Mental Junk Food
You Are What You (Don't) Read
A few weeks ago, TikTok laid off a bunch of its employees, citing difficult market conditions and a looming recession. This, by itself, is a pretty normal tech story in early 2023. What caught my attention was the wave of TikTok-using employees who, even as they were suddenly laid off from their cushy jobs at TikTok's corporate headquarters, made TikTok videos about getting laid off from TikTok.
I find this baffling. Here are people about to enter a collapsing job market for media tech, cheerily filming themselves laugh-crying in the office bathroom and stealing snacks from the employee lounge on their last day. Here are people who have been betrayed and humiliated by the company they worked for, whose first thought was to pick up their phone and generate profitable assets for that same company.
It is one thing to understand that TikTok's addictive architecture has always been obvious, or that TikTok is so addictive that the Chinese government only allows an extremely limited, watered-down version of TikTok, or to have seen so many of my own students so hopelessly in thrall to their little video feeds that they furtively check TikTok at conferences while I talk to their parents about their disruptive phone usage. (Yes, this has happened to me.)
But it's something else to see grown, highly-educated adults who presumably had the high executive function and savoir-faire to land a job at TikTok HQ pulling these stunts. This is clearly potent stuff.
I promise that this essay will get around to books. In order to explain it, though, I need to talk about junk food, because I think it’s the closest analogy we have for apps like TikTok and what they do to our attention—the stuff that reading is made of.
Everybody knows that salty, sugary, fatty junk food is bad for you. Everybody knows that they contribute directly to obesity rates and negative health outcomes. Everybody knows that the flashy advertising on TV, heavy Congressional lobbying by agribusiness, and attractive placement of junk food in every grocery store is a deliberate attempt to induce greater demand and generate higher profits, waistlines be damned. But knowing that we are being manipulated isn’t enough to stop us from being manipulated. We still reach, half-consciously, for that Oreo, and feel like it’s our fault.
The problem with junk food, as nutritional scientist Stephan Guyenet recently explained on The Ezra Klein Show, is that it’s gotten so good, so cheap, and so available, that scientists are starting to wonder if concepts like willpower or accountability are even relevant to explaining how and why we eat so much of it. The stuff is literally altering our brain chemistry in ways that make us more likely to eat more of it more often, messing with our natural appetites and our desire for less junk-like food.
To put it very simply, junk food is changing us in ways we can’t control. Junk food teaches us to be hungry at unnatural times, and to crave massive, instant doses of salt and sugar that traditional, unprocessed foods can’t provide.
As Klein points out, until about ten seconds ago on the evolutionary timeline, humans didn’t have the concept of the midnight snack, and obesity was a sign of great wealth. Now, we need strange and expensive drugs to help us control our overdriven appetites. Our brains, adapted over millennia to dining al fresco, are simply not prepared for all this cheap, tasty shit lying around. Now half the world is on track to be overweight within twelve years, because we quite literally can’t help ourselves from eating this stuff.
But this problem isn’t restricted to eating. The same logic of junk food—fast, cheap, addictive—is all over our media, entertainment, and leisure. Replace “junk food” in the paragraphs above with “information,” or “community,” “mastery at a skill,” or even just “hot naked people,” and you’ll see the same overabundance, and the same short-circuiting of our willpower.
Guyenet makes the link clear:
...[W]e have gotten increasingly good at satisfying our own innate preferences. And we see that with food. We see it with information, like social media and other media. We see it with pornography, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And I think, essentially, we’re just fulfilling our own preferences so hard that we’re creating problems for ourselves. And now, through this same affluence and technology, we’re trying to create technological solutions for these problems that are created by this evolutionary mismatch.
The problem, in short, is that junk and TikTok both generate bad habits that seem to defy common sense or willpower because they are hyperpalatable.
The term comes from nutritional science, but there are hyperpalatable stimuli, too: objects of attention and sensation that are cheap, accessible, and play directly to our most primal wants and needs. Where hyperpalatable foods play to our appetites, hyperpalatable stimuli mess with our innate needs for community, sex, and mastery. Social media, pornography, and video games satisfy these needs painlessly, at a greater scale, pace, and price than the real thing. Whether or not they can actually replace the real thing is an open question, but there’s good reason to be doubtful.
TikTok is the epitome of a hyperpalatable stimulus: endless amusements, perfectly molded to your desires. If you're good at it, you get showered with praise and affection. The magic mirror of its video filters make you look sexy, and give you endless access to strangers looking for someone sexy to gawk at. You can join all kinds of niche subcommunities you can belong to just by watching more videos and occasionally making your own videos to show that you’re part of it. Best of all, TikTok is free, and it's always in your pocket when you need it.
The consequence of TikTok, and other apps of its ilk is that we are living in an attentional ecosystem littered with highly addictive, hyperpalatable junk stimuli. Just like junk food and appetite, this junk stimulus might be seriously altering our perceptions, messing with our ability to reject them, or even conceive of alternative forms of satisfaction. Maybe the fired TikTokers of TikTok deserve our pity, not our scorn.
I had to watch actual TikToks to write this free essay. If you’re enjoying it, the least you could do is subscribe to Musement.
What should we do about this mental junk food? There is currently a bill floating around Congress that would give the President the authority to ban TikTok from the country. For all kinds of squishy, free-speech liberal reasons, I don't think that it’s a great idea to ban a platform just because it's Chinese. I was raised to believe, and still do, that free expression is the cornerstone of our liberal democracy.
On the other hand, hearing these TikTokers laugh-crying in public through their own humiliation for the sake of TikTok, you have to ask: this may be speech, but is it free? Is a TikTok addict's video a carefully-considered utterance of a sovereign individual, or is it more like the compulsive verbal tics of a coprolaliac? Do we have a right to get addicted to hyperpalatable junk? Do businesses have a right to create and distribute it?
The philosopher Mathew Crawford has a lot to say about this topic in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Unfortunately, most of what he has to say are variations on we're fucked. And that fuckedness might be built into our whole political system.
The modern liberal idea of freedom, Crawford writes, is that freedom means being able to satisfy your preferences, whatever they are, as long as they don't break the law. What you desire and the ways in which you go about satisfying them are your business. There's a lot to be said in favor of this. But there are a lot of assumptions at play here, Crawford writes:
...[In] surveying contemporary life, it is hard not to notice that this catechism doesn't describe our situation very well. Especially the bit about our preferences expressing an authentic welling-up of the authentic self. Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data. To continue to insist that preferences express the sovereign self and are for that reason sacred—unavailable for rational scrutiny—is to put one's head in the sand. The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.
In other words, you might be free to do what you want, but you aren't always free to choose what you want. As much as we like to think that we are in control of our goals and desires, every dollar invested in industries like gambling or advertising—and we're talking hundreds of billions of dollars here—is a bet against the incorruptible sovereignty of our desires, a wager in favor of hyperpalatable junk stimuli playing hopscotch with our brainstems until we beg for more.
The gamblers Crawford writes about who play slot machines for twelve hours at a stretch, marinating in puddles of their own urine, are also exercising their free choice to pursue their desires. But they didn't pick those desires, or make the slot machines that satisfy this desire so desirable. Classical liberalism doesn't offer us a clear defense against threats to our attentional ecosystem.
This doesn't mean that we're all doomed to get addicted to porn, slots, or TikTok. Rather, as Crawford explains, this puts everybody under a greater burden of self-regulation. It's your job to consume Cheetoes or play slots in moderation, and your fault if you get addicted and find yourself overweight and broke. If you fail this test, it will be your fault for lacking willpower, not the fault of the companies that made their hyperpalatable products so addictive in the first place.
But let's say that you possess the necessary inner reserves to keep yourself from falling into the pit of cheap junk food or free porn. Filling your days with fine home-cooked meals, tasteful reading, and regular lovemaking with a considerate and satisfied partner, your saintly composure keeps you safe from those baser temptations.
The problem is, you still have to live in a world where many people have failed this test—a world where that test is getting harder all the time. The drugs are getting more addictive, the algorithms are getting more personalized, the conspiracy theories are getting more exciting, and the video games are a hell of a lot better than Pong.
More and more people fall into these traps, and we still don't have the language, let alone the policies, to stop the hyperpalatization of the world. Instead of sanctions on the agrobusinesses that have killed more of us than any terrorist cell, we get Michelle Obama writing children's books exhorting us to eat more carrots. Instead of meaningful legislation against slot-machine social media apps that prey on teenage insecurities, we put screen-limits on TikTok.
To bring this blog back around to its primary concern, a world of hyperpalatized victims fending for themselves in an attentional wasteland is clearly a bad place for the written word and education. Ordinary food is unappealing to the junk-trained palate, just as ordinary experience is dull compared to the infinite scroll. Boredom and rumination are crowded out by simpler pleasures on the screen.
The problem is, boredom and rumination are essential to our education, and especially to the project of becoming deeply literate. Crawford worries about this a lot: much of The World Outside Your Head is about how the deskilling of modern life, the ever-greater drive for convenience and gratification, is turning too many of us into talentless, disconnected consumers. "One consumes a great deal of silence," Crawford writes, "in the course of becoming educated,” but there is no silence on TikTok.
Reading, in fact, is very hard. Whenever Maryanne Wolf writes or speaks on literacy, the first thing she mentions is the difficulty of reading, the sheer alienness of it to our brains. Everybody learns to speak, but nobody can teach themselves to read. Hell, learning basic literacy is basically a child’s day job from the ages of five to ten, and it takes many more years of daily direct instruction to become deeply literate.
But once the skill is learned, it restructures the brain. Our thinking becomes more text-like: that is, focused, linear, personal. Adam Garfinkle has argued that our entire sense of interiority—the voice in your head—may even come from regular exposure to solitary, silent reading.
It’s bigger than just the individual reader, though. A culture of deep literacy shaped our society. It's not an accident, as Neil Postman points out repeatedly in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that America at the time of its revolution was the most literate society the world had ever seen. While most of the world’s governments still viewed themselves as the extended body of some guy with a golden hat, our country was made almost entirely out of vigorously-argued words: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers.
But all of this required reading, and reading is hard. YouTube, though, can be figured out by a toddler. Those toddlers will be voters and taxpayers before too long.
Nobody really knows what life will look like when most people have grown up entirely immersed in the supersensorium of endless algorithmically-tailored content and engagement, but there probably won't be very many books, or people around to read them. Already you can find university admissions officers thinking out loud about switching to video essays, and a growing strain of proudly anti-reading public figures. I’ve argued with close friends—smart people, with college degrees!—who have wondered out loud if YouTube could replace school textbooks.
History furnishes us with few examples of cultures overtaken by the supersensorium. Crawford thinks of Native American reservations, and all their problems with alcohol, drugs, and gambling. I can think of a few good models that might suggest where we’re headed, though, roadmaps to our collective, illiterate future. The problem is, to understand something like Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World, you have to know how to read them in the first place.