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A 21st Century Affliction: Media Obesity

The obesity epidemic is, in part, blamed on our evolutionary background. Our bodies favor high-calorie foods, which are now too easy to consume. (Obviously, there are other contributing factors, such as sedentary lifestyles.)

Obviously, not everyone succumbs to obesity. Personally, I have no desire to eat myself fat–I’m thin not because of willpower, but just because I have no inherent drive down that path.

But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my weaknesses. And perhaps my strongest weakness (ha!) is the media.

I’ve been thinking about this because I was invited to a discussion predicated on this thesis:

As television moves from a linear broadcast experience to an on-demand one, we will soon be able to access 10,000’s of choices at a time. However, viewers already have a love/hate relationship with TV content: they want lots of options, but can never find anything they “want” to watch buried in the 100’s of channels and 1000’s of programs.

I realized that the “problem” in this thesis has it almost exactly wrong. Any new TiVo owner will tell you that they’ve got a long list of saved programs that they’re having trouble getting through. Not only can we find things that we “want” to watch, we have far far too much stuff we want to watch.

When I combine this access to desirable television with all the other forms of media, I’m awash in options: DVDs from Greencine (which I typically have for 1 or 2 months before I get around to them), books from the library (I often return them only partly read), RSS feeds from 149 websites (“Mark all as read” is becoming my friend), magazines, journals, web pages, and other books piling up.

It’s too much.

The problem is, I want it all. There’s good stuff throughout all this, informative, compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining.

It made me wonder if there’s an evolutionary precedent to media consumption the way there is to high-calorie consumption. I suppose that information gathering and processing could have been a valuable survival tool. There’s also the Media Equation aspect — with engage with media as if they were other people… and we are social beings… so this kind of media consumption might be tapping into our social nature.

Anyway, whatever the root causes, I’m feeling media obese. And obesity, in any form, is Not A Good Thing. I’m realizing I have to treat media with far higher discrimination than I do currently — and that this will mean ignoring that which is only good and relevant, and focusing only on the very good and very relevant. As a media junky, this restraint will be difficult. We’ll see how it goes.

  1. Reminds me of Schopenhauer’s statement that “Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.” Which Warren Zevon misquoted as “We buy books because we believe we’re buying the time to read them.” I say that I’m being more selective about what I read, and watch, and listen to; but the fact is I keep buying books thinking I’ll make time to read them, when in reality I’m thinking that just having them on the shelf will transmit their contents to me by osmosis. I buy DVD’s so I can watch them whenever I want to; then I watched “Lawrence of Arabia” on TCM last night when the DVD’s sitting on the shelf behind me. Not to mention all the new podcasts I’ve downloaded but will never listen to because I never get away from the computer and stereo and television and work for long enough. Media obesity? You betcha.

  2. Maybe it’s less about the *consumption* of media and more about the social aspect of what we do with it. I think that part of why people watch TV is social – to talk about it with others, or to share vicariously in someone else’s social experiences (does this explain reality TV?). I read fiction to get involved in someone else’s world. I read fact to do a better job and also to talk about interesting things with people.

    But maybe that’s just me 😉

  3. A favorite quote “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
    Herbert Simon, “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World.” In Martin Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press), 1971, pp. 40-41.

  4. It’s the smorgasbord syndrome: one price eats all. The result is a lot of dabbling with very little discrimination. Calories without nutrition. Satiation without satisfaction, so back to server for some more of the same.

  5. What a joy! Isn’t it great being in an information/media-rich world compared to the alternative, which existed for many not so long ago, that of being information-deprived (but not necessarily knowing it – ignorance is bliss). Sure, now the decision involves choosing what to consume and not having to spend great effort to find information worth consuming. Yeah, sometimes it is easy to get overwhelmed with choices but that simply means one needs to relax and appreciate what one is able to do rather than get all exercised about missed choices …

  6. We are all discovering why the “Executive Summaries” series was successful. High-powered executives (and wannabes) have always put a premium on their time; they are successful partly because they realize that their time is their “premium” product. So any way that they can aggregate knowledge quickly is of tremendous value to them.

    Now that most of us are beginning to understand exactly how valuable our own time is, we’re going to demand that our media to be high quality and highly relevant and if one of our sources fails to be so on more than one or two consecutive occasions we’ll get rid of it.

    Say bye-bye Time Warner.

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