A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips was my mother’s refrain. We’ve all seen Supersize Me; we all know that if you eat fat, you get fat. But how many of us pay equal attention to other types of consumption, such as our mental and spiritual nutrition? Do we carefully count our intellectual calories or do we binge on click-bait?
Food metaphors pepper (case in point) the language of our social, spiritual and intellectual lives. We are consumers in so many ways:
How many times have you tried to get up close to a painting in a gallery, close enough that you can see the waves made by the acrylic and the texture of the canvas underneath, but been blocked by a sea of cameras, everyone angling to get a snap for their Instagram and then move on. They’ll look at the painting, sure, but only through their viewfinder. Once snapped, it belongs to them, and is controllable by them (via the application of filters post-capture), the subject of manipulation, not contemplation.
Private-school parents demand their 30-thousand-a-year’s worth of A*s, and university students view their investment as a box-ticking ticket to a good job rather than a learning experience.
We’ll go to South-East Asia because we’ve heard it’s amazing, but we won’t slum it (which might mean literally) among the locals; we’ll get an air-conditioned tour bus from the airport to the resort’s private beach, possibly stopping at a temple along the way. But how often are the ‘authentic’ experiences of local life sold to us by tour guides merely a pre-digested version of native living with the toxins removed, to make it palatable to our often wilfully blind eyes?
These we consume in insane numbers. For example, Starbucks made $5,373.5 million last quarter: if a coffee costs $4, that’s 1,343.375 million cups, one for just over 5% of the world’s population. How many trees are felled to make way for the arabica plantations, or pulverised into those ridiculously large cups, just so we can enjoy five minutes of over-sugared caffeine (and cadge a bit of free wi-fi)?
We commit 600 million tweets per day, and post 70 million photos on Instagram, but as online blogging platform Medium says, ‘The world has reached a saturation point of shallow, thoughtless content, and half-skimming through these pages of filler is increasingly unfulfilling’.
I’d suggest that most tweets and most Instagrams are the equivalent of eating cardboard, if not positively a Big Mac. This hilarious account satirises the clearly real problem of inanity on social media, e.g.:
I’ve just set my alarm.
Time set: 7am
Alarm tone: Marimba
Comments: I used ‘Piano Riff’ for a while but it just wasn’t me.
— Boring Tweeter (@b0ringtweets) 7 février 2016
There are suggestions that the most popular ‘viral’ content we read online tends to be things like ‘What happens when this guy drops the saucepan is amazing’ or fairly meaningless ‘advice’ like ‘These 10 tips to increase your productivity will blow your mind’, rather than more intellectual fodder. Unfortunately most scholarly articles and some newspapers tend to hide behind paywalls.
I recently saw this piece of art by Penelope Umbrico, which fills a whole museum wall with pictures of sunsets taken from public Flickr accounts. There were slight variants but it was essentially the same picture over and over again, and I think was meant to demonstrate the commonality of human experience, while also exposing us to the banalisation of what should be a profound experience of nature.
The problem is not just banal content but also our mode of access to it. The ‘news feed’ is a very apt metaphor here. Anecdotes, selfies, ads, one-liners, complaints, strings of emojis are spooned into our brains, or rather a quick button-press and scroll injects my numerous drip ‘feeds’ straight into the vein, barely a finger-lift away. Our choice over the content presented to us is minimal, since everything is decided by algorithms and our existing preferences: when we sign up to a new platform we enter our interests and are fed content accordingly; the updates on our homepages are sorted by novelty and popularity; our search results are also decided by algorithm and tailored based on what’s judged to be most relevant to us (having collected data about our browsing habits), what other people are also clicking on, whoever has paid the most to appear at the top, or the search provider’s own services. Advertising is unavoidable, since it pays for the internet to be free. However, none of this involves a human judgement as to what’s worth seeing. Results based on popularity can end up a race to the lowest common denominator, and those based on personalisation show us ‘what we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see’: as Eli Pariser said, we end up in a ‘filter bubble’, suffering the same nulled effect the multiple printed sunsets had on me. Ironically the open democratic internet has become an echo chamber.
Let me tell you a little story of how this phenomenon influenced me unduly and for the worse.
A few years ago I fell down the rabbit-hole of the ‘mommy blogger’. A number of these were great, and provided me with an eye-opening window onto the world of toddlers, lactation and homemaking. Since the blog format facilitates easy, unreflective publication and lack of peer review (pre-publication), some of them were naturally less great. The many reciprocal hyperlinks and the homey ‘virtual village’ feel really got me hooked, but with an input of defensive articles like ‘Why I grow my own smallpox vaccination’, the output was an increasingly judgemental eye directed at subjects which, before, had raised no sharp comment. After a while I found myself feeling morally obliged to quit my job immediately, to birth and homeschool ten children while making breakfasts of home-reared quail eggs and avocado on home-baked bread topped with chia seeds. Equally, these blogs had nothing to do with my current or near future life, and they arguably stopped me from focussing on what might actually have helped me at that time. My overexposure to algorithmically ‘similar posts’ containing writing that was often unintellectual, judgemental and possibly factually wrong, was actually doing me harm. (Note that I’m certain this is common to most internet communities. I can’t imagine the dive my self-esteem might have taken had I become addicted to fitness and whole foods blogs instead, for example.)
Perhaps it’s my remarkably weak will that allowed me to be influenced in that way, but I do think that the emergence of blogs and the legitimisation of mass opinion – replacing a hierarchical model of knowledge transmission wherein wisdom originates with the educated elite at the top and filters down the pyramid – means we need to learn to distrust our instinctive reliance on ‘The Word’ as a formerly authoritative medium.
In the olden days, the cost and effort of publishing any new book or paper meant the content had to be really worth it. It wasn’t a perfect system, with authors like Proust, Joyce, Louisa May Alcott and of course J. K. Rowling initially rejected by publishers; but it gave some reassurance to the reader that the tome in hand contained something good. With the rise of user-generated content, self-publishing and e-books, my feeling is this may no longer be true. I’m not sure it’s just habit that makes me trust a non-fiction printed book (peer-reviewed, references checked, often approved by a university) over mass contribution sources like Wikipedia or Reddit.
Back in the day, the Word was God, and Scripture (=writing) was authoritative. The idea that words (not just the Bible) had meaning and were bearers of truth was once common. Nowadays they are ‘just words’, a figure on paper or a sound wave (hence white lies and swearing are no longer frowned upon). Self-definition and self-expression have authority over fact (which words once expressed), and though everyone needs a voice, many words are not worth the pixels they appear in.
Indifferent written content is not the only medium that can influence us for the worse. What about images, specifically the way our attitudes to people can be changed by the way the human image is presented to us? What about the way bombardment with size-zero models and photoshopped advertisements fuels body dysmorphia? What about the way Tinder’s creepy ‘keep playing’ gamifies the search for romantic partners, ease of access and content saturation making the human image into a Top Trumps card to be swiped away at will (more here)? Dare I mention the studies that suggest overuse of less family-friendly forms of online content can actually turn people off their real-life partners? Real people are difficult, but they are the foie gras and caviar of this life. The false or incomplete reproductions of the human image we see every day in the media are but Dunkin’ Donuts. John Paul II (quoted, incredibly, by Russell Brand) is said to have said that pornography’s main problem was not showing too much of the human person but too little. This can be applied to many forms of media featuring the human image, which ends up incapable of representing the whole panoply of the human experience and the wonder of each other.
We know that we are what we eat – that’s why we have an education system. We learn from our environments, so how can we expect our souls to thrive if all they have to gorge on is the mental equivalent of a soya salted caramel frappuccino? While ‘consumer’ has a negative ring to it now, because it’s associated with thoughtlessness and waste, it doesn’t have to be like this. Food is designed to be lastingly nutritious as well as temporarily pleasurable, and our other types of intake should be the same.
Let us employ our wills to consume intentionally and intelligently, and let us eat not the forbidden fruit but the bread of life.