Sunday 22 November 2020

Mental Food

My pet conspiracy theory, which is probably less a theory than a fact, is that popular entertainment has been used to influence and re-educate the public since the Hayes code ended, if not before. It is definitely a fact that social media are designed to be addictive. It is also a fact that social media are free because they collect  information about us to sell to advertisers. We are--or become--what we watch or read or sing. The advertisers know that. The social media giants know that, too. 

I am not addicted to my smartphone, but when I am at home and awake, I am online most of the time. This can be good--for what is the internet but the world's greatest encyclopaedia?--but I fear that it is also bad. I read, but I don't necessarily retain. Studies prove you learn information much better from reading print and writing by hand that from reading and typing on a computer, and although I wrote 10 or 11 news stories last week, I couldn't list them off for you. 

Another bad thing is the sitting factor. I seem to recall, once upon a time, reading and writing in a university library, having a stretch, going for a little browse in the stacks upstairs or down, having drink of water at the fountain, and then sitting back down. (I also recall the University of Toronto's ample gym facilities, of which I am clearly in sore need.) Now I sit for hours on end without noticing stiff muscles or thirst. 

But I am also concerned by the content that streams into my head via the internet because it is usually sad or angry or contentious. It occurs to me that this might be why I am so often sad, angry or contentious myself. Was I like this before 2005? 2005 was the year I got my very own internet connection, and so I have been plugged in for 15 years. Lawks!  

I woke up this morning pondering my internet usage and told myself that my mind has most definitely dimmed since the mornings I arose early to write precises of questions in the Summa Theologiae. But then a kinder voice spoke up in my defence, asserting that I now speak and read Italian and Polish. So that is something. It's worth noting, however, that this is largely thanks to real-world interactions and printed material, especially flashcards. Since March I have spoken to my Italian tutor, not via Zoom, but over the phone. 

The best, most cheerful interaction I have had in Twitter for months, by the way, was with a young Englishman who was delighted to discover the Polish word zretweetować. One of the charming difficulties of Polish is that the Poles make up new words all the time. They either play with the prefixes or the suffixes, or they instinctually know which ones are grammatically logical and correct for their new words. Anyway, I was charmed to have seen this stranger's retweeted tweet, and I wrote back to ask if the present tense is conjugated retweetuję, retweetujesz --leaving off that 'z', you see, for the present and imperfect tenses.

He responded to say, yes, he believed zretweetować was the perfect form of the verb, and I gave him a "like." And although, yes, language and linguistics departments have also been captured by the cultural Marxists, what fun it would be to think about Polish prefixes all day and to correctly guess at other Polish neologisms.  

Or would it? Here it is Sunday, and instead of writing up another batch of flashcards, here am I on the internet, distracted only briefly by the appearance on my smartphone of a short film of Córeczka dancing in her crib. However, writing a blog is like writing a letter, and writing letters is always active, not passive.  

For the point that I have been trying wordily to make is that there is a great danger we are most of us passively consuming ideas much more than we are actively thinking about ideas, actively accepting or rejecting them, and then generating new ones. We become what we read or watch online, which is probably why so many of my conservative friends are Covid skeptics (to a varying extent) whereas so many of my centrist and left-wing friends are Covid believers. 

Naturally this in itself is not a new idea. Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. He believed even then society was becoming controlled by its addiction to entertainment. As he died in 2003, I can only imagine what he would say now. 


  1. Yesterday I found a journal from 3 years ago, I rarely write such things but clearly I felt the need to document. Seraphic those 10 pages of thoughts could have been written yesterday. What have I been doing for 36 months? The entry was Nov 17th 2017. Nothing has changed and yet everything I listed there is still either a problem now or a yet to be attained dream I still wish for, all completely fixable and doable by the way. I think I have a little grasp of a lot of things but no expertise on anything and barely remember what I really understood last week in this or that link. It's like a time whirlpool. It makes everything seem passive but appear useful and this is not how life is to be lived. Unsure how to remedy this...but I'm really glad you wrote this post, relieved I'm not alone. Sinéad.

    1. Perhaps things have been made worse by the pandemic/shut-down. But I find it useful just to do a small thing a day to fulfil a goal. For example, I'm going to memorise 10 new Polish words now.