#53: the fear of irrelevance
countering our bias toward information novelty, seeing with the heart
I’ve been thinking a lot about irrelevance lately, more specifically, our fear of it, because I see it popping up here and there in conversation all the time. So today I’m sharing some clippings from my growing cluster on the subject.
Before we jump in, a quick story about the book that moved me to pursue journalism: Xinran’s The Good Women of China, which I read (sobbing) en route to Yunnan Province as a junior in college. I was on study abroad in China and looking for something in English I could read while traveling, and by some stroke of luck, I discovered the book that shook me to my core.
An employee of the state radio system, Xinran somehow got permission to host a talkback radio show called “Words on the Night Breeze” about Chinese women’s experiences at the end of 1980’s. Each chapter chronicles the stories that affected her most, how they came to her and how she produced them within the constraints of government censors.
I warn you: it’s a difficult read as some of the stories are very heartbreaking. But what is incredible about each one is that it’s from a woman who would otherwise have been irrelevant to the national story had there not been a journalist they could call or write to with their most painful secrets and complicated assessments of what it meant to be a woman in China.
In some ways, irrelevance is one of the most important fears of human beings. And yet it goes so unexamined. I’ve always wondered about the role that journalism plays in both mitigating and exacerbating this fear.
Part of the issue with irrelevance (and how it connects to news) is that as a product (in the democratic world), news’s primary design constraint is novelty. The infamous “scoop” that journalists chase. The fury they experience when that scoop is copied and they aren’t credited for their discovery. If you pitch a story to a publication, it has to have a “news peg” or be connected to something that’s being discussed now. What this does at scale is contribute to a culture that prioritizes novelty above all. And it doesn’t help that we are wired to prefer novelty anyway. So here are a few bits from my notes as I keep thinking about all this.
🥬 The fear of irrelevance (super macro to super micro)
SUPER MACRO: The irrelevance of an entire labor force
Here are some highlights on the potential threat of economic irrelevance, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
…liberalism is losing credibility exactly when the twin revolutions in information technology and biotechnology confront us with the biggest challenges our species has ever encountered. The merger of infotech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of the job market and undermine both liberty and equality. Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation but from something far worse—irrelevance.
In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious words are bandied around excitedly in TED Talks, government think tanks, and high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning—and common people may well suspect that none of these words are about them. The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?
The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but who lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but who feared that they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.
MACRO: BETWEEN JOURNALISTS & AUDIENCES
Sewell Chan, Editorial Page Editor, Los Angeles Times in an interview for this 2020 report from the Trust in News Project:
When you’re working in the trenches of news, your biggest fear isn’t readers’ scepticism. Your biggest fear is the non-existence of readers … the fear of irrelevance.
MICRO: WITHIN FAMILIES
What the fear of irrelevance does to us at the micro level, from Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, an excellent book on trauma and treatment:
Most human beings simply cannot tolerate being disengaged from others for any length of time.
People who cannot connect through work, friendships, or family usually find other ways of bonding, as through illness, lawsuits, or family feuds. Anything is preferable to that godforsaken sense of irrelevance and alienation.
SUPER MICRO: WITHIN THE SELF
The Caretakers of Women’s Pandemic Stories features pieces from the National Women’s History Museum’s Coronavirus Journaling Project, which collected hundreds of journal entries by women and girls about their lives during the pandemic. It’s pretty beautiful.
In spring of 2020, when other history museums began amassing Covid-19 artifacts, like masks and photographs of empty streets, Lori Ann Terjesen noticed that no institution was specifically capturing the experiences of women — “the architects of society,” as she described them last month.
“Women’s history has kind of been overshadowed by male-dominated history, not because it’s not there,” she explained. “It’s just in the archives — their stories really live in journals.”
It made me think about Xinran’s stories, particularly the physical letters she received from some listeners, which were really like diaries they had never shared with anyone. And it also made me think of these words from George Saunders, which I shared in an issue of Time Spent about recording 2020 in your own way:
50 years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart.
A wonderful counter to novelty is the personalized recommendation—not by algorithms, but by people who treasure you.
It made me think of a delightful project I did a story on once, about a pair of friends who would recommend books to each other as “medicine”—novels that could put a finger on or provide a lesson about the existential ailments, personal challenges or crises of confidence that the other was experiencing. (They eventually began to offer this as an actual service at The School of Life in London.)
Things become relevant again in the moment of discovery. The book matters to you, so it’s relevant. It doesn’t matter if it’s new or not.
That’s the cool thing about the internet. An article from 2015 can surface today and be just as interesting and relevant to me as it was then. But in terms of the news cycle? It’s old news. I find that so strange.
So today’s prompt is this: How might we challenge our fear of irrelevance by countering our bias toward information novelty in our everyday lives? If we turned inward and documented or curated information for ourselves or the people closest to us, what would we document and share?
I’ll leave you with this 100-year-old quote about seeing with the heart.
Time Spent is an entirely free resource on media/culture and a public part of my writing practice. Spreading the word is immensely helpful as I test out some of this thinking.