Mediums Overpower Messages

October 19, 2019

Specific media mediums make me smarter and other media mediums make me dumber.

Makes Me Dumber Makes Me Smarter
videogames
YouTube
news
books
audiobooks
direct messaging apps

By "smarter" I mean it holistically causes me to behave in a way that increases my overall rate of learning and quality of life. By "dumber" I mean the opposite.

I rejected this conclusion for a long time. Surely playing Kerbal Space Program must be more educational than reading Yu-gi-oh! manga. Nope. I ran a long series of subjective personal experiments on a variety of timescales across 10 years. Yu-gi-oh! beats Kerbal Space Program by a long shot. The medium overpowers the message[1]. What I am watching on television is irrelevant compared against the fact I am watching television.

The effect is unidimensional. I can plot different mediums on a scale form "makes me dumber" to "makes me smarter" and use the scale to infer why different mediums have the effect they do.

Effect Description Medium(s)
long-term negative effect Significant decrease to my quality of life that gets worse over time. videogames, media feeds, YouTube
short-term negative effect I socialize little. I exercise little. My sleep is disrupted. I cook less healthy food. My attention span is lowered. I am irrationally stressed out. I stop spontaneously educating myself. news, social media, Reddit
neutral Small net effect on my quality of life. comic books, movies, webcomics, blogs
short-term positive effect I socialize more. I exercise regularly. I sleep well. I cook better food. I have a longer attention span. I am relaxed. I am happier. audiobooks, books, direct messaging (foreign language), blogging, textbooks, writing software, history podcast archives, direct messaging (native language)
long-term positive effect Significant increase to my quality of life that increases over time. making videos, drawing comics, spaced repetition software

There is a symmetry to this sorting. Playing videogames is near the top but writing software is near the bottom. Watching YouTube is near the top but making YouTube videos is near the bottom. The smarter creating a certain a particular kind of media makes me the dumber consuming it does.

In fact, this whole list is just sorted by difficulty. The harder a medium is to consume (or create, as applicable) the smarter it makes me. The difficulty of consuming a medium is dominated by the medium itself. Content is a rounding error.

That feels wrong. Intuitive, it makes sense that certain mediums are educational because they facilitate better content. My empirical results indicates the opposite.


[1] There are a handful of exceptions. In particular, downloading certain kinds of videos from YouTube and watching them locally can make me smarter. but even this illustrates the power of the medium. Watching YouTube in a web browser has a different effect on me than downloading those exact same videos and watching them with mplayer.