News obesity

In an interesting article about how misinformed voters are, Johnathan Stray writes:

Maybe publishing the truth was never enough. Maybe journalism never actually “informed the public,” but merely created conditions where the curious could get themselves informed by diligently reading the news.

It occurs to me that one way to think about this is in terms of another contemporary problem: obesity.

Our doughy bellies

People have a lot of explanations as to why people are getting fatter, but in my view it’s a confluence of events:

  • Our lives have become easier, which requires less food,
  • Much of today’s food is produced by very large companies, giving them access to
    • technological improvements in distribution,
    • economies of scale for heavily homogenized food,
    • the resources to engineer ads, packaging, and the food itself for maximum consumer appeal,
  • Better transport and distribution means increased competition, creating a strong incentive to make whatever sells the best, and
  • Once scarce, food has recently become abundant.

That may or may not be the root of it, but those are all certainly factors. It’s unsurprising that people consume more of something when you make it cheaper, more appealing, and easier to get.

That last point, though that abundance is relatively recent, is I think key. Overabundance without counterbalance leads to overconsumption. For example, alcohol consumption has been falling for years because we’ve had a lot of practice as a society in learning to deal with an abundance of alcohol.  Legally and socially, we mostly recognize its dangers and restrict its use. But the temperance movement is 150 years older than the slow food movement. We’re still struggling to learn how to deal with a near-infinite supply of cheap calories.

Our doughy brains

But what does that have to do with news? Well, even more recently, we’ve shifted from scarcity to abundance. Any intellectual above a certain age well remembers the famine we endured before the Internet. Information was rare, hard to come by, and expensive. The local paper may not have been much good, but we read it whether or not we liked it. As a kid I’d read the ingredients list on cereal boxes because, well, what else was there to read?

Now that’s laughable. Today we can read pretty much anything we want, anywhere we want. 20 years ago, we might have thought everybody would be going for The Good Stuff. Reading commentaries on Shakespeare, or watching lectures from top professors. But with history’s greatest works just a Google search away, we mainly read TMZ and the Drudge Report. Or coverage of basically the same material, dressed up or warmed over, on an array of sites.

I think the reasons for this are similar to the reasons for the obesity epidemic. Large companies, forced to compete in a larger market, produce the informational equivalent of Big Macs, Frappucinos, and Doritos. And, used to consuming anything we can get our hands on, we say, “Yes, please!” and scarf it all down. We don’t know how to do otherwise.

Except it’s worse here, in that the industries of information have been more quickly and deeply transformed than those of food. Craigslist, Ebay, blogs, and Groupon are kicking the hell out of the newspaper industry, and well before that cable TV upset the delicate balance that allowed for useful TV news. You still have to get in your car to get your fries and shake, but Comcast will happily install the informational equivalent of an eternal beer tap in your living room for just a few bucks a day. A few bucks more now gets you a wireless one in your pocket.

As the flood of empty calories gives us an obese nation, the flood of empty news makes flabby our body politic.

The solution?

I wish I knew.

In the short term, frankly, I think we’re fucked. Basic habits are incredibly difficult to shift; moderation of drinking and smoking took generations of effort. With news, about the best we can hope for is that most of the existing media conglomerates will collapse, as I think the Innovator’s Dilemma will prevent them from doing anything novel enough that it could serve as the future. That will take a while, as they’re still vigorously racing for the bottom.

But barring a civilizational collapse, which I am not ruling out, I think we’ll solve this problem. If only out of sheer necessity, an informed public being the cornerstone of democracy.

The place I’d start looking is among young people who are trying to deal with something local and democratically run. Young, because they’ll have grown up with informational abundance. And local, because the feedback loops are shorter, making it easier to see that they’re misinformed.

Alas, I’d probably look in the up-and-coming third world, perhaps Brazil or India. The US may be too stable, and too comfortable for its citizens, for any significant change to start here. America’s media may be to the first half of this century what its car makers were to the last half of the last one.

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