the story. As economist Matthew Gentzkow touched put it:

There’s a lot of research in psychology about the importance of telling stories and building narratives for people. People like to look at their own lives as a story. They like to see kind of the arc of the challenges that they overcame and define themselves as a character in that story. And to me that makes a lot of sense of why we care so much about news, because if what I’m thinking about all the time is my own life story and my own role in it, then you know, what’s happening in the world around me is the context that that story’s happening in.

So there ya go. Give it a listen.

“A Read Down Memory Lane”

As a big journaler and keeper of correspondences, I really enjoyed this interview with author Jim Sollisch on Talk of the Nation reminiscing about finding old writings long after you’ve written them:

…I found a speech I’d given in ninth grade, and it was typed on my mother’s typewriter. And somehow, I’d gotten myself elected president of my ninth grade class. My friends must have voted a bunch of times because I was not sort of the class president type. But what was cool was that you got to give a speech at graduation, and so I was excited about that. I channeled my inner Martin Luther King and I wrote this really passionate speech and the deal was you had to review it with the principal a couple of days before graduation. So I go in and I kind of give it my best read, and she does not like the speech.

Apparently it is too – it’s not uplifting enough. And she said, you know, we have kind of a format here. You know, you have to thank a teacher in particular and then the whole teacher and say something to the student body and – so I argued with her and, you know, I lost the argument. So I rewrote the speech. She said you got to rewrite the speech. So I rewrote the speech, came in the next day, read it to her. It was kind of what she wanted. She liked it. And on graduation day I took the podium and I read the original speech.

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The Huffington Post for Teens

Cool new project from my internship alma mater Mighty Writers, called the Mighty Post.

From the email campaign announcing the launch:

After a test launch a few months back, we’ve been talking about the Mighty Post a lot — everything from how it should look to how it should read.

We’ve been meeting in person at 5pm every Monday at Mighty Writers, and emailing and texting about it throughout the week.

We’ve decided a lot. Things like:

  • Brighter colors are better.
  • We want our site to look like a blog, not a website.
  • We want to post what we have to say the second we think it.
  • And we want to use the @MightyPost twitter account to tell everybody what we’re doing.

Check it out here.

Local Success

Author Ann Patchett is an enthusiastic new voice in the anti-amazon, pro-local bookstore scene. And she’s not all words: along with co-owner Karen Hayes, she opened a small, successful independent book store in her hometown, called Parnassus Books.

From her recent article in The Atlantic:

Two years ago, the city of Nashville had two bookstores. One was Davis-Kidd, which had been our much-beloved locally owned and operated independent before selling out to the Ohio-based Joseph-Beth Booksellers chain 15 years earlier. Joseph-Beth moved Davis-Kidd into a mall, provided it with 30,000 square feet of retail space, and put wind chimes and coffee mugs and scented candles in front of the book displays. We continued to call it our “local independent,” even though we knew that wasn’t really true anymore. …

In December 2010, Davis-Kidd closed. It was profitable, declared the owners from Ohio, who were dismantling the chain, but not profitable enough. Then, in May 2011, our Borders store—also profitable—went the way of all Borders stores. Nashvillians woke up one morning and found that we no longer had a bookstore.

How had this happened? Had digital books led us astray? Had we been lured away by the siren song of Amazon’s underpricing? Had we been careless, failing to support the very places that had hosted our children’s story hours and brought in touring authors and set up summer-reading tables? Our city experienced a great collective gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but to what extent was Nashville to blame? Both of the closed stores had been profitable. …

See also: her interview on The Colbert Report, and more about local bookstores on this blog.

“Program or Be Programmed” {book review}

Douglas Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commandments for a Digital Age” {amazon} is a book I was pre-disposed to enjoy and agree with. Rushkoff’s main premise is that by using applications programmed by other people—people and technologies that have inherent biases—we’re: a) missing out on the full potential of technology, and b) being influenced by their biases and limitations without even knowing it.

By bias, Rushkoff is talking about the web as a medium, limited by technical parameters and influenced by the powers who make it happen. For instance, Rushkoff iterates that the web is biased toward choice, since the underlying code is based on only two options: on or off; a “1” or a “0”. This may mean that the web is biased against the gray area between two issues, and in favor of choosing sides when it isn’t necessary.

It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a convincing argument. I’m not sure if it’s possible to spoil the ending of a non-fiction work, but if so—spoiler alert!

Rushkoff ends the book with a plea for American society to begin to value programming, to teach it in school, or risk falling behind nations who do value it. If we don’t start taking it seriously, we surrender the power of this new medium to an elite class/nation who does know how to program.

Finally, we have the tools to program. Yet we are content to seize only the capability of the last great media renaissance, that of writing. We feel proud to build a web page or finish our profile on a social networking site, as if this means we are now full-fledged participants in the cyber era. We remain unaware of the biases of the programs in which we are participating, as well as the ways they circumscribe our newfound authorship within their predetermined agendas…

Our enthusiasm for digital technology about which we have little understanding and over which we have little control leads us not toward greater agency, but toward less… We become dependent on search engines and smart phones developed by companies we can only hope value our productivity over their bottom lines. We learn to socialize and make friends through interfaces and networks that may be more dedicated to finding a valid advertising model than helping us find one another.

Pick up the book if you’re interested in this argument, and check out his sxsw 2010 talk about the book {youtube}.