How Media Can Hinder Our Clear Thinking
Beware when content begins shrinking
TikTok is all the rage. Probably you know at least one person who is active on the platform, but can it be as innocuous as it seems? I believe TikTok is an exemplar of another distinct form of content creation in the future. This is not an article that analyzes how it became viral or how it beat its competitors, but a reminder of something that we have to sacrifice when we engage in this app.
Structure: This article consists of four sections, each of which is always prepended with a divider. First I will give a key introduction to video streaming platforms. Next, we will learn some facts about cognitive science, which can help us understand the underlying mechanism. Based on these facts, I shall argue why the form in which TikTok fosters videos impedes our thinking. Finally, I will conclude by presenting important takeaways and encouraging us to take back our lost control.
Videos nowadays play a vital role on the Internet. YouTube, most prominently, has been a place where nearly any kind of video can be published. But I find there is a fundamental disparity between TikTok and YouTube. Most of the time, I strive to make YouTube my go-to place for animated explanations on study materials and visually convenient information, and there are indeed plenty of videos and channels that provide truly valuable content.
Now comes TikTok, another platform that abounds with videos, but of some other kind. In particular, the videos are designed to last less than 60 seconds. Some are even less than 30 seconds, whereas YouTube imposes a generous 10-minute constraint (longer if the channel can pass some threshold). Any policy that is employed on a platform intrinsically shapes the content that will be created. It follows then, unfortunately, that significant and meaningful content on TikTok has been inherently excluded by its form.
Cognitive science to the rescue
Before I delve into the subtle trap of TikTok (and other similar platforms), we could use some knowledge of cognitive science. This information is essential to our understanding of the invisible bridge between videos and our thinking.
Our brain is a complex machine that comes equipped with a lot of functionalities that are carried all the way to the 21st century. The brain is still arguably the biggest enigma, but some progress has been made thanks to science. One of the key findings has to do with the attentional system. To humans and nearly all animals, attention is a limited and scarce mental resource. To cut a long story short: the attentional system helps us weed out unnecessary information and passes the important one to our consciousness. This system consists of 4 major components: 1. central executive mode, 2. default mode, 3. attentional filter, and 4. attentional switch, as shown below.
The central executive mode is enabled when you are focusing on a task, and consequently, commotion from the background is repressed to the minimum. The default mode is an alias for mind-wandering mode, i.e. nothing mentally intense is going on in our head. The attentional filter does its job by relentlessly monitoring changes in the external environment as well as something that can be of personal importance, for example, our names. The attentional switch will facilitate the shift of your attention, between the 2 aforementioned modes, but with a cost of energy.
This knowledge seems irrelevant, but it is in fact important. The videos on TikTok are characterized by the diversity of topics and shortened length, which both contribute to a state of inconsistency for the brain. Content creators have their own (distinct) ideas, and they publish videos to win and entertain an audience. This is nothing wrong, yet on the flip side they are like little teasers that hook the audience for a short amount of time, and subsequently, they are presented with a brand-new topic, which has no relevance to the previous one. Our attention is always directed to a fresh subject and redirected again after 60 seconds. On and on this roulette of videos spins.
On a more granular level, rapid attentional changes create stress hormones and adrenaline, which can overwhelm the brain and hinder our clear thinking. You will get more stressed after watching those videos. However, attention switching also creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop that rewards your brain for losing focus. On top of that, your attentional system favors changes in the environment, which is to say, concentration is easily lost. (See reference 1 for full gory details.) Instead of focusing on the crucial work, the brain is hopelessly distracted by novelty and short videos that change every 60 seconds, while getting just a tad chemical reward to keep itself intoxicated in a self-sufficient loop. Switching amongst videos is dismally likened to a lab rat pressing the handlebar to get immediate but increasingly marginal artificial pleasure, while slowly becoming tired till it dies. Of course, no app can be so morbid as to make people die, and we are far more intelligent and self-aware than other animals. But remember the time we’ve invested and the energy we’ve wasted on the rapid switching process, it leaves us less mental power to focus on the truly meaningful matters.
Now that we are familiar with the crucial knowledge, I shall spell out 3 ways in which TikTok and similar platforms are detrimental to our thinking:
1. Lack of value
A new platform provides extra value, mathematically, if and only if its benefits surpass the drawbacks. This concerns the content which creators put onto their channels or the platform. Much of the content is not designed to deliver a coherent message or idea of its authors but is actually of random and irrelevant topics that have nothing to do with a user’s life. This kind of content, hopefully, most of the readers can agree, offers no real skills nor a valuable lesson that could be seriously imparted to the spectators.
2. Destined to entertain
Maybe it is not the content creators that are responsible for the problem I just addressed, since the other side of the platform is also an indispensable factor. I must admit that I am not immune to entertainment, and sometimes I go on a video-watching spree. It’s just that, when this binge-watching is over, I do feel a bit regretful about how my time was spent. Imagine on TikTok, as I scroll on the smooth OLED modern palm-size screen, curated short videos emerge and are ready to play and please the viewer. The mind tentatively watches a few seconds of video, gets into the swing of things, and gradually becomes devoted, despite its unrelated topic. Little by little, with neurons firing and chemicals released, the brain is properly entertained, and eagerly prompts the thumb to scroll further, yearning for more of what it has just tasted. This is a literally toxic process, which most of us won’t be able to resist.
Human nature is drawn to continuous entertainment. Serve a user with intermittent and sugarcoated pieces of entertainment and he/she will be hooked. TikTok is putting tons of engineers into this product just to do that. They delicately craft and tweak the algorithms, hoping to have us stay in this app for as long as possible. The longer a user stays, the more profit they gain. While some other companies might be doing the same thing, there is still the third way where our thinking can be hampered.
3. Form is implicitly excluding the content
The duration of a typical video is another overlooked factor that prevents a meaningful message to be conveyed, though I shall not go any deeper into McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” here. (See reference 2 for more on “form vs content”.) The shrinking (or fragmentation) of any kind of content on whatever platform is perilous and worrisome, since knowledge, expertise, and skills will unlikely be diminished over time. Difficult tasks require far more than 1 minute before any real progress can be made. The inevitable trend that people begin spending increasingly more time on short videos, therefore, heralds a decline of the level of seriousness of public discourse. Getting accustomed to the pace and rhythm of such a platform creates a stark contrast to our real world. In effect, our time and attention are getting overtly fragmented, while the work we will be doing demands ever more profound and prolonged contemplation.
I dare not judge any creator and viewer on whichever platform because we simply do what we can to make a living or make a difference. It is possible that most features of this app are not intentionally designed with the purposes I have described. I am also not qualified to judge the company, or the employees thereof, that brought this app to the world. With the advent of short-content platforms like TikTok, I think how an important part of our time is spent on media is inexorably changed. It is worth warning then, that we are prone to fall prey to the trap of our (flawed) brain, of which third parties may have taken advantage. By writing this article, I hope to have argued that obsessing with TikTok might be an insidious obstacle that hinders our clear thinking.
Here is another point I try to emphasize is in this article. We must beware of whatever fancy platforms (or apps) that can take over the market in the future. I can’t and won’t predict the concrete characteristics of them. Nonetheless, keep in mind that duration (or size) is a semi-useful indicator of value. Any content is naturally limited by its form.
I would say that technology is our servant, not our master. Our minds can be infiltrated and deftly manipulated. The Internet does not come with an instruction manual, so we should be even more careful when using it. Beware of any kind of “nibble” content, as your attention can quickly get fragmented, while your mind will be hooked and slowly exhausted. We can break free and regain control, as long as we understand the mechanisms behind those apps, both technical and biological.
I have no say in what you should do with these apps. What I can do is to warn you of the pitfalls you might have been lured into. How exactly you will go about this is entirely your choice, and I only present as many facts as possible to help you make informed decisions. It is definitely not my intention to criticize content creators, since their work is subject to their avid followers. The most important goal of this article is to merely argue and convince readers that new platforms adopting this fragmented form of content, be it artificially implemented or not, is deleterious to our thinking, and thus can be a bad influence on our day-to-day life.
References and citations
- Levitin, D. J. (2015). The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Illustrated ed.). Dutton.
- Postman, N. (2005). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Anniversary ed.). Penguin Books.