Consuming Content: Good or Bad?

The word content is used as a catch-all for the various types of online media people consume. Youtube, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitch, and plenty of others contain videos, podcasts, streams, and many other things that fall under the category of content. Shows and movies on streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, et al. are also considered content. I suppose even blogs like this one could be considered content, too. And boy is there a lot of content out there. But what does it all mean?

This post was inspired by the following video:

The above video (as many Wisecrack videos do) makes the argument that the majority of content produced is crass, lowest-common-denominator tripe meant to distract us from inaugurating a glorious socialist revolution. Content, the video argues, isn’t challenging our preconceptions, particularly about our late capitalist society, instead propping up the status quo.

I certainly don’t think socialism is the answer to our problems. At best, it would trade out the garbage content we have now for a different flavor of propaganda or politically correct content. Do you really think the triumphant revolutionaries will permit the creation of content they deem anti-revolutionary? Successful revolutionaries quickly become conservatives, because the thing they fear most is a revolution against themselves. As a result, the first item on the agenda the day after the revolution is quashing anything that might make people rise up against them.

That being said, the criticisms raised in the above video aren’t easily dismissed. If someone only knew me by what I write about on this blog, or the videos I make on Youtube (like, comment, and subscribe!), they would likely think I spend all my time reading about philosophy and science. I do spend quite a bit more time on that than the typical average person, but I also spend (waste?) a lot of time “consuming” content as well. I watch (and even re-watch) a lot of Youtube videos – Smosh (Games/Pit), Good Mythical Morning (and Mythical Kitchen), Game/Film/Food Theory, Critical Role, Banger TV, Honest Trailers, Pitch Meeting, Nostalgia Critic, are staples of my content junk food diet (I suppose, if you read this blog, you’d notice that channels like Wisecrack and Vsauce are also staples, but I like to make myself feel better by considering channels like those to be nutritious food for thought rather than empty calories). I also watch quite a few shows on the streaming services mentioned above (in particular Netflix and HBO Max). I am, however, lucky not to have a phone addiction (especially considering that I have other addiction problems) – indeed, if anything, I have terrible phone etiquette because I only look at it a couple times a day.

Content consumption habits of different generations during COVID (source)

I guess my question, though, is what’s wrong with content consumption? I think, like with anything, moderation is always a good policy. There is a point where content consumption goes from being a nice way to relax and unwind to being a time sink, to turning into something that reduces quality of life. It can become a Nozickian experience machine, wherein it dulls our minds from reality, or from reflection on our lives, or from any efforts at self-improvement.

Mindless content consumption can be very addictive. It’s easy, path-of-least-resistance time-filler that succeeds in distracting us from bigger issues – both personal issues and larger societal issues. It leads to the so-called Holiday Paradox:

The Holiday Paradox (described early in the video above) is the way that something boring can feel like it takes forever while we are experiencing it, but when recalling it later it feels very insignificant. While we’re waiting in the airport, for instance, the waiting time can drag on for what feels like forever (our prospective experience); yet, once we get to our destination, it all kind of becomes a quick nothing in our minds (our retrospective experience). Something exciting, on the other hand, seems to fly by while it’s happening, but when recalled it seems like it was something much more significant. When we are on vacation (or holiday) the fun times can go by quick, but afterwards, while reflecting on it, it feels like something that lasted much longer. A week on vacation is remembered as feeling like it lasted longer than a normal week at work.

Holiday Paradox
Adapted from a table used in the above Vsauce video at 3:06

But, as the video points out, when we are consuming content, we end up with the TV Paradox, which is something more like the following:

TV Paradox
TV Paradox discussed in above Vsauce video at 27:33

While we are consuming content, time passes by fast, and when we reflect on our time spent consuming said content, it doesn’t feel very significant. As such, it’s almost like a sort of lost time, perhaps even something like the show Severance (more content!).

Saying that “TV will rot your brain” isn’t really any kind of hot take. Neither is saying that moderation is a good thing. I think even most people who enjoy reality shows – the lowest of lowest common denominator entertainment – will readily admit that such shows are the empty calories of content consumption. But, is content consumption really as bad as all that? Is its purpose to put us in a stupor and brainwash us into accepting certain “post-capitalist” ideologies? Or is content the way it is because it’s what people want (and would continue wanting even after the vaunted socialist revolution)? Couldn’t political engagement be considered a kind of content consumption? And, if people are happy to consume content, who are we to criticize them?

I used to be someone who would scorn and scoff at people who enjoyed reality TV, butt rock, club music, and all that content commonly dismissed as hollow consumerist drivel. I judged consumers of that content to be shallow people who had nothing interesting to say. It was probably about ten to fifteen years ago when my judgy attitude cleared away. Two epiphanies, I think, prompted this change. The first was realizing that the kind of people who enjoyed that “shallow” stuff were usually a lot happier than I am. I specifically remember being at a wedding, sitting in the corner by myself (as usual) while other people danced, and I thought “look at those idiots dancing”, but then another thought quickly came to my mind: “those so-called ‘idiots’ dancing sure are enjoying themselves a lot more than I am, aren’t they?” (I still hate weddings, but I don’t judge people for dancing at them anymore). The second epiphany that hit me I think came about, actually, when I started getting into watching Youtube around twelve years ago. Seeing all the different kinds of content on Youtube both helped me discover things I enjoy that I didn’t know that I would enjoy, but also made me realize that having different tastes (even for that content that I personally don’t enjoy) was fine. You enjoy mukbang videos? Who am I to judge? You’re a grown man who likes My Little Pony (the whole “brony“-hate thing was big a decade ago)? Knock yourselves out! Justin Bieber is your favorite artist? More power to you. The point is, if it’s not hurting me, why should I get bent out of shape about what other people are into?

I understand that there are pressing issues that require more attention and engagement if we are to properly address them. Political polarization, climate change, economic inequality, technology (and how it does, and will continue to, disrupt society and shape our lives), globalization, war and conflict, mental health crises, and other such hyperobjects, will not go away – and indeed only get worse – if we all bury our heads in our screens and ignore these things (one could even count the human tendency to gravitate toward shallow content a sort of hyperobject in-itself). Of course, I’m a pessimist, so I think the only way people will give such hyperobjects greater attention is when they evolve from a crisis to a catastrophe, no longer able to be ignored. By then, even our best efforts will fall far short of what needs to be done (even if we assume that a concerted effort now could ever fix such problems, which I strongly doubt).