“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.
“We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
When he wrote the preceding text in 1854, Henry David Thoreau was feeling rather skeptical about the advent of high-speed communications via telegraph, “improved means to an unimproved end” he wrote in his famous book, “Walden.”
I’ve thought a lot about this quote over the years as the internet seems to confirm Thoreau’s suspicions. The speed of information has outstripped our ability to make sense of the news we receive.
So much of what we hear now is “senseless,” whether violent or absurd. It requires a certain numbness on our part. We can’t possibly generate enough compassion or sympathy given the scope of what we hear on a daily basis.
It seems the word “news” brought with it from the very beginning the idea that newness of information is the ultimate measure of value.
Journalists want to be the first to “get the scoop.” Twitter serves up-to-the-second updates on everything from global politics to who’s wearing what at the Oscars. It seems our broad, flapping American ear has gotten even broader.
Thoreau’s joke about Princess Adelaide and the whooping cough has become rather poignant as we receive up-to-the-minute news about the spread of a new virus, provoking fears of a pandemic. The recent news cycle has added new meaning to the term “viral media.”
And yet, contained within Thoreau’s acerbic reflections on technology is this observation, “The man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.”
The allusion to John the Baptist raises an important point: News should not be valued strictly according to its newness. The Gospel, the good news, is full of deeply important meaning for our daily lives.
Reading Scripture before you read the news in the morning is far better preparation for the day because it contains the meaning that the news media so sorely lacks.
Read the Gospel. Every morning. Doing so is not an “unimproved means to an unimproved end” like so many of our technological distractions, but an improved means to an improved end.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.