You Are The Media You Eat
Part 1 of 3: The Case for a Balanced Media Diet
The Food Pyramid
The Food Pyramid was a diagrammatic recommendation for a balanced diet that the WHO and USDA promoted for two decades.
[It was replaced by the more confusing and lesser known MyPlate in 2011, just as pronoun branding was beginning to ebb.]
The pyramid was built based on a simple structure, reflecting a simple insight.
Structure | The pyramid is the total amount of calories consumed in a day. The items at the top of the pyramid should contribute the least to your overall calorific consumption, because they aren’t good for you. The things at the base should contribute the most because they are good for you.
Insight | The beauty and power of the pyramid was that it made what constituted a balanced diet clear [ “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”] and it reminded us that we tend to eat upside down.
Of the 2000–2500 kcals we should consume everyday, the correct balance would look something like the pyramid, but for many, if not most, Americans it is the opposite — the pyramid turned upside down — with consequential health problems such as obesity at scale.
The [Pollan-McLuhan] Bridge
We now “consume” media more than any other single activity that we take part in.
The war for attention and the magic glowing rectangle in your pocket pushed media into every nook and cranny of your day.
The average amount of media consumed per day is 12 hours and 7 minutes. You might consume more, or less than that. On average though, we have 24 half hour units of media consumption to allocate. That leaves very little time to get anything else done.
“THIS IS WATER”
We live in media and those growing up today have known no other way.
The media is our environment, our media is the message — so how do we enjoy a balanced media diet and not make ourselves sick?
What are media’s empty calories, its sugars and fats, its salt?
How much is too much media?
The Media Pyramid
The media pyramid is a perforce abstract and subjective attempt to suggest we should be mindful about getting a balanced media diet, and what that might look like.
It’s built from research that indicates how we feel after consuming certain kinds of media content to anchor recommendations to reported wellbeing, supplemented with any other relevant research.
It is, of course, fraught with cultural and class prejudice to make recommendations about media consumption, which is why this is based on research, as much as possible.
Structure | The pyramid is the total amount of time spent consuming media in a day. The items at the top of the pyramid should contribute the least to your overall media consumption, because they aren’t good for you. The things at the base should contribute the most because they are good for you.
Insight | The beauty and power of the pyramid was that it made what constituted a balanced diet clear [ “Eat media, not too much, mostly arts.”] and it reminded us that we tend to eat upside down.
Of the 12hrs we consume everyday, the correct balance would look something like the pyramid, but for many, if not most, Americans it is the opposite — the upside down — with consequential social and psychological problems such as anxiety at scale.
Is 12hrs a day too much? What is the recommended daily intake?
It’s very hard to give a definitive number, since clearly it’s more plastic than calories, but there is research that media consumption can be addictive — especially social media consumption on mobile.
That said, there is some research in the area, that suggests that optimal psychological wellbeing comes from limited media use, not none.
“The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use. Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face-to-face and exercising — two activities reliably linked to greater happiness.”
This suggests we are massively over consuming media on average, and, of course, context matters. Everything is relative, but addiction advice offers a simple rule of thumb:
if media consumption is negatively affecting other areas of your life, especially work or relationships, then that’s too much.
Media are no longer simply consumption of course, they are bimodal, as we push ourselves into the stream.
The time in our day, those twelve hours, or 24 30minute units, of media consumption are the calories, the finite quantity we are looking to boundary and segment — and media/content are the food.
Assigning media typologies inherently creates confusion of channel and content and comes bound with judgements, of politics and what constitutes time well spent.
The education of the mind and creation of noble citizens are laudable goals that are hard to measure, but possible to assess in some cases thanks to specific research.
Easier to measure is how we report feeling after consuming media in various quantities, which give a sense of when a “healthy” amount of consumption or indulgence flips to regretful bingeing, and whether there are any other observable impacts.
This is the bulk of the research that supports the pyramid, which we will look at in PART TWO.