If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.
I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out.
To advocate a policy of ignorance or indifference with regards to the news cycle is likely to invite contempt from one’s peers. If you don’t keep informed on all the latest minutiae, how can you possibly be prepared to act virtuously and effectively at a decisive moment? To me, this attitude is indicative of a mass illusion, one in which we vastly overestimate our personal ability to affect the flow of events. The fact that mass education has made us capable of being conversant with current events does not necessarily empower us to do anything with that tentative knowledge. Close scrutiny of the news isn’t the same thing as being informed, any more than tensing one’s facial muscles and staring hard is the same thing as being focused and concentrated. In either case, all you’re likely to achieve is a headache. Jacobs is just pointing out that sitting on a mountaintop and looking down at the forest is often more conducive to understanding than scrutinizing the bark of any individual tree.