Wetiko | Toxic Media Environment

Blogger, via Conscious Use of Technology

trumpOur media environment has become toxic. I don’t mean by this, simply, that the content of the media has become toxic (has become superficial, petty, mean-spirited, over-stimulating, unthoughtful, pandering, or divisive, though it trends these ways). I mean that technological change in the media – the rise of social media and the smart phone most prominently – have produced an environment that is poisoning us mentally and emotionally.

My analogy here is to the “toxic food environment,” a term coined by Kelly D. Brownell that points to how the modern processed-food industry, advertising, regulatory capture, blind scientism, the abandonment of traditional foodways, and other social factors – rather than some tremendous society-wide outbreak of weak will-power – is poisoning us with a diet of unhealthy food, such that we face a public health crisis of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

FamilyPolicyAs the toxic food environment damages our bodies, the toxic media environment damages our minds. Smart-phone addiction – including compulsive texting and social media monitoring – chronically distracts, agitates, and exhausts many of us, with disastrous effects on our abilities to think, act, and relate. The constant social comparison and superficial communication engendered by the new media contribute to an emerging epidemic, especially for the young, of social isolation, self-doubt, perfectionism, and depression.

The notion of a toxic food environment helps us to understand that, while we of course make individual choices about what we eat, those choices are inevitably and unavoidably conditioned by factors beyond our immediate individual control, factors like what foods are sold, what messages we hear from advertisers, what we see each other eating, what we’re taught about food as children, and what the law and social norms allow and encourage, among others.

Similarly, the notion of a toxic media environment helps us see that compulsive smart phone and social media use are not simply failures of individual resolve or judgment, they are products of social factors that push us into damaging, addictive usage patterns and hold us there. These factors include, to name a few, how devices and products are marketed to us; how others want to communicate with us; how the media tell us everyone else is communicating; how we’re taught to communicate as children; how everyone else is pursuing love, friendship, and employment; and more generally, what the law and social norms allow and encourage. And then there are the intrinsic, addictive qualities of the technologies themselves.

Notably, our mental environment has become toxic not by accident, but rather by the design of entire industries (including the tech, communications, entertainment, and advertising industries, just to get started), government, and our educational system.

Activists invoke the Pokemon Go craze to draw attention to the plight of children in Syria.
Activists invoke the Pokemon Go craze to draw attention to the plight of children in Syria.

Awful as the notion of a toxic media environment may be, the view it affords of our personal IT predicaments is ultimately a hopeful one. It’s a view that reveals a way forward for us not only as individuals, but collectively. To the extent that the food/media analogy holds, it’s encouraging that many of us are finding our ways to healthy relationships with food, toxic food environment notwithstanding. How are doing so in the midst of a culture chin-deep in unwholesome eating habits, deceitful and confusing ideas and media messages about food, broken food-way traditions, an agricultural economy tilted towards the processed-food industry, a corrupt and uncaring education system, and the sheer, instantly gratifying deliciousness of so much crap food so ready to hand? The short answer is, first by educating ourselves, and then by being conscious of what – and as importantly, how – we eat.

Yes, individual will-power plays a role, but access to information, new social norms around eating, public health research and education (the real, as opposed to industry-sponsored kind), emerging alternative (healthier) food production and distribution systems, and laws and regulations informed by all of these are what’s really making it possible for growing numbers of us to develop healthier relationships with food. The same would seem highly likely to prove equally effective in our response to the toxic media environment, enabling us to develop healthier relationships with the new personal technologies.

This essay was written by an anonymous Buddhist blogger at Conscious Use of Technology.