You Are What You Consume

Warning.  We’re getting philosophical up here.  Skip this is you just come for the photos.  Scroll slowly for the prose, if so desired.

My favorite television show is Mad Men.  On that show, the protagonist Don Draper gets a cigarette account and has to deal with the blow back of the then pioneering research being done into cigarettes that yes, they are harmful.

Of course these days it seems obvious to us that smoke hitting your lungs would cause some kind of microcellular changes, which is turn would cause cancer, which in turn would cause death, eventually.  Packs of cigarettes are labelled but hey, that doesn’t always deter people.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, recently I taught a group of 12 and 13 year old kids and it was like visited another planet entirely.  That is a group of people who do not consume music or media the way I did at their age.  They consume “curated” streams of digital media.

I’m fascinated by teenagers, partly because I hated being one so much.  Here you are smart enough and capable enough to assume adult responsibilities but you are still at home with your parents.  I remember wondering why my parents wouldn’t let me do certain things when I knew full well that I would be fine if I did them.

These days though, the teenagers live on a different planet.  While I was teaching the teenagers, I picked up one of their phones.  There was an entire message stream with just emojis.  Smiley face, pickle, thumbs up.  Yeah, well, eggplant, sad face, poop to you.  It was like teenage hieroglyphics that an oldster like myself isn’t meant to be able to understand, I guess.

Using teenager language or the creation of a insider slang is nothing new.  But these kids are faced with a thing that no other generation of teenagers have ever faced.  On a daily basis, they consume large quantities of digital images.  And this is what worries me a bit about them.  These kids live on their phones.  It is their life line.  I actually witnessed a kid whose phone died and he immediately fell asleep.  His energy source was dead.  Why even keep your eyes open?

Living on the phone means consuming huge amounts of digital images.  We all consume huge amounts of digital images now and the phone has an addictive quality to it.  That flashing notification?  Who liked my photo?  I need to know immediately.  Ten new notifications — OMG, that is really something.

As adults, we scroll through news feeds of endlessly perfect Caribbean vacations, family photos, cooking videos and general digital noise.  We might feel a twinge of jealousy if we see a friend who is on some kind of glamorous looking vacation while we’re trudging home in the rain after we had a huge fight with our boss.  But we’re reasonable about it.  That friend with the vacation?  Well, you find out later on that it wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be online.

What’s worrying is the fact that young people consume these images without much context or thought about what they are consuming or where it came from.  Worse still, their addiction to notifications is magnified.  A flashing notification is juicy hit of dopamine to an adult brain.  The teenage brain is no match to that more potent form of dopamine.

Which brings us back to the beginning.  Cigarettes, the original legal addictive eventually got warning labels and societally shunned.  Will that happen to social media?  Will phones start coming with warning labels that say “that person who just posted that photo of the latte art just lost their job.”  Do the purveyors of digital images have any kind of social responsibility to the general public about their product actually does to people?  Will this become part of the larger national conversation on the shaping of future generations?  I don’t know.  But for right now, people have to start asking questions or we’ll end up like Don Draper in the middle of last season of Mad Men.  And we already have a jingle that we drink our Cokes with.

Pictures.  These were taken when I went to Revere Beach a few days after I had a fight with my boss.  I didn’t get caught in the rain:

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