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.

 

I’ve been living in Southern Illinois for about two months now, and I haven’t really made any friends yet outside Jessica’s friends. I left a note at the local Co-op grocery store expressing interest in volunteering, but no one ever called me. I sent an email to the Big Muddy Independent Media Center volunteering my web development skills to improve their website, but no one responded. I posted on the local Craig’s List about starting a band, but no one responded. One might conclude that this town doesn’t like me, but I suspect it just has different means of communication.

Southern Illinois isn’t big on web-based communication, and I can’t often bring myself to drive the twenty minutes into town, from our place out in Murphysboro, for what often seems like a waste of time and gas. So I stay at home a lot, which I think is a bad thing. We’ve been looking at moving, but our lease here goes through August, so we’ll need to find a pretty nice place to make it worth moving before then. Meanwhile, I’m writing a lot more email and talking on the phone a lot more than I ever have before. But that’s not really making me any friends.

There are a few people in the area who actively communicate via the internet. There’s a group of bloggers at Carbondale Bytelife who seem to share my inclination towards online communication. They were searching for additional contributors when I first moved to the area, and I tried volunteering for that too, but the email bounced and I didn’t follow up, so no friends there yet.

But I believe I am making some enemies there, so I guess that’s a start. Part of the reason I didn’t follow up on my bounced email was that Carbondale Bytelife is full of discussion of Carbondale, and being new to the area, I don’t really know much about Cardbondale, so I have few opportunities to jump in. I do know a bit about electoral politics though, having participated in a few campaigns, served as electoral judge, and managed a voter registration drive. So the Carbondale mayoral election seemed like a good place to add my voice to the mix.

There’s an old saying about the three things you should never talk about in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics. I regularly discuss all three, so I guess I’m a slow learner. Or maybe just impolite. I believe my first comment to a Carbondale blog was to question why Bob Pauls listed the age of each mayoral candidate in a post about candidate websites. It struck me as a way to caricature candidates and vote on those caricatures rather than actual issues (e.g. Obama is "the black candidate," nevermind what his positions are). But apparenly Bob is just concerned about the "digital divide" and thinks age is a big part of it. I’m not so sure age is a big part of it, but I thought better of pursuing the issue and establishing myself through disagreement.

But I guess my better judgement lapsed when I read a post by someone I only know as "dave" on the mayoral primary, which seemed to be subtly skewed in favor of the incumbent, Mayor Cole. Truth be told, I didn’t realize as I was pointing out the bias I saw that I was commenting on dave’s personal blog and not Carbondale Bytelife, which I believe was formerly known by the name of dave’s blog Carbondaley Dispatch. But that probably wouldn’t have changed what I wrote much. I don’t know much about the candidates, but I’ve had an anti-incumbent bias every since I learned that incumbent candidates have a ridiculously high re-election rate. That just can’t be healthy for democracy.

So I’d been reading a lot of pro-Cole discussion in the local blogs, and had the general impression that he was a widely liked Mayor and would probably win by a landslide. But then he lost in the primary (came in second to the only other candidate who will be in the final election), and that made me wonder if the people I’d been reading weren’t confusing their hopes for reality. So with that suspicion, I read dave’s post, which makes an analogy between Cole losing the primary and a famous boxing match between Ali and Foreman. I don’t know a lot about boxing, but I know Ali won that fight, and Cole was analogous to Ali in the post, so it immediately struck me as a sort of cheerleading for Cole.

So I said as much. I suggested dave was letting his own bias slip into his writing in subtle ways throughout the post, and he should state his bias upfront so readers could interpret his words with a grain of salt. At this point, I had no reason to think dave was anything other than a voter who somewhat favored Cole, but was trying not to show bias. I know there’s a widespread myth that people shouldn’t have bias, and I think that’s harmful to public discussion, so in my comment suggesting dave should be more open about his bias, I said It's okay to have a political bias, in the hopes that he wouldn’t feel the need to act unbiased.

I think everyone is biased, and pretending otherwise is just silly. Later in the comments, someone wrote I believe you should tell them you're on Brad's payroll, Dave. I first thought this was sarcasm, suggesting that my perceptions of bias were inaccurate, that I was seeing bias where none existed. But then dave wrote How many times must I say that I maintain Cole's web site? That’s when I realized that the earlier comment was not actually sarcastic. This really changed the whole discussion. So dave’s writing about a mayoral election, and he maintains the website for one of the candidates. I tried to move past my initial reaction of "are you serious?" and actually answer dave’s question, saying I think it's standard practice for writers to include such a disclaimer every single time a conflict of interest comes up.

I do this myself, as you may have noticed. When I wrote about ethanol, for example, I mentioned in the second sentence that my employer has clients in the ethanol industry. I’ve had very little interaction with those clients, and the largest of them had just recently cancelled their contract with my employer somewhat abruptly, so I could make a reasonable case that this doesn’t bias my opinion of ethanol at all. But that would be ridiculous. Everything biases my opinions. Everything I read, everyone I work for, even everything I eat. I likely have a bias towards brown things because I like chocolate. I don’t really recognize this bias, but it makes sense that I would have it, because everyone is biased. Everyone.

Everyone except dave apparently, who wrote a new post today titled Biased my *sterisk, explaining his belief that he is not biased regarding the mayoral election, despite being employed by one of the candidates. He wrote: So what am I supposed to do? Quit? Not comment on the race?

To answer the rhetorical question: no, dave is not supposed to do any of those things. That would be ridiculous. Because bias is so pervasive, we shouldn’t let it disrupt our ability to discuss interesting topics. And we don’t need to go out of our way to try to compensate for it, as dave did by listing a bunch of things he doesn’t like about his employer, Cole. All we need to do is simply state obvious conflicts of interest when they come up. I don’t think that’s a huge burden, and it makes it easier for everyone to understand our perspective.

One might argue that our employers are not actually our primary conflicts of interest, that focusing on them creates a distorted image of our perspective. And I think that would be an interesting argument. But dave doesn’t appear to be saying that. He’s just claiming he has no bias, which I maintain is just silly. Because everyone is biased.

 

I wanted to record this from Newsweek International:

Losing the War...Losing the War...Losing the War...My Life in Picture

Via MetaFilter

 

It appears the citing of a real live reporter I mentioned earlier is not an isolated incident. Salon has a video capturing several citings of actual reporters. It almost makes me want to watch the news again. But I'm not holding my breath on this lasting long. Too soon, I expect, these reporters will return to their desks where they can comfortably forget about actual issues and get back to worrying about ratings and revenue.

 

Dave Rogers has spotted a creature rarely seen in America: a real reporter (video). Real reporters can be distinguished from the more common species of imitation reporters by their ability to hold government accountable.