When I’m jittery from too much caffeine, I don’t blame it on Starbucks. It’s not entirely Hershey’s fault that I have an unhealthy love of chocolate. And if, in a moment of idleness, I click on a headline like 35 Foods From Your Childhood That Are Extinct Now, I don’t blame BuzzFeed for wasting three minutes of my life. I made that decision all on my own.
So I think it’s time to challenge the all-too-easy argument that the Internet is making us stupid in the same way that high-fructose corn syrup is making us fat. The case against Internet content was made most recently by Alexander Macris, founder of the video game magazine The Escapist, in a TEDx talk at Binghamton University (embedded on page 2, below). You are what you read, Macris says. And just as real food has been replaced on supermarket shelves by processed products heavy in sugar, leading to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, the “nutritional value” of the content we’re served by mass media has been going down, Macris argues—with dire effects on literacy rates.
There is a genuine nutrition crisis in this nation, and the agricultural-industrial complex bears much of the responsibility. But the food wars aren’t a very good metaphor for what’s going on in the media today. I’d like to try to shift the discussion back toward the idea that each of us is personally responsible for finding and consuming worthwhile reading material. When we try place blame for plummeting SAT scores or declining attention spans on the creators of candy-coated content, we’re sidestepping our own duty to keep learning even after we’re finished being students, to grapple with complex or challenging ideas, and to be active citizens.
Here’s Macris’s reasoning in a bit more detail. Not only do consumers prefer tasty food over nutritious food, but thanks to our corn-centric agricultural system, it’s also cheaper to produce and to buy, turning America into one of the fattest nations on Earth. The media equivalent of comfort food—tasty but non-nutritious—is text aimed one or two notches below a consumer’s reading grade level. Publishers, more concerned with earning profits than with edifying the public, have spent decades simplifying the languages and ideas in books, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and websites, Macris charges. In 1950, newspapers like the Miami Herald or magazines like Time and Newsweek assumed readers were at an 11th-grade reading level. Today, he says, those same publications are aimed at readers with an 8th- or 9th-grade reading level.
At the same time that the American “diet of the mind” has coarsened, some other troubling changes have taken place. People are buying fewer books, reading less for pleasure, scoring lower on standardized tests, and falling behind in their general reading ability. In 1949, 54 percent of the population could read at the 10th grade level or above; by 2003, only 20 percent could. Meanwhile, movies and television shows have adopted a faster, more frenetic pace, with few shots lasting more than a couple of seconds. Pop songs have become louder, simpler, and more homogeneous.
To Macris, the overall implication is that the dumbed-down content our cultural overlords are serving us—including most of what’s on television, the Internet, and our mobile playlists—is destroying our minds. “We need to begin to balance our content diet as urgently as we need to balance our food diet,” Macris concludes.
I won’t argue with that last sentiment. The question is whether the problem is on the supply side (the content and the way it’s delivered) or the demand side (the choices we make about what to consume). Macris belongs to a school of supply-siders founded in the 1950s by Marshall McLuhan and recently revived by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Interestingly, these writers have long been using food metaphors to explain our supposed thralldom to technology-mediated content. “The content of a medium is just ‘the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind,’” Carr wrote in his 2010 book, quoting McLuhan. “Not even McLuhan could have foreseen the feast that the Internet has laid before us: one course after another, each juicier than the last, with hardly a moment to catch our breath between bites.”
It’s time to get up and leave the supply-side table. Let’s put aside the fact that Macris’s evidence about reading levels shows only a correlation between simplified content and lower cognitive ability, not cause and effect. And let’s not pick on the logical contradictions in his argument. (If reading material has been dumbed down to make it tastier, then people should be consuming more of it, not less.) Let’s just focus for a moment on the food metaphor, and where it breaks down; if we do, I think we’ll learn about wiser ways to fight junk content on the Web.
Once you’ve watched documentaries like Food Inc. or read anything by Michael Pollan, it’s hard to see the U.S. food economy—which is really the corn economy—as anything but a conspiracy to keep millions of people addicted to processed foods and sugary snacks and drinks. The beauty of the system, from the point of view of the giant chemical, ag-biotech, and food-processing companies, is that they can make money coming and going. Not only do they sell the seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel needed to grow huge crops of corn; they also transform the corn into diapers and trash bags and Gatorade and ethanol, and feed vast piles of it to chickens and cattle, which are later turned into fast-food nuggets and burgers. All at the expense of taxpayers, who are on the hook for $3 billion to $7 billion per year in ethanol subsidies and other payments to corn farmers, not to mention $150 billion in medical costs from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
It’s a system so full of perverse incentives and negative externalities that you can’t help going there for comparisons when you’re thinking about other kinds of social challenges—for instance, the way technology is commodifying content in the media business. Ideas, after all, are food for the intellect. (I’m pretty sure Plato said that. Or maybe it was Julia Child.) When you can pay a writer next to nothing to collect 27 funny cat GIFs, slap a viral headline on them, and earn a few hundred thousand banner ad impressions, there’s not much incentive to 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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