In 1964, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” His point was that the way in which we receive information is often just as influential, if not more, than the content of the information itself.
McLuhan was likely inspired by the culturally turbulent 1960s and the newfound presence of a television in almost every home. He argued that television was a medium that inspired a kind of mindless passivity in the viewer, making them particularly suggestible to whatever information or entertainment they were being exposed to, and therefore, easily herded into accepting predominant views.
If you think about it, it makes sense. Unlike reading a book or listening to music, watching television takes an unbelievably little amount of effort. There’s a reason it’s widely recognized as the lazy man’s preferred mode of entertainment. You just set the channel and let it feed you endless images of pretty, exciting things. Pre-streaming TV was just pure id, 24/7, on demand. You just kinda… sat there. The content was not designed to delight or inform as much as it is to keep you placidly watching.
It’s no wonder that the research on outcomes of television consumption tends to be abysmal. People who watch craploads of TV are generally unhappier, unhealthier, and more paranoid about the world. Kids who watch dizzying amounts of television perform worse cognitively and are more likely to have behavioral and social problems. When my generation were kids, our mothers yelled at us that all that TV would rot our brains. And while a little dramatic… our moms were kind of onto something.
Why Reading Doesn’t Suck
On the opposite side of the “medium is the message” spectrum is the written word. Reading has all sorts of cognitive benefits and it’s likely due to the nature of the medium itself.
For example, reading this newsletter takes mental effort. Unlike TV, the second you stop trying, it stops delivering. The concepts must be interpreted and then formulated and visualized within your mind. If I start writing about a confused donkey that continually tries to make love to a leaky fire hydrant, your mind sets to work constructing this fucked up scene in your head. And not only does your mind create it, but you get to dictate how you create it. Is the donkey lonely and sad? Is it being beaten by a cruel master as punishment? Or does the fire hydrant seem kinda into it?
Before this gets too weird, the point I’m trying to make is that reading is an inherently interactive medium. The conveyance of information is not only dependent on me writing these words, but also dependent on you actively choosing to read, interpret, and react to them.
This increase in mental creative effort then leads to all sorts of positive outcomes. Reading makes us more empathetic, improves our attention span, enhances logical reasoning, and so on and so forth.
New Media Can Go Either Way
This is all relevant because with the internet, you not only have complete control over what you consume, but also the medium through which you consume it.
It strikes me that some media, much like pre-streaming television, are optimized to grab and hold attention, as much as possible, whatever the cost. They were basically clickbait before clickbait.
But then there are media—long-form podcasts, well-written streamed television, some (but not all) video games, etc.—that are like reading. They encourage sustained attention, challenging you with powerful new concepts or unique imagery.
McLuhan wrote at a time when there was little choice of media. You had a few TV channels and the local paper and that was it. As a result, the medium of information/entertainment that dominated at the time, largely dictated the contours of culture.
But today, there is a Las Vegas buffet of informational media to choose from. If you want to learn about meditation, there are Instagram stories, YouTube videos, podcasts, tweetstorms, or long-form written explainers. It’s a veritable pupu platter of media, hot and steaming and ready to go.
This is why I call the struggle around choosing media “The Attention Diet,” and not “The Attention Regimen,” or “The Attention Curriculum,” or whatever. When you eat something, that food literally generates the cells that compose your body. So if you eat crap for long enough, your body becomes… well, kinda crappy.
Similarly, when you choose what media to consume, you are choosing your future thoughts and perspectives and opinions. And if you choose poorly, you will think poorly. It’s not just that you are what you eat. You are everything that you consume.