‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads

I’ve found the most quotable book I’ve read in a while.

“Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the drug causes, I quote, ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, and desensitization’. Would we use this drug? Would our kids be allowed to try it? Would government legalise it? To all of the above: yes. Because what I’m talking about is already one of the biggest addictions of our times. A drug we use daily, that’s heavily subsidised and is distributed to our children on a massive scale. That drug is the news.”

Ruther Bergman’s book Humankind was recommended to me by my Aunt over Christmas as we talked about the light subject of saving the planet and bringing peace to planet earth.

Tracey recommended the book and in the first chapter Rutger is straight in for the attack on the news.

“I was raised to believe that the news is good for your development. That as an engaged citizen it’s your duty to read the paper and watch the evening news. That the more we follow the news, the better informed we are and the healthier our democracy. This is still the story many parents tell their kids, but scientists are reaching very different conclusions. The news, according to dozens of studies, is a mental health hazard. First to open up this field of research, back in the 1990s, was George Gerbner (1919–2005). He also coined a term to describe the phenomenon he found: mean world syndrome, whose clinical symptoms are cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism. People who follow the news are more likely to agree with statements such as ‘Most people care only about themselves.’ They more often believe that we as individuals are helpless to better the world. They are more likely to be stressed and depressed. A few years ago, people in thirty different countries were asked a simple question: ‘Overall, do you think the world is getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?’ In every country, from Russia to Canada, from Mexico to Hungary, the vast majority of people answered that things are getting worse. The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. So why don’t we realise this? It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. You’ll never see a headline reading NUMBER OF PEOPLE LIVING IN EXTREME POVERTY DOWN BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY, even though it could accurately have been reported every day over the last twenty-five years. Nor will you ever see a broadcast go live to a reporter on the ground who says, ‘I’m standing here in the middle of nowhere, where today there’s still no sign of war.’”

With a careful note on journalism versus the news:

“Of course, by ‘the news’ I don’t mean all journalism. Many forms of journalism help us better understand the world. But the news – by which I mean reporting on recent, incidental and sensational events – is most common.”

And then he slides right into Facebook and Silicon Valley’s current obsession with buying and retailing our attention.

“This modern media frenzy is nothing less than an assault on the mundane. Because, let’s be honest, the lives of most people are pretty predictable. Nice, but boring. So while we’d prefer having nice neighbours with boring lives (and thankfully most neighbours fit the bill), ‘boring’ won’t make you sit up and take notice. ‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads. And so Silicon Valley keeps dishing us up ever more sensational clickbait, knowing full well, as a Swiss novelist once quipped, that ‘News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.’

I believe that ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman is required reading for anyone who’s upset, angry, our generally uncomfortable about the state of our people entering 2021.