Recently I’ve read two apparently independent analogies between bite-size internet media and junk food. The first was Aaron Swartz, who founded and sold Reddit, a website offering bite-size internet media, for millions. Aaron self-critically wrote:
The same goes for reading stories on Reddit or your friends' pointless twits about their life. Looking at photos of sunsets or reading one-liners takes no cognitive effort. It's the mental equivalent of snack food. You start eating one and before you know it you've gone through two cans of Pringles and become a world expert on Evan Williams' travel habits.
The second analogist was Dave Rogers, who ironically likes to post photos of sunsets between repetitions of a one-liner
Technology changes how we do things, it does not change what we do. Dave wrote:
But these online interactions are mostly shallow, almost two-dimensional projections of real interactions. That third, "physical" dimension includes some important features that we've evolved to help us get along with one another. But since the two-dimensional interactions can provide most of the same rewards, (With greater immediacy and convenience! Just like "fast food.") as "real" interactions, we invest too much time in this simulated reality of the network, consuming far too many "empty calories," and growing socially "flabby" and unhealthy.
As it happens, between my steady diet of junk-food short articles such as Aaron’s and Dave’s, I’m slowly (four months!) reading a book about the actual food half of this analogy, The Omnivore’s Dilemna. So I like this analogy, probably because it’s convenient for me. But I don’t care much for the conclusions Aaron and Dave draw from the analogy.
Specifically, Dave suggests we should all go outside more, and Aaron suggests we should read more books. These are both good things to do, but I don’t think the suggestions really help much more than saying “go vegetarian” helps improve our standard diet. All of these suggestions presume a consciousness to our decision-making that doesn’t often exist. One might argue that we need to live more consciously, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I still don’t think that would be especially helpful advice for a world awash in junk food.
Recognizing that most of our decisions are made out of habit, and also that it’s very difficult to change our habits in ways that conflict with the norms of society, I think a better solution is to change the norms of society such that our habits lead to better results. This is the solution I see working to solve the actual junk food problem.
Following this analogy, let’s assume we eat too much meat (we do) and we want to convince everyone to eat less meat. One strategy, notably that of PETA, is to change the way we all think about meat. Meat is murder, PETA says. This doesn’t really work, though, because we can consciously recognize that yes, animals probably suffer to some extent in the production of a hamburger, while still craving that hamburger. This problem with PETA’s strategy is humorously captured in the following image.
Photo source unknown
The other, I think better, solution is veggie burgers. Veggie burgers work because they allow us to eat more healthy food without fundamentally changing the way we think about eating. I know this works because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to eat a vegetarian diet, as modern vegetarian food is almost indiscernable from actual meat. But the result is the same whether or not we are conscious of the change: lower meat consumption is a healthier diet.
Taking this back to the metaphorical junk food of a web-based snack-size media diet, I think we can best increase the depth of our media consumption subtly. If we can make ideas of more depth look and feel like the quicker stream of information to which we’ve become accustomed, we can benefit without needing to fundamentally alter our habits. Newspapers, for example, do this by breaking up a longer article into multiple pages. By the time you get to the bottom of a four paragraph article and realize it’s actually longer than four paragraphs, you’ve invested enough in the article that you continue to the next page. And the longer you read, the more you’re willing to continue. This way, a twelve page article can slowly suck in a reader who would avoid the same article simply out of habit if the length were immediately obvious.
So I agree with Aarom and Dave that we eat junk food and consume a media diet analogous to junk food because it’s easy. And we could fight against doing what’s easy, but we could also make it easier to do better. I think it’s tempting for those who are doing better to expect everyone else to follow suit. I think eating less meat is better, for example, but it wasn’t long after becoming vegetarian that I stopped expecting everyone else to eat less meat because it’s the right thing to do. I now expect everyone else to eat less meat because I’m making it easier.
I recognize the irony in suggesting that the best way to make people more thoughtful is to decrease the thought required to change. And I’m also not sure what the media equivalent of veggie burgers is. But I thought it worth mentioning nonetheless.