Drown in Irrelevancy: The Commoditization of Facts

The White Orange 🍊⚪
7 min readAug 9, 2023

“… so I’m saying that what happened to the news more than 100 yr ago, is happening now to ‘facts’, bits of knowledge. They too are being co-mo… comoti…, what’s the word? When something becomes tradable, a product, when something becomes a commodity… commoditized, that’s the word. Facts are now being commoditized, the same way news were commoditized about 150 yr ago.”

“What do you mean?”

“So basically before the invention of the telegraph, no one in Comoros would care about a tsunami erasing a tenth of the Icelandic population, not only because the possibility of caring was not even there, but also because of the minimal impact on their everyday life. ‘Knowing’ about the world, ‘staying up to date’ were not a thing. But with the invention of the telegraph allowing instant communication over vast distances, caring became a possibility and with it, ‘the news’ became a thing, knowing about otherwise-irrelevant events in locations you haven’t even heard of, became commonplace, another form of entertainment. Opening up the newspaper or the TV wondering “What happened today in the world?” became a legit question, whereas a few years back that question just didn’t make sense. The business of ‘informing’, of packaging and selling recounts of recent global events was created; ‘the news’ became commoditized.”

“But surely there were newspapers already before the telegraph?”

“Yeah that’s true, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the telegraph, the TV and later the Internet, offered this instant access to information, which transformed the business completely,. ‘The news’ became more about entertaining, rather than informing.

I mean think about it, do we care about the bombing of whatever-number of people in a city whose name I’ve never heard of before in a place so remote I cannot even place on the map? The truth is, we don’t. But there’s now a system in place whose sole purpose is to make it look like we care or that we should care. This recent earthquake in Nauru, I was bombarded with headlines of it all over the place — on social media, Youtube, my news feed — but I chose not to care. Why? Because I was sick, because that’s precisely what they want, to get you interested on it, to get us all talk about it. But the reality is, no one cares.”

“But a lot of people died. Apparently many deaths could have been avoided as it was known houses needed a check-up from a long time ago, but the government neglected them.”

“Look, I’m not saying it wasn’t terrible, but it’s just the new trend, the new thing to talk about, and we will all forget it in a couple of weeks or for as long as they can stretch it. Remember the Gaza strip? It’s this blockade region sort of stuck inside Israel almost. Well did you know there’s 2 million Palestinians squeezed in misery within 365 square kilometres? Like it’s the 3rd densest region in the world or something. There’s constant shortages of pretty much everything ranging from food to energy and medicines and the UN essentially said it would be unliveable by 2020 if the current trends continued, yet we rarely hear about it any more except for a few missiles being thrown here and there, because it’s now outdated, boring. And what about this conflict that has been ravaging Sudan since earlier this year? Heard of it? No? Thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced yet I haven’t heard anyone talking about it.

What you are interested about is whatever they chose to be ‘the news’ and they’ll keep scrapping the world for dramatic events to report regardless of their meaningfulness to you, because the point is not to inform you, but to entertain you, but you’d been better off hadn’t you heard about any of these terrible things ever. At the end of the day reading for the nth time Chinese military has crossed the median line of the Taiwan strait will only give you a good psychosis, but you look out the window and the Sun is shining and the birds keep chirping. Only local news, things you can react to, or that will affect you largely, are relevant. One could argue there’s been two world-shattering events recently worth being informed about: COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. The rest? Only relevant for an investor trying to game the stock market, for which knowing about the world has a practical implication.

But the worst is not even that; the worst is when the irrelevance of what’s being presented reaches the absurd, like, let me read you some headlines: ‘The two young people that fell from a balcony in <insert random location> ‘fell on their backs and hit their heads’ ‘A woman dies on a plane from XX to XX: she travelled with her daughter’ ‘Video: police rescues two kids stuck in a dog cage, they’re wounded’ ‘Sailor who spent three months lost at sea with dog Bella reveals why he must say goodbye to his faithful pup’ ‘Iranian chess player obtains Spanish nationality’ ‘Chinese zoo denies its bears are humans in costume’Cave diver criticizes Musk’s kid-sub rescue plan. Musk suggests he’s a pedophile’.

But so what I was trying to get at is that this packaging of seemingly-interesting irrelevance, this mechanics of getting you to care about meaninglessness, is taking place with facts too, I guess thanks to things like Google and perhaps propelled by channels such as Veritasium and Vsauce — which on the other hand I legitimately respect. I see it particularly on Youtube, but news outlets are also feeding on this trend. It’s just a matter of time until we have a ‘facts’ feed. I mean, look at these thumbnails: ‘What supermarket ice creams are worth buying?’ ‘Why humans are surprisingly bad at being happy’ ‘Why Locomotives Can Pull So Much’ ‘Why Progress Bars Don’t Move Smoothly’ ‘Why are there no bridges in East London’ ‘Why kids don’t get as cold as adults do’ ‘Why no aquarium has a great white shark?’ ‘Why McDonald’s Is Better in Europe’ ‘Why Are There No Big Cats in Australia?

“But now you do want to know why kids don’t get as cold as adults”

“No! I mean yes, but only because I’ve just seen that fucking thumbnail, because it’s designed to trick me, it’s engineered to mess with my curiosity, but how on earth would I be interested if I didn’t even know kids were warmer than adults? Truth is, I don’t give a fuck about the answer to any of those questions, in fact I didn’t know THERE ARE NO FUCKING BIG CATS in Australia to start with.”

“I see what you mean, you mean those videos are answering questions that you simply didn’t have or worse, you didn’t even got a chance to know you had.”

“EXACTLY. I couldn’t have said better, they throw answers at me I didn’t even want to have in the first place, the same fucking way I don’t wake up thinking ‘oh what might have happened today in Japan?’ and that’s the commoditization of facts, that these people are taking a question they have invented and we haven’t even had the time to ask ourselves, packaging its answer into a nice, consumable and entertaining format, and profiting from the generated-interest.”

“Right basically both the news and things like Youtube have become this same out-of-the-blue interest generation and resolution machinery, creating question we’ve never had before and profiting from answering them.”

“Yes, and that differs from a legitimate interest that has a practicality associated with it, where deep, real understanding is built, in where like a little kid, it is the experience of the REAL world which sparks your own curiosity and drives you in a quest for more knowledge, so that you can go back to that experience and enjoy it more profoundly or repeat it in a better manner.

Like you go out there into the forest, see or heard some birds so then you start to investigate them and how to recognise them, until over time, after many iterations of bird-spotting and researching, you become an expert and identifying them becomes just pure bliss. Or like today, we wanted to make this Indian curry so we’ve searched for the exact recipe, the step-by-step, we’ve wondered how spicy is going to get with three chillies, and that has lead us to ponder about what causes something to be spicy in the first place, and learned that it is this active molecule, capsaicin, that irritates the skin in mammals when in contact with it, but that for instance birds don’t feel spice at all because they lack these receptors, and then we’ve seen you’ve felt the dish much spicier than I did and so we’ve wondered why do some people feel spice more strongly than others and that has lead us to discover that people actually build physical tolerance to spice, in a similar manner as we do to drugs or things like caffeine.”

“You just discover those things because your own curiosity drives you, not because someone is throwing random questions at you.”

A person sitting at a cluttered desk, surrounded by an array of devices — a laptop, smartphone, and tablet — all displaying various snippets of news and information. He has an angry expression and raises one fist in a gesture of protest and anger.

“Exactly, and it is this random assortment of meaningless, of disconnected bits of knowledge, this randomness à la carte, this disguisal of entertainment as knowledge, this rise of irrelevancy, that I refuse to participate in. Next time people ask me whether I know why there are no big Cats in Australia I will say “NO!” and I will say “NO!” too, when people ask me whether I’ve heard about this terrible eartquake in Antananarivo, because that, that will be my little protest against this sea of irrelevance that the all-entertaining Internet has become, to stay ignorant, bored and ill-informed.”

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