When people want to relax, they might turn on a television. When they drive down the road, they may play the radio. When they want to know how something works, they can google it. In each of these situations, people choose to use media instead of their own minds.
Calculators and spreadsheets replace the need to work through tedious calculations manually. Google replaces the need to think through possible answers to a trivia question and determine the most plausible. The single greatest influence of media on a society or culture is that media can replace thinking.
Most people’s mental basket of opinions comes from a diverse set of inputs, including their childhood and family values, personal experiences, self-directed research, and conclusions from their own contemplations. Usually our ideas are based on amalgamated data collected over a long time period. As we go through life, we respond to new data and either fit this new information into our existing mental model of the world, change our model to account for the new data, or simply choose to discard data that does not fit into our model.
In this normal process of information assimilation, we have to consciously evaluate many diverse pieces of information and think about how they apply to our opinions. However, media allows us to bypass our usual mental filters and immediately add conclusions to our list of opinions. For example, we can either watch a political debate, carefully taking notes and fact-checking the speakers, or we can just keep watching after the debate is over and let the commentators do that work for us.
By watching the commentators, we bypass our normal thinking process and let other people do our thinking for us through media. Media allows us to obtain prepackaged opinions instead of having to create them from scratch.
As with prepared meals, prepackaged opinions are made for comfortable ingestion instead of healthy integration into our lives. Social media notoriously provides a platform for hateful, trite, angry arguments instead of healthy civil discussions. Composing a post takes only moments, eliminating any need for careful thinking or analysis before someone shares their ignorant opinion with a group of like-minded soundboards. Funny, trite memes filled with straw-man misrepresentations, unresearched “facts,” and illogical assumptions get shared and reshared because they are funny and the viewers already agreed with their content.
In addition, social media companies, always wanting to entice their users to spend more time on their platform, create algorithms that give users content with which they already agree. The problem, however, does not stem from these echo chambers per se, but from the algorithms and systems and that promote emotionally loaded content from a small group of “influencers” to the forefront of the public’s view.
If media were revised to give diverse ideas and influencers equal opportunity, people would have to individually evaluate ideas instead of simply re-liking already-popular content. Media thus bypasses the need to evaluate ideas as users simply affirm the ideas of popular influencers.
However, in addition to bypassing our mental evaluation process, media often simply distracts our minds from thinking in the first place. As Tim Wu describes in The Attention Merchants, advertisers, always searching for more time in which to offer us their products, have infiltrated nearly every area of life.
From brightly colored billboards invading cityscapes, to radio ads booming through our car speakers, to television commercials playing in our homes and bedrooms, to spotify ads streaming through our headphones as we exercise alone, entertainment and advertisements have crept into nearly every part of our lives. As such, we have little time to quietly contemplate our opinions or reflect on our experiences. Like a baby cowbird pushing the mother bird’s own eggs out of the nest, media overtakes our attention and dispels deep thinking from our mind.
However, even when we do find time to think deeply, we will find that media has changed the way we think. As described by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television transforms nearly everything it touches into entertainment. The show is kept constantly moving, eliminating the opportunity for viewers to reflect on the events or information they just witnessed. “There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly--for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening--that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now... this,’” writes Postman.
Media thus encourages shallow thinking. Short quips and “gotcha” questions are far more entertaining than careful, detailed, nuanced analysis, and so the one-liners and “burns” get the vast majority of the attention while the substantial issues are largely ignored.
Sometimes media overlooks real content in favor of genuine, certified fluff. For example, during the 2020 Vice Presidential debate, the candidates covered serious issues ranging from racism to government corruption. However, when a single fly landing on Vice President Pence, the insect “stole the show” and captured unreasonably large media attention. Media frequently distracts users from real thinking and directs them toward trivial entertainment.
Thinking is hard work. Technology, incorporating the latest innovations and computers, is uniquely positioned to step into our mind’s role and think for us. It can vicariously think for us about issues and ideas, handing prepackaged opinions that appeal to our existing intellectual tastes. Having nullified our brain’s key role, media can then entertain it with endless distractions that prevent it from venturing back into the realm of serious contemplation.
These effects, of course, are not universal or absolute. However, in general, the single greatest effect media has on society is that is replaces the need to think.
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About Nathaniel Hendry
I blog on common social issues from a reasoned, conservative Christian perspective in easy to understand writing. I am committed to academic excellence in writing and supported by solid reasoning and research.
About A Worthy Word
The Worthy Word isn't mine, but God's. I just try to explain the truly Worthy Word and encourage you from it.