Mindless click, click, clicking through Five Minute Crafts’ DIY videos on Snapchat’s explore page, Netflix’s scripted reality shows orbiting around sex appeal, Shein’s cheap-fast fashion, and Dua Lipa’s newest dance anthem that sounds all too similar to her last. Sound familiar?
Thumbing without thinking seems to be the new black. Relatives whine about the “old days” when music was meaningful (and less profane) or when chef d’oeuvres like “The Godfather” or “Pulp Fiction” were masterpieces, unlike “The Kissing Booth”—hey, we even did it (see “So you want to be famous?,” Vol. 50, No. 4).
Are these unfair comparisons, or does our generation gobble up mindless media? If so, who’s to blame? Though big business seems to be orchestrating our artistic downfall, their mysterious, profitable, brain-mirroring tech suggests we should question when our intellectual depth feels compromised. To explain how Netflix isn’t the enemy here, let’s start with the massive corporations that pump out those cheesy rom-coms or advertise their mass- produced Zaful T-shirts. Artistic content might shock or provoke emotions other than pleasure, which isn’t profitable to a marketer looking to persuade your pockets. Big businesses that fund “Too Hot to Handle,” Billboard Hot 100 hits, and cheap jeggings rely on consumers to perpetuate their ventures. Modern-day algorithms are their biggest weapon because they access user-specific data to tailor to our wants and keep us scrolling.
Omnipotent, these marvels of computer science know our patterns through our data and predict our desires and needs before we do. Cookies on websites track our every scroll and visit. Google and Instagram push shoes we were just thinking about, and the TikTok “For You Page” completely gets our senses of humor. Streaming services have a “suggested” feature that calculates your compatibility with shows. Did you like “Twilight”? Picked for you: “The Vampire Diaries.” Here’s our trusty 96% match in assuring green letters. So the computers are to blame then, right? They’re chewing up our digital footprints and spitting out maximum profits for marketers. I’m downloading DuckDuckGo!
Well, here’s the catch. Computers are made in our image. The machine learning behind the ultra-efficient advertising that found that one store your brain forgot the name of is modeled after the very same web of neurons that misplaced that information. Our own minds are marketing to us. No computer nor corporation is responsible for the propagation of artless content; they are structures reflective of ourselves, our wants, and our likelihood to engage with a particular product.
Playing into the entertainment and products that form a mirror-like bubble around us, however, is no way to live. To live in an algorithmic Eden is to deny ourselves the human experience, which has the comfort we seek but also has the uncomfortable: the grief, the shock, the depth and complexity of artistic media.
Films and music (and YouTube videos, I guess?) made to challenge social norms and reflect different parts of humanity—not sorted to best fit what we’ve liked in the past—invigorate us by challenging our perspectives instead of conforming to them. Paintings and sculptures from any era or location tell otherly perspectives; music from other time periods or countries fosters intellectual and cross-cultural exploration; even fashion reaches beyond synthetic polyester into the world of design and underlying harmonies that we strive toward or reflect. We can and should behold media that makes us more empathetic, more introspective, more uncomfortable, more curious, and more human.
We have control over the media we consume if we are aware of the way it is catered to us. Take a trip to an art museum. Look at something that unsettles you (maybe your midterm grades). Pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read (maybe that’s any book at all) and mull over chapter one if that’s all you can stomach. With a world of information at your fingertips, you can’t let ones and zeros cage you in one corner of artificial thought.