Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rage against the Abstract

For the last few weeks I have been largely disconnected from the internet. I've been in places or situations without a connection, and when I have been, I haven't felt the desire to catch up in detail on all the usual blogs and websites. I scribble a bit on this blog because I love all my readers dearly, but I have been, in short, with my 'stories'.

One of the realisations that this tends to produce is just how much of your existence is spent thinking about things that, for all intents and purposes, are entirely abstract. The stories in the newspaper are real, of course, but virtually none of them would have a noticeable impact on your life if you didn't read about them. A terrorist attack in Norway, an unjust prosecution of a guy in Australia, haggling over the long-term debt level of the USA - be honest, if you were in a country cottage, would you even know it was happening?

And yet that's what people get worried about, spending their days raging and celebrating over things that matter to them in the aggregate, but not that much individually.

Once upon a time, this wasn't the case. Go back a couple of hundred years, and the only news was local news. If Betty was involved in a scandal, she wasn't a movie star but someone you knew personally. If there was political upheaval, it wasn't that the House of Representatives was controlled by a different party, but that the Vikings were raping and pillaging a town 5 miles away, and heading to you next. It's not that the news was always more important, as local news can get very parochial and gossip driven. But it definitely was a lot more likely to affect you directly.

So what these ways would actually affect you? Economic events you might still notice, but probably only when it affected your company or business. When you get laid off, or your cousin gets laid off, that's a big deal. In this sense, it probably makes sense for people to vote for or against incumbents based largely on how the economy is doing (as they seem to). But if you kept your job and were in a fairly stable business, it would be a lot harder to know exactly what constituted a recession.

The biggest political event of the past decade was easily September 11. If you lived in New York, you'd better believe you would have noticed it even without the newspapers. If you were a member of the military (or knew someone who was), you'd be aware of the fact that you'd been shipped off to Afghanistan.

But if you were just a regular guy living in Detroit who never read the paper? Broadly speaking, the only change you would have noticed would have been a bit more hassle at airport security.

The part that is odd, though, is that it's very difficult to keep this perspective while reading the news every day. People just aren't wired that way - news always interests them, even if it is unlikely to affect them much. The only way to get there is to actually stop reading for a while.

Strange times.

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