There’s no question that the tsunami of ‘content’ is a defining theme of our époque. What is contested, however, is the impact of that tsunami. Here, ’Against’ asserts that neurosis about the proliferation of ‘content’ has affected us for centuries. ‘For’ argues that we are conducting a dangerous experiment on our lived experience and that careful regulation is required to mitigate harm.
Yes … Now What Were We Talking About?
In a seminal 2009 study, researchers at the University of San Diego concluded that the average person in the Western World was being bombarded by 34GB of information every day.
This barrage of stimulus is delivered through media as diverse as mobile entertainment services, social media, email, conventional or traditional media and video-games. So, the daily volume of information directed at the average person would overload a typical laptop within a week.
There is a problem.
As far back as 1956, a Harvard University study found that the capacity of the individual to process information is limited to seven items at any one time. 34 GB of data sent every day; seven items processed. Is it any wonder people feel addled?
In this case, they don’t just feel addled, they are objectively confused, over-whelmed and stressed. In The Shallows, a fascinating study of the effect of over-stimulation on the physiology of the human brain, Nicholas Carr describes the brain’s ability to change shape in response to the experiences that one has and the stimulus to which one is exposed.
So, as we spend more time on certain activities than others, so the mental skills we use to carry them out strengthen, while those on which we spend less time weaken. Excessive exposure to certain stimulus affects the plasticity of our brains, and so alters our capacity to digest, process and recall certain data at the expense of other data.
Enter the mass social experiment that is the Online world, in the form of email, webaites, blogs, videos and most notably in the form of Social Media. Having spent several years searching for a business model that would make commercial sense of their services, Google, Facebook, Twitter and their fellow travellers came to understand that they were not in the information business but rather that they competed in the attention business.
Their response has been to design their products so as to seize our attention and maximize ‘dwell-time’, through a process of constant distraction.
Reading an article on a website?
That hyperlink looks far more interesting.
Now what was I reading?
How do I go back?
Bugger. It’s too late!
On Twitter, or Facebook?
Scroll down your feed.
Not as interesting as I thought.
What about this? Nope. What about this, or this or this?
Now where did I read that interesting factoid about / Donald Trump / Climate Change / Manchester United?
Look! It’s an ad. Visit Norway /buy this book / subscribe to the Guardian (you’ve read 48 articles this week).
It’s not just the volume of content that’s changing the way we consume and process media.
It’s the process, the constant interruption, the incessant flow not of information but of stimulus, of distraction.
It’s a form of torture.
The explosion of content is wrecking our heads.
And it’s not funny.
Now, what was I just reading–and where was it I was reading it?
No. ‘Content’ is not the Boss of Ye
Content. Once a nebulous descriptor of the innards of boxes, is now the cornerstone of the digital economy. Or “King” if you’re just waking up from a nap you took in 1996.
According to a report by cloud provider Domo, an estimated 1.7MB of content is created every second. Each minute, 4,333,560 million YouTube videos are streamed; 2,083,333 chats are snapped; 473,400 tweets are fired; 49,380 photos are ’grammed; and 159,362,760 emails are sent; the list tiks and toks on.
No doubt King Content looms large. No doubt your dog retains more information from sniffing another dog’s back passage than you do from endlessly scrolling through your phone each day. But is it the content that’s wrecking our heads?
The idea of information overload is nothing new. German philosopher Christian Thomasius decried the proliferation of books during the late 1700s as “an epidemic.” Seneca the Roman believed an abundance of books to be a distraction. King Solomon apparently bemoaned the deleterious effects of too much study (with 1,000 women to entertain one might imagine why). And your own mother likely pointed to the kid in your class with the booger collection and warned of the brain-rotting inevitability of too much television. Yet here we are, heads intact. Or at least, intact enough to skim this blog and marvel at its edifying qualities.
If we are to adopt the view that content is to blame for the decline of individual intellect and attention, if not civilisation itself, we must accept one of the following positions:
1. Free will is an illusion and we are therefore utterly powerless to resist the pull of content
2. The transmission of content whizzing through the airwaves is literally scrambling our brains
The first position will enjoy popularity in cultures resistant to the idea of personal responsibility, or lacking in personal agency. The second, while redolent of conspiracy theory, may actually have something to it. If you are an embryonic rat.
It’s true the average person now spends three to four hours on their cell phone per day. However this has less to do with the content explosion itself, than it does our proximity to the blast radius. The struggles of Thomasius, Seneca, and Solomon to resist the temptation of books demonstrates that we humans have long been information-seeking, weak-willed creatures with a proclivity for distraction. The difference between then and now is simply the technology.
Times have surely changed when the only King capable of maintaining the attention of 1,000 women is King Content. But it can only wreck our heads if we let it.