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Bread and Circuses

I opened the New York Times this morning. And just like that, I closed it. Sure, Congress is about to pass a spending bill for 2014. Yes, Chris Christie is blocking bridges and taking names. Yawn. I need something more. I need something to grab me by the seat of my pampered pants and beg me to pay attention. Duck Dynasty? Contrived controversy. Miley Cyrus? Come back when you have talent.

As long as the NFL is in its final weeks, Americans are happy. As long as Beyonce is surprising us with new albums, we’re content. As long as Jennifer Lawrence is looking fabulous on the red carpet, what is there to worry about? Don’t worry, a new season of the Bachelor started last week; Juan Pablo, isn’t he sexy?

Bread and circuses, circuses and bread.

We don’t need gladiators anymore, the market provides them for us. They come in all shapes and sizes too. From pornography to pro football, individuals sacrifice their bodies in the name of entertainment, in the name of profit.

Isn’t there something more to culture though? Shouldn’t there be something more to this society we call ourselves proud to be a part of? Articles we read should delve deeper than “16 Random Jelly Bean Combinations That Totally Work,” or “The Way to Reheat Pizza Is in a Skillet” (Thanks Buzzfeed and Gawker).

The news we consume, from Gawker to the Wall Street Journal, Politico to People, has become a type of drug for our brains. News stories have come to focus on the dramatic, finding a narrative, or even worse, contriving one, and sticking to it. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the old newspaper adage goes. We hear about highflying CEOs and investment bankers, but not underpaid teachers or nurses. Think about it.

Say you’ve read a couple news stories a day over the past 12 months. Of those almost 1,000 articles, can you point to any that have changed your life, changed the way you thought about the world? Maybe you’re a Republican and read a few sentences of a liberal pundit singing the praises of the Affordable Care Act to get riled up. Damn it, Obama!

Perhaps you read an article or two about civil unrest in Syria so you could feel “informed” or “know what’s going on in the world.”

We get lost in these daily descriptions and completely miss the over-arching narratives of our time. At best woeful indifference, at worst blissful ignorance, these bite-size pieces of news are what we choose to digest.

Studies have shown that as we consume news, we exercise the part of our brain dedicated to skimming and multitasking while ignoring the portion associated with deeper reading and more philosophical thought.

As you read more news, your brain becomes better at skimming, but you become restless. After a few pages of reading a book, you become bored, unable to concentrate.

Over-simplification. That’s what news does; that’s what our culture values. News boils down a complex story, a complex web of intertwined ideas, actors, and places, providing a 700-word narrative that people can feel comfortable digesting.

Remember TED? With titles like “How schools kill creativity” and “How great leaders inspire action,” these little morsels of inspirational talks leave listeners feeling, well, inspired. But then, nothing happens.

Speakers divulge a great revelation they had, and how it can- you guessed it- change the world. They leave us with one take away, one “idea worth spreading,” that can revolutionize something and save millions of lives. But the world is much more complicated than that.

Remember Kony 2012. Invisible Children was able to simplify centuries of central African politics into something a five-year-old could understand. Kony- bad, us- good. It was Harry Potter versus Voldermort, played out in the jungles of Uganda instead of the halls of Hogwarts.

While video killed the radio star, we were all too busy watching the television to notice that news killed critical thinking. It killed creativity. We don’t need to think anymore; the news puts the pieces together for us.

No need to solve problems, the news introduces trite and tried solutions. It fills the space in our brain with empty thoughts, fears of plane crashes and terrorism, what the Kardashians might do next or who Juan Pablo will let go this week.

We try to focus on the sexy stuff, the nanotechnology or vaccines that can change the world, the cures and supercomputers that can solve previously unsolvable problems.

The truth is, the little bits in between- where change actually occurs- are hard. They’re ugly, they’re ambiguous, and they’re certainly not fun to read about.

Put down this newspaper. Put down that New York Times. Pick up a book, read a quality piece of investigative or long-form journalism. It may not be fun, but it will open your mind back up. That’s my idea worth spreading.

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