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worry about whether your readers are getting their recommended daily allowance of complex ideas and above-grade-level reading material.
But here’s where the content-as-nutrition metaphor begins to fall apart. People’s food choices are limited by their household budgets and by the proximity of a decent grocery, supermarket, or bodega. Food deserts are real: the USDA says 23.5 million Americans live in low-income areas without ready access to fresh, healthy food. But thanks to the very technologies that Macris and Carr worry about, access to high-quality content is nearly universal. According to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, more than 97 percent of the U.S. population has access to the Internet at speeds above 10 megabits per second, and a surprising 56 percent have access to speeds above 100 megabits per second.
With broadband, you get everything the Internet has to offer. Yes, that includes celebrity gossip sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton and viral farms like Upworthy, BuzzFeed, Mashable, Distractify, and Viralnova. But it also includes Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg and American Memory and the Google Cultural Institute and YouTube and the Worldwide Telescope. It includes free or inexpensive online courses at places like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, edX, iTunes University, and Udemy. It includes the thousands of free e-books available at public library websites and the 20 million public-domain images, sound files, and video clips at Wikimedia Commons. And it includes most of the publications I listed a few weeks ago in my column 15 Places to Turn for Technology News That Really Matters. Even BuzzFeed publishes some great longform journalism. This kind of bounty was unimaginable just 30 years ago, and to say that it’s making us dumber is a form of willful ignorance.
Granted, some people need help steering toward the “nutritious” content on the Internet and away from the dreck, just as millions of low-income people need help getting access to healthy food. But the policy prescriptions for these two situations look completely different. The state of our food system is a public health issue, and fixing it will require major changes at the federal, state, and local levels; I’m talking about the way we regulate food producers and advertisers, label food packages, subsidize farmers, pay for healthcare, and educate children, just to start.
But on the Internet, there’s a little thing called the First Amendment. The freedom to say almost anything you want, subject to a few exceptions, carries with it the freedom to read, watch, or listen to the content of your choice. It’s hard to interfere with someone’s information diet without immediately running afoul of their constitutional rights.
So, what to do about the growing supply of viral junk on the Internet? Well, nothing. We’ve got to acknowledge that people like and want it. It meets a need, and readers are entitled to spend their time on it. But that doesn’t mean we have to despair over the ravages of technology.
I have a friend who says he agrees with people like Macris and Carr. “My own experience is that I no longer read the 3,000-word articles I used to enjoy in the New Yorker or the Atlantic,” he says. “I’ve grown impatient with anyone who uses words I have to look up. While I may be capable of reading at an advanced level, I simply choose not to. That’s new; it is only in the decade or so.”
This friend says he has a very intelligent group of Facebook friends, but the things they recommend to each other are shallower than what they used to share before social media. He thinks it’s too hard to find intelligent content, since Google buries it under the listicles that viral publishers have learned to promote through search engine optimization techniques.
I like this friend very much, but I have no patience with this line of thinking. When you walk into a public library, you can stop at the paperback shelf and grab something by Danielle Steel or Stephenie Meyer, or you can roam a bit farther into the stacks and discover a whole world of artistic striving, literary grace, and scholarly jousting. It’s up to you—and no one else—to decide where to wander. The Internet is a library too, and sooner or later, the viral sites will be seen for what they are: the vending machines in the basement.
Here’s Alexander Macris’s February 2013 TEDx talk, If People are Getting Smarter, Why is Our Content Getting Dumber?
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