Better Media Diets

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.

MEAT IS MURDER. Tasty, tasty murder.

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.

Excellent post, Scott. I keep trying to find ways to make myself a vegetarian but I always get sucked in by the "saucy southerner" at Hickory Park in Ames.

When I first started reading your article, I thought, "Uh oh, that's me. I read news and media in little bits." However, I started thinking that I'm not just consuming it haphazardly, but carefully selecting the amount and type of information that I receive (thank you, RSS/ Plus, I find that I have become more aware of the world I live in not only through going out and living in it all the time, but through reading these select media sources. Also, groups like Drinking Liberally have helped me even more by allowing me to find people in the world who I can have vigorous debate about on the issues that I read about.

In the end, I'm not sure if I'm the "meat consuming news whore" that the authors wish to destroy or if I am some new "scalpel-wielding media nut who explores the world through different lenses."
Scott says I "suggest[] we should read more books." I guess I do think reading more books is a good idea, but I didn't say that in the article. Instead, I suggested that programmers work on startups that help fulfill our better natures, instead of pandering to our worse ones. "[T]echnology never solves things by itself," I wrote. "At bottom, it requires people to sit down and build tools that solve them."

Which, it turns out, is a lot like what Scott suggests. "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."

I'm sorry if I was unclear and somehow gave the wrong impression, but that's exactly what I meant.
A couple of points:

1. I mostly post pictures of sunRISES, inasmuch as I live on the east coast of Florida.

2. My point, to the extent that I had one, was that the phenomena we observe, disclaim and decry, are often, perhaps usually, the unintended consequences of an "advance" in technology that is largely celebrated as being a "good thing."

I thought the premise behind Supersize Me was stupid, and I think it's possible to enjoy fast food responsibly and not endure terrible health consequences. And it's also possible to enjoy short posts and travel pictures. But one shouldn't labor under the misconception that we're engaged in some sort of rigorous debate or cogent social discourse.

Finally, some short posts can be very rich and insightful, but these require thought to prepare, and we seem to be mostly about speed here. "Be number 3:" is an interesting prompt to leave a comment. What do you suppose inspired that the notion to "Be number n:" as a comment prompt?

Finally, I'm surprised Aaron wrote in his comment that, essentially, tools solve problems.

They don't, really. People solve problems. Sometimes tools can help. Often, we merely wish to anticipate and avoid problems, which is another human activity, not something a tool can do by itself.

We're too enfatuated with our own skill as tool makers, and oblivious to our weaknesses as human beings. Poor combination, I'm afraid.
It seems I've mischaracterized both posts. Thanks for the corrections.

Dave, it says "Be number 3:" because there are already two comments, and I want to encourage comments by causing some part of your brain to conceptualize the state of this page after you've commented. For the same reason, I made the comment submission form look as much like a completed comment as I could. This is one example of how tools influence our behavior. In this case, I think the tool improves behavior, because I think comments are good. But even if you disagree with the goodness, the important point is that the influence is there either way. I don't see this influence going away until we're fully conscious of our behavior. So the obvious alternate route to improving our behavior seems to be improving the ways in which our tools influence us.

For another example, I use NetNewsWire to read feeds. By default, NetNewsWire shows an "unread count" in its icon, so I can constantly see how much I have waiting for me to read. And as this number gets larger, I feel more urgency to stop whatever I'm doing and read my feeds. Irrational, I know, but that's how I am. Now I could probably train myself to ignore the growing number, to become full master over my tools. But a while ago, an option was added to NetNewsWire to turn off the unread count in the icon. So now I never see the number and my feeds never seem very urgent. Changing the way my tool works changed (I think improved) the way I behave, and I think there is no shortage of areas where we can make such improvements. There's also no shortage of areas where we can become more self-aware, but that's much more difficult work.

And of course the two aren't mutually exclusive. We should work for both, better tools and better people. Maybe you think better tools encourage laziness in becoming better people? I don't think they do.
While not mutually exclusive, attention that is devoted to the tool is attention that is not devoted to the problem itself.

Your choice of comment prompts seems to have as part of its design an awareness of the desire on the part of some (most?) people to have a lower ordinal numbers (text doesn't seem to wrap on this version of IE and Win2K), which implies either higher rank, or greater speed, or some other "greater" quality. This seems to me to be clever, but exploitative. But who is doing the exploiting, the tool or the tool's creator? So again, I say it's not the tool that is the "problem" (or "solution") but some person.

I maintain that we often use tools (fast food) to solve "problems" that aren't genuine "problems," but merely aspects of our current state of living. For instance, why read RSS feeds at all? The number of unread posts "problem" is really just a contingency of this new practice of reading posts, an activity for which there is probably some physiological "reward" in the sense that we derive some pleasure or satisfaction in keeping up with these things. But whether they're "urgent" or not, time and attention devoted to pursuing these "rewards" are time and attention that are not devoted to exercise or interaction with people in your immediate vicinity, activities that are undoubtedly less convenient, and no more "rewarding" in terms of immediate sensation, but probably more valuable in terms of both physical and mental health.

So I maintain that we often create tools to solve "problems" that aren't problems at all, and those solutions actually contribute to real problems which only become manifest after some cumulative amount of damage.

So, I would say that when given the choice of devoting time and attention to becoming a better person or developing a better tool, I think the wiser course is always to become the better person.
I think you're imagining more consciousness to my decision-making than actually exists. I'd never considered the impulse to post "First Post!" here, as I've never really understood that desire myself, and never seen any evidence of it on any site I've worked on. But even if I were trying to encourage such gaming of these comments, what makes that exploitative? I hope you don't find it exploitative that I cleaned up the line wraps in your comment. As far as I can tell, that has pretty much the same effects as any other form of encouraging comments: improving the content on this website, which I hope is helpful for everyone involved.

It seems like what you're saying is essentially "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." On my old weblog, I had rotating quotes, one of which was a funny (I thought) quote from Eddie Izzard in response to that saying: "Well I think the gun helps. If you just stood there and yelled BANG, I don't think you'd kill too many people." I agree that tools often solve the wrong problems, but I think that's in large part a result of the design of the tool. If you surround junk food with cartoon characters and playground equipment, of course it's going to be used to solve the problem of comforting children. (I haven't seen "Supersize Me," so I hope this wasn't the premise you found stupid.)

I disagree that exercise and interaction with people in your immediate vicinity is necessarily less convenient. Consider the Nintendo Wii, which seems to be designed to encourage both. When my wife and I play tennis together, I think I get pretty much the same physiological reward (a feeling of incremental accomplishment) I get from sitting alone at my desk scanning through my feeds and marking each item as "read," but I also get additional rewards without really thinking about them. Is something lost by my not consciously weighing the trip to the tennis court against the value of this social interaction and exercise and determining that it's worth the trip? I don't think so. I'm glad the Wii exploits my less healthy desires toward making me healthier, because I'm not yet the better person who would play tennis otherwise. I can agree that I should be that person, but that still doesn't make me that person.
I'm not sure if Dave was trying to make a joke or not, but he claims "I'm surprised Aaron wrote in his comment that, essentially, tools solve problems. They don't, really. People solve problems."

Here's exactly what I wrote in my comment: "[T]echnology never solves things by itself," I wrote. "At bottom, it requires people to sit down and build tools that solve them." (emphasis added)

I don't know why people keep getting mad at me for not saying exactly what I said, but it sure is odd.
I don't know why Aaron thinks I'm mad at him, I'm not. I also think I read what he wrote correctly, and I don't think the complete quotation changes anything.
The relevant construction is "tools that solve problems." Presumably people do build the tools. The point is, tools don't solve problems.

I don't know why people keep thinking tools solve problems, but it sure is odd. ;^)
I think you're imagining more consciousness to my decision-making than actually exists. I'd never considered the impulse to post "First Post!" here, as I've never really understood that desire myself, and never seen any evidence of it on any site I've worked on. But even if I were trying to encourage such gaming of these comments, what makes that exploitative? I hope you don't find it exploitative that I cleaned up the line wraps in your comment. As far as I can tell, that has pretty much the same effects as any other form of encouraging comments: improving the content on this website, which I hope is helpful for everyone involved.

There is a difference between "which I hope is helpful for everyone involved," and "I think comments are good," though they both are deficient.

I hope you don't think I'm picking on you, I'm not. I'm just trying to get you to think about this issue in a larger frame. You "hope" and you "think," but you don't "know." Maybe encouraging comments is not a good thing. If it is not, are you not potentially creating a problem? I don't really know what your intention was with respect to the invitation to "Be number n:" but it seems one reasonable interpretation is to play on the "First comment!" mentality that is often manifest on some blogs, so in that sense I think you're exploiting an aspect of human nature that seems to value being "first." (Presumably, as n goes to infinity, the incentive to post approaches zero, although there are certain ordinal values that would increase the incentive to post, probably 100, 1000, 100,000, etc.)

(I'm being a little facetious here. But just a little.)

I thought Supersize Me was stupid (though I'm relying on accounts I've read about the movie, I've never seen it myself), because the creator deliberately made choices to ensure the outcome he most wanted to illustrate, which should have been no surprise to anyone and which likely bears little resemblance to any actual person. In this sense, I'm not about to suggest that blogging and commenting are evils that will lead to really bad ends. They likely won't.

But neither are they unequivocal "goods," and in many cases they will contribute to an overall decrease in the quality of one's life, and the quality of one's physical community. For some people they may actually have the opposite effect, but in the aggregate I'm inclined to believe that they will have a net negative effect, just as the combination of fast food, processed foods from the grocer, sedentary lifestyles (which aren't significantly altered by the "active" effort of blogging or commenting, vice the "passive" effort of watching television!), and other matters have led to an epidemic of obesity in this culture.

One "solution" to the weight issue involves people joining gyms with loads of tools to solve their weight or fitness problems, which they drive to in their cars, and they spend their time on their "machine" listening to their personal entertainment device, so they can burn a certain number of calories in the least amount of time, so they can have more time to devote to whatever other pursuit the reward centers of their brains and their social background have habituated them to seek. Alternatively, they could just get a dog and walk it several times a day, without listening to an iPod, and get to know the people in their neighborhood. This takes time away from those other "rewards," so that's probably not desirable.

I think the Wii is a great game system, and I'm so glad Nintendo "thinks different." In general, I think anything that gets people to interact more with other people in their geographic (as opposed to "online") community is a good thing. If everyone is playing Wii online, well maybe it's only good because they aren't necessarily just sitting on their asses.

The point is, a lot of tools are "solutions" to "problems" that aren't really problems at all, and often, maybe most of the time, they create new non-problems that people will devote time and attention to building new tools to "solve."

We are chasing our technological tails, and perhaps it's time we tried to figure out how to stop.
Hmm, I think this is the core of our disagreement Dave: I'd say we've been thinking tools solve problems as long as we've had tools, so that's not really odd at all. It may be wrong, but it's not odd. And that kind of pervasive belief doesn't change easily or quickly. So I'd rather focus on changing some of the mistakes made on the basis of that belief than try to change the belief itself, though I wish you best of luck with the latter.
Sure, my use of tools may be negatively impacting the world. But that's a risk I take any time I do anything, with or without tools. I can create "solutions" to "problems" that aren't really problems and create new non-problems while talking to my neighbor too. I don't think there's any way to stop that. Such is life.
I can create "solutions" to "problems" that aren't really problems and create new non-problems while talking to my neighbor too.

My response to that is that interacting with your neighbor, including creating both problems and non-problems and the solutions thereto, have an immediate and long-term net positive effect on the quality of your life. Much more so than any new tool you might help to create.

That is life!

IMHO. ;^)
But does that response work for anyone other than you? If I thought telling people they should talk with their neighbors or get some exercise actually caused them to do those things, I'd definitely prefer that as a strategy for improving others' quality of life. But I don't see that working, so I prefer an alternate strategy of the more minor improvements I think I can actually produce.

I don't think we really disagree about what would be better for everyone to do, just about what would be better to tell everyone to do. In my experience, people rarely do what you tell them. We all agree world peace would be great, right? Yet somehow war persists.
Well, you're not going to stop making tools to layer upon tools to solve problems layered upon problems just because I tell you not to, either.

But just because you won't do it doesn't mean I shouldn't say it.

In the end, nobody figures these things out from the things people tell them. Experience tells them, if they pay attention. But we also have this perverse ability to construct a narrative around experience that insulates us from the lessons it teaches. Sooner or later, that fails too.

And that's life too.
"But just because you won't do it doesn't mean I shouldn't say it."

For me, it does. Giving people advice I don't really expect them to follow feels selfish, because it will help me more than them. Later I can say "I told you so," and feel better about myself, but they'll have the exact same problems they had before. Whereas if I make more subtle changes (with or without tools), I'm more likely to actually help them, though in less dramatic ways.
Well, let's be clear here, I think we're talking about different things. I'm not giving you "advice," with the expectation that you'll do what I say.

At most, I'm hoping it'll give you some reason to pause and reflect on what you're doing in a more critical manner. That usually doesn't happen either, but we try. So, at most, I've wasted a bit of your time and bandwidth.

You, on the other hand, are busy creating "tools" you "think" or "hope" will "solve problems" (sorry for the abundance of scare quotes), but you don't really know if you aren't actually making those problems worse, or creating new ones.

I might say that it might make you feel better about yourself by "actually" helping people, but how would you even know you were "helping?" And isn't that just as "selfish" as offering an opinion (or "advice") that you know nobody will listen to? Perhaps more?

Have the people who developed better marketing tools for McDonalds helped anyone except maybe McDonalds? Have the folks who created the tools to mass-produce, freeze, and efficiently transport hamburger patties so we can all enjoy $.59 hamburger Wednesdays actually "solved" more problems
than they've created?

So, I offer some opinions, people do what they're going to do anyway, and life goes on. But you might want to think some more about what's "actually" going on.

I'm creating tools because that's my current career. But that's not what I'm advocating here, unless you consider a veggie burger a tool. I'm advocating smaller changes. Tools are just one of many contexts in which this distinction can be made. I used that example because it was the context in which both you and Aaron wrote, but apparently that was a mistake as you seem fixated on the context and not my point.

Maybe it will help to clarify the difference by looking at my previous career of teaching English. There's a temptation to teach general rules in language, because they're broadly applicable. For example, the letter "a" only makes a few different sounds, so it might be helpful to students to memorize all of those sounds and then they can use them in any word with the letter "a". But general rules aren't something we tend to think about when we're actually speaking, so it's much more productive to teach specific rules, which then turn into general habits when the student isn't paying attention. For example, "cat ... kuh - aaaa - tuh." A five year old raised speaking Chinese can figure out what to say when the "hat" flash card comes up next, even without hearing my brilliant lecture on phonemes. None of this involves tools at all. It's the difference between trying to make large, difficult changes and trying to make small, easy changes.

Have you considered the possibility that the people you're speaking to have thought about all of the questions you're posing, and just arrived at different answers? I'm not saying you should change what you're teaching; I'm saying no one appears to be learning. And when students aren't learning, I've found it helps to try a diferent method of teaching.
My point: People figure stuff out on their own. Or they don't. Which is why I specifically tell people that I'm an authority on nothing, I make all this shit up. Do your own thinking. I'm not trying to teach anyone anything. We're just talkin' here.

Of course, I could be wrong. ;^)

Which is probably my last word.
Earlier today Jon Udell wrote what I was trying to say better than I did. Though it's ironic that our shared preference in rhetorical strategy has almost opposite goals. I'm primarily interested (here anyway) in decreasing our dependence on technology, whereas Jon seems to be primarily interested in increasingly adoption of technology. (The two goals aren't necessarily opposed, but they generally are.)

Be number 20:

knows half of 8 is