The Invasion of Mindless Entertainment

Clown smile
Mindless entertainment is all around us—Photo from Gratis Photography

Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate. 

Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. Though mindless entertainment does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.

First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to mindless entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with mindless entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.

Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of mindless entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.

The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.

Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, mindless entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.

Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.

There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the way we relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in mindless entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.

References

  1. Tom Jacobs, Watching TV Can Boost Emotional Intelligence
  2. Carolyn Gregoire, The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You’ve Never Imagined
  3. Harriet Griffey, The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world

The perils of social media

Social media pills

1_P2ly9bSClopyi9qqDAkkYAPhoto by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

Social media has received some devastating blows recently. Cambridge Analytica – the data firm who helped to position the clownish imbecile Donald Trump atop the American Empire – were caught red-handed stealing data for 50 million Facebook users. An associate boasted that the data enabled them to predict a person’s neuroticism, agreeableness, political views, and much more. Without this information, Trump may have lost the election, going so far as to casually boast about it. It’s the tip of a colossal data-collection iceberg that is destroying our trust in social networks, with their blatant and appalling disregard for operating within ethical boundaries.

This was likely a big factor in the recent #DeleteFacebook movement, which encourages users to quit permanently. For the first time since its inception, Facebook reported a decline in U.S users in 2017, though other apps such as Instagram and Twitter are steadily rising. In addition to quitting entirely, roughly 40% of Facebook users are starting to take extended breaks, often deleting the app from their phones.

Fighting against shady data-usage is important, but what’s more insidious are the effects that social networks have on our mental health, particularly for young people. One report showed that symptoms of ill mental health are increased by 15% for children using social media. Facebook and Instagram’s terms of reference state that you shouldn’t be using their services if under the age of 13, but do absolutely nothing to enforce the rules. Why would they? Even pro-capitalist media powerhouses such as the Financial Times and the Economist are calling for more regulation against these alarmingly immoral organisations.

Addiction is a fundamental goal for many social networks, and they’re designed with this in mind. Our primal desire to be liked results in positive chemical rushes whenever somebody validates our post, so we develop a habit in which our eyes compulsively return to the little red circle. The concept of a endless feed utilises the variable ratio schedule, which shows that people become more obsessed with something when rewarded irregularly, rather than steadily. Being presented with the occasional entertaining post is what hooks you.

We don’t sign our children up to pre-credited gambling accounts, hand them a gram of cocaine and suggest that they let loose for the weekend. Yet these things exploit the exact same dopamine-based reward system as social media, with addiction as a dreadful consequence. It effortlessly pulls on our attention, distracting us from vital problems such as climate change, poverty, or Trump’s totalitarianism. The precious hours of our lives are being consumed and vomited into the coffers of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, who “apologise for their mistakes” but not their repulsive business practices.

Even former leaders of tech companies are rallying for change. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit organisation founded by such folk, with the intention to spread the idea of compassionate design starting from a foundation of vulnerable human instincts, as opposed to attention theft at any cost.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” – The Center for Humane Technology

In addition to being attention whores, social media has a devastating effect on our self-esteem. It enables us to compare ourselves to other people on an unprecedented scale, creating pressure to be as allegedly perfect as everyone else, and leaving us in a cesspool of self-loathing. Life isn’t how Facebook and Instagram portrays it; disappointment, rejection, and pain are nowhere to be seen. When such impending things do happen, you can be forgiven for shaking a fist at a God who undeniably hates you.

Any intention to better your life is made more difficult by social media’s blissfully sedative effects. Why bother trying to learn something that you’re passionate about when you can spend hours scrolling through insipid content? Nobody likes discomfort, so social media sucks us in like a prostitute desperate for a fix. The exceptional is cast aside in favour of dull mediocrity.

Clambering over the proverbial fence for a moment, social media does have some positive uses. It’s an effective way to stay in touch with old friends, even if only contacting them once in a blue moon. Many businesses rely on social media for its powerful ability to reach customers, and would struggle desperately without it; movements such as #DeleteFacebook would do well to remember this. Promoting anything (e.g. this blog) would be infinitely harder. A research agency found that Facebook users have more close ties with the people within their network than other internet users. In addition, they noted moderate associations between social media use and trust, plentiful close friends, greater amounts of social support, and higher civic support. It’s easy to be dogmatic about such an immoral industry, but important to realise that it’s not all bad.

Despite the positives, the evidence for the ills of social media are overwhelming. If you’d rather not take the drastic plunge and quit cold turkey, you might want to consider restricting your usage – Chrome extensions such as BlockSite allow you to easily do so. With less use, it’s likely that your life will improve. Just be prepared for the fact that by continuing to use the apps, your data probably will be illegally mined in order to influence your opinions, and to persuade you that you’ll be undeniably happier if you purchase those fetching shoes. The whole structure is completely vulnerable to manipulation, and no amount of new regulation is likely to change that. Greed always finds a way to exploit, and with two billion connected people, social media companies have the power to influence an unfathomable number of people with terrifying precision. Is it a risk worth taking?

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