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October 26, 2002

Media Surplus

Friedrich --

Why are so many modern people obese? One helpful theory comes from evo-bio: because we evolved to survive in a world of food scarcity, we developed an inborn tendency to pig out whenever we run across some plausible eats. We pack it on when we can to help us get through the inevitable periods of scarcity. These days, though, those of us in rich countries are living in a situation of superabundance. Everywhere we look, there's food we might eat. And given such an inborn tendency to load up, it ain't surprising so many of us wind up fat. The challenge is no longer to feed youself and survive scarcity, and the inborn instincts are no help. They just get us in deeper and deeper trouble. Instead, you have to wrestle with the problem consciously and deliberately -- not an easy thing for most people to do.

To go for it, or not to go for it -- that is the question

It occurs to me that we're in the same predicament where the media and arts are concerned.

Go back a few centuries and it was rare for a family to own more than a couple of books -- even a rich family might own only a few hundred. Imagery was in short supply too. The paintings in the church you attended, the signs over the stores and stalls and restaurants you patronized, might be all the imagery you ever encountered. Music? Live performances only.

The mass press, photography and movies brought lots of changes, one of them the accessibility of imagery. In a book about how movies have treated historically-based subject matter (title to come as soon as my porous middle-aged memory revives), the novelist George Macdonald Fraser made a good point. It's common to grouse about how movie narratives mangle fact. But there's another side to it, Macdonald argues. Prior to the movies, most people didn't know what foreign cultures or distant historical periods looked like. The image bank was empty. With the movies, people's personal image banks started to fill up. Macdonald points out that the studios were able to do research into look-and-feel on a scale no university could match, and with onscreen results that were often accurate and stunning.

Well, that was a heck of a digression. Back to my line of thought, such as it is.

Even for us spoiled baby boomers: three channels of TV and no internet. Quark and Photoshop weren't around to make it easy for publishers to pump up the visuals in books and magazines. If you wanted to see a movie you had to go to the movie theater. Radio, records....But we were getting there.

These days it seems like we're surrounded by beckoning arts-and-entertainment-and-media things all the time. It's become hard to get away from them. The magazine racks dazzle, the web's always there to play with, there's cable, radio, CDs, DVDs... Screens showing imagery in motion are everywhere. Things that twinkle, scratch, pop, and spin are forever doing their best to break into our concentration and attention. The temptation to give in and let yourself be distracted and entertained is there in a way it never has been before. It's a near-constant issue in one's life.

Media thingees everywhere!

And here, I guess, is my hunch: that, much as we're programmed to stuff ourselves with food whenever we get half a chance, we may also be programmed to gorge on entertainment. We evolved to flourish in an environment where entertainment was in short supply, so we paid attention when it presented itself. We attended to what went on; it was special, and we needed to load up when we could. Perhaps we're programmed to perk up at such things as stories, flashing lights and tunes because at one time they almost inevitably had significance. They were very likely to be worth paying attention to.

They no longer always are. In rich countries these days, entertainment never stops presenting itself. So, as with food, we're stuck fighting our natural instincts, or at least coping with a strong, organic urge to overload. We can't rely on what's built into the physical/emotional/mental system to help -- it's what gets us into trouble. We have to wrestle with the "how much to be entertained" question consciously -- at least anyone does who doesn't want to turn into a media-addled slob.

Hey, maybe the shallow-and-blithe, know-nothing young people's mind that I run into so often these days -- kids who don't know history, who go into nothing in depth, for whom everything is a fun or not-fun media thing -- might actually be, while annoying, an effective way to contend with an oversaturated media environment. Avoid the depths -- surf the waves instead.

I suspect that this line of thinking might shade all-too-quickly into Frenchie-style rhapsodic philosophizing about the society of the spectacle, and I'd hate to give that team any ammunition -- let's not join them in their paranoia, alienation and Marxoid fantasies. And, just as I imagine that almost everyone would prefer to live in a world of food surplus rather than food scarcity, I suspect most people would prefer to live in a world of media-and-art surplus rather than scarcity. Still, why not recognize that media surfeit is now a fact? And that "how to contend with it" has become part of the standard rich-modern-person's set of concerns?

I may be the 5 billionth person to have this thought, but it was a new one to me. Think there's anything to it?



posted by Michael at October 26, 2002


Hmm... interesting observation. Using your thoughts as a spring board, may I add this? I see overeating as a misdirected attempt to meet a need in oneself that's being chronically ignored. The need may be unexpressed pain or anger, some sort of shame, a separation from ones true self etc. The list is almost endless. We stuff ourselves because hey, it may not solve the problem, but consciously we don't really know what the problem is, nor do we have the skills to deal with it. Eating feels good and momentarily quells the hidden confusion.

Overweight Americans are not caring enough about the health of their mind and spirit. And boy does it show.

The prob for me with the evo/bio answer is that so many people are NOT overweight. Unless one would say that those people have evolved out of the problem. And that seems rather clumsy. Heck, we just stumbled upon the obesity problem within the last 25-30 years. Don't evolutionary solutions take a bit longer? Plus, there are many other countries that have plenty of food and obesity in not a problem... France for example. (Has this changed?)

But I liked your connection between food and media overload. Entertainment/media would do the same thing as food for an individual dealing with tendencies toward obsessive/compulsive behavior.

Hmm... did I go off the deep end here?

Weeeeeell, I don't think the evo/bio dudes consulted the psycho/physio dudes when they came up with their thoughts on obesity.

Posted by: laurel on October 26, 2002 10:33 PM

The survival advantages of gorging oneself in an environment where food is scarce are easy to understand. The survival advantages of attending to "stories, flashing lights and tunes" where those are scarce are less easy to understand, for me at least. Humans first encountered these things far too recently for natural selection to have had the remotest chance to operate.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on October 27, 2002 1:35 PM

Hi Laurel, Hi Aaron

Laurel, as we both know, obesity is a fascinating thing to think about. It seems to me that one of the advantages of looking at it from an evo-bio point of view is that it gets you thinking, hmm, the miracle isn't that so many people are fat, the miracle is that so many people aren't. Maybe stuffing yourself silly isn't bizarre, or a sickness, or even a sign that something's wrong with you. Maybe it's what's natural, just doing what the organism tells you to. Which of course doesn't make it a good idea in a rich society full of endless eating opportunities.

Aaron, you might get a kick out of exploring some of the links in the lefthand column of this blog. I'm no researcher or philosopher myself, but as an arts buff I've found recent thinking by evo-bio people to be very exciting, provocative, and enlightening.

Some authors to explore (and have fun with) include Ellen Dissanayake, Frederick Turner, Geoffrey Miller, William Benzon and Colin Martindale. Lots of stimulating talk in their books about how a feeling for beauty seems to be hardwired, about how animals show a penchant for display, about how responding to motion, loud noises and bright lights is widely shared among nearly all animals, about how animal play (think puppies, for instance) implies the presence of imagination -- and about how the human involvement in art and pleasure is likely an extension and elaboration of these tendencies. Mark Turner and others argue that language grows out of biochemistry and storytelling grows out of language. Denis Dutton's Arts and Letters Daily website does a great job of keeping fans up to date on the latest evo-bio-in-art thinking.

All of it by people much more substantial than I am. My little musing here isn't about whether evolution has had some impact on the human taste for art -- I think it certainly has, though I'm no expert and that can certainly be disagreed with. I'm so soaked in evo-bio thinking about art that I tend to take it for granted that a propensity to, for instance, become alert when a loud sound goes off is simply a part of the organism.

As I say, I may take such assertions too much for granted. Here, though, I'm simply wondering whether there might not be the same kind of inborn tendency to gorge, whenever possible, on art, entertainment and pleasure as there seems to be to gorge on food.

And, hey, maybe the miracle isn't that some people pig out on the media, it's that so many of us manage not to.

Many thanks to you both for dropping by,


Posted by: Michael on October 27, 2002 10:57 PM

It seems to me the image overload is a subset of information overload in general. Here in Texas we are reaping an evil harvest of negative campaigning. I'm not against it in principle, but have decided it creates a "cry wolf" problem for the citizenry. How would concerned citizens circulate information about genuinely corrupt practices, since corruption is alleged across the board? That is, my response follows a kind of Gresham's law--so much mediocre information, and overdone imagery, makes it less likely I will seek out or attend to even relevant information. I'm told there is a Confucian maxim: "If language (communication) is incorrect (inapt), then what is said is not meant. If what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone."

Numb and suspicious from too many images, entertainments, and spun ideas, I find myself these days. To the overfed, "food" is repugnant. Not true of actual edible food, unfortunately...

Posted by: B. Cavana on October 29, 2002 8:11 PM

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