This post from Seth Godin helps describe a phenomenon that I haven’t quite been able to wrap my head around for a while:
The economics seem to be that the only way to make a living is to reach a lot of people and the only way to reach a lot of people is to race to the bottom, seek out quick clicks, make it easy to swallow, reinforce existing beliefs, keep it short, make it sort of fun, or prurient, or urgent, and most of all, dumb it down.
I have noticed this in my own life and writing. Nothing trollish I’ve written has gone viral (praise the Lord!), but I find myself tempted to join the race to the bottom by trolling harder instead of taking the time to write better. One can also substitute anecdotes, emotion, or even a lot of extra line breaks and all-caps phrases for craft, good arguments, or research. (Not that those are all bad– just that the former ought never replace the latter.)
It galls me when stuff I worked really hard to craft and the thoughtful arguments that I laid out gets dozens of clicks/shares and poorly written, emotive garbage gets thousands or millions. I don’t think readers these days are any less discerning than they were a few decades ago, but now technology has simply allowed them to seek out things that make them feel good. It’s a similar issue with pornography: I’m not convinced that the average Christian man these days is any less virtuous than his forebears, but he has far more easy access to filth these days.
Godin blames the algorithms, which is probably fair:
The media has always bounced between pandering to make a buck and upping the intellectual ante of what they present. Now that this balance has been ceded to an algorithm, we’re on the edge of a breakneck race to the bottom, with no brakes and no break in sight.
He alludes to the fact that there are people who make decisions based on these algorithms and that the only way to get the algorithms to work for someone good is to give our time, money, and attention to things that are good. I wholeheartedly agree with him and have argued for this here and here.
I do worry, however, that technology is rapidly outpacing our ability to adapt to it, morally and culturally. The candy example that Godin uses– that if you eat candy all the time, you’ll put the greengrocers out of business– is pretty insidious when you consider that such a scenario happened in “food deserts”. Again, it’s not like people in the 1800’s had a better idea of what good food was, they just couldn’t buy Coke any time they felt like it. Technology made it easier to mass-produce and mass-distribute things that are bad for us, and a few unscrupulous people at the top went so far as to manipulate the research about sugar and fat to guide official health guidelines.
We probably haven’t seen the wave of sugar-caused obesity-related illness crest, either– there are a lot of people getting limbs amputated in their 50’s and I suspect that we’ll see more people getting amputations in their 40’s because of obesity-related illnesses. We are only just starting to see childhood obesity rates go down, and that’s only after massive public and private investment. You probably can’t do the same thing with intellectual junk food and moral diabetes.
I personally love candy, soda, and other carb-heavy junk food. On my own, I would almost certainly eat them too much. Fortunately, God has seen fit to give my a wife whose command of our home economy ensures that the financial and health effects of buying a lot of junk food are minimized. But way too many people are more like me than my wife, whether by temperament or character development.
Even more, too many people love their intellectual, cultural, and moral junk food. Scott Alexander has a really fascinating post that fits pretty well into the Christian paradigm of “powers and principalities”, even calling this human predilection to race to the bottom “Moloch”. Without any hindrance, people will naturally enjoy wallowing in garbage and defend such wallowing as “just fun” or “everything else is biased against me” or “we have to engage the culture”.
The virtue necessary to push the garbage away can influence the algorithm, but it can’t be mass-produced. It can only be cultivated.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org