News Feed Anorexia

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My laptop’s MSN home page is a revelation.

 

I am so techno-lazy that I never select a homepage – I just go with what is there after someone in my office loads up my latest software vessel. But the latest load-up reveals a new level of information management.

 

It’s fashionable to declare the end of civilization as we know it with each bump and grind of technological and social interface. My new home page is MSN’s “News Feed.” The depth of its calculated info-porn titillation is astonishingly effective – it grabs at my eyes, despite my need to get to the software program I want to use.

 

After modern agriculture and medicine made most survive without 18 hours of hunting and gathering a day, empty-calorie cultural consumption boondoggling soon became  a viable prerogative.

 

40 years ago, pandering to the puerile in all of us was, somehow, more guileless. Playboy offered my brother titillation without pubic hair.

 

Disco offered my generation a way to have absolutely zero substance and thought in our lives while we moved to the beat in petrochemically-derived clothing.

 

My children had separate hand devices to play video games, listen to music, and text friends in a sequential race to blissful distraction.

 

But it seems we are beginning to merge mindless dissipation with absorbing information to a point where there is no distinction. Obviously the profit motive is force feeding advertising as the binding agent of all the info flow, but the “get the click” imperative is, to me, sinister in its silent seductiveness.

 

The new laptop’s software autopilot offered up MSN’s tech-quilt home page of “tiles,” each achingly desperate to tease a click out of the passersby on their way to actually doing something. This antiseptic woven array of “windows” grimly exposes our cultural dissipation with unapologetic cynicism.

 

“Secrets of Celeb Abs” and “Flavor Flav’s Restaurant Shuts Down For Good” is set alongside “serious” news and sports stories in side-by-side equanimity, equally weighted and without irony.

 

When you bought Time magazine it did not have Playboy Bunnies within its pages. When you were drunk at the disco, you were not watching Walter Cronkite. When my wife declares that a friend or a son is doing something as she is watching her computer screen and I out her as a stalker, she protests “It just pops up on my news feed!”

 

“News feed.” Is there a better bit of seductive disingenuousness? “News,” like what underwear is being worn, “feed” like “want a cookie?” There is precious little journalism and virtually zero nutrition in our “news feeds.”

 

You could make a case that idle chatter, mindless games of checkers, and the fourth beer were our grandparents “news feeds” – but none of those worthless time dumps had the gloss of relevance or value  “news feeds” offer up to justify the endless hours of spacing out and looking at glowing screens.

 

I love the taste of alcohol – I would drink, and do, without any buzz being the goal or enhancement. Similarly, any smoke being in my lungs makes me ill, so there is no value there to me, even if the mind-altering state is nice. So finding out that the Kardashians have some huge scandal is simply not palatable to me – but news – about who is running the government, what science is discovering, or what the weather will be is part of my intellectual diet.

 

I love the taste of most junk food too, and even the worst of junk food has calories. I am pretty sure potato chips and Coke could keep you alive for many years, but I think our “news feeds” are offering up the same alternatives to intellectual food as when cocaine was given as nutrition to lab rats, who then starved.

 

Its not that we are eating empty calories when we ingest our “news feeds;” we are actually starving ourselves. Meth addicts are never fat if they have been addicted long enough. The only benefit to meaningless stimulation is found in the brain chemistry – like cigarettes – offering no high, no nutrition but a self-perpetuating state of need that’s only met by sucking in something that guarantees its necessity.

 

But we are not plugged into the Matrix. Yet. Checking accounts reveal bizarrely low balances. Scales reveal unbelievable weight gain. We may get angry at the bank or the digital readout of our gross tonnage, but the scale and the bank are not the problem. No one has kidnapped us and forced us to look at Snooki’s baby.

 

MSN’s “News Feed” is not the problem, but its success reveals a huge problem. Like the Star Trek aliens that almost took over the Enterprise with a mind-controlling electronic game that seduced the crew of the starship, the techno-psy-ops seducers of our attention spans and intellects prey on what we all want: consequence-free pleasure.

 

No one forces anyone to take the first drag, drink, or hit – but millions do. However, to do my job, the enticing junk food “news feeds” are ever-present. Not being Star Trek’s unhuman Data, I dive in, waste hours, and feel dirty, stupid, and hungry for some intellectual kale. But I always return to “feed.”

 

“News feeds” can enrich – factoids can make thought deeper, questions more thoughtfully framed, perspective more open-minded. But we use what’s offered as the reality platform for our lives. When we stand on a platform that is framed to sell products by clicking on cultural junk food, or worse, intellectual meth, part of our humanity is slowly killed – click after click.

 

Any addiction destroys the capacity for humor, love, and empathy, let alone productiveness. The oxymoronic depth of or cultural narcissism is grinding down our sense that things outside our “news feed” matter.

 

Like Karen Carpenter and every other anoretic, we do not know we are wasting away. We are fine. We are happy. We know the royal baby’s name.

 

 

This article was originally published on duodickinson.com.

 

Duo Dickinson, architect, has designed and built over 500 projects in over a dozen states in the last 30 years. Dickinson sits on seven not-for-profit boards, including the New Haven Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, and Madison Cultural Arts.  Twenty to 30 percent of the ongoing work in his office is dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, totaling over 50 projects for over 30 organizations over the last 25 years. He is the architecture and urban design contributor to the New Haven Register and the contributing writer in design for New Haven Magazine, and has been contributing editor in home design for Money Magazine and co-host of 14-part CNN/Money website series “Home Work.” He is the author of seven books on home design, including his most recent book, Staying Put, which was published in 2011 by Taunton Press. Mr. Dickinson has taught at Yale College, Roger Williams University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design Summer Program, and has lectured at dozens of universities, AIA associations, and national conventions and gatherings.

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