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Understanding Media Through Food: 8 Metaphors

Hacker News - Wed Apr 7 14:53

Those who can master navigating the endless buffet of information, will have an immense advantage in this new age.

News feed. Reader’s digest. Clickbait. Notice anything common among these phrases? Hint: think with your stomach.

These phrases use “food as metaphor” to help us better conceptualize the way we relate to the abstract ideas of media & information. Since both food and media are things we consider to consume, there are many shared metaphors between them.

But why should we care to better understand our relationship with information?

Read this sentence. Now read it again 90 times.

Humans in developed countries today consume a staggering 90 times more information than they did in 1940. According to the same study, we now spend 80% of our waking hours consuming information, as opposed to just 15% in 1940. That’s 4 out of every 5 waking minute consuming information!

I worry that in our inability to grasp the magnitude and novelty of this new phenomenon, we risk becoming numb, ignorant, and passive to these technological forces. It should be our imperative to make better sense of this once-in-a-species-lifetime event, so that we can better act in the face of it. Those that do, will be better equiped to navigate and succeed in this new information age.


Metaphor #1: Order more a la carte instead of omakase

If you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine, you may be aware that one unique way you can order sushi at certain restaurants is omakase. Omakase translates literally to “I’ll leave it up to you” — that is, entrusting the chef to devise a tasting menu on-the-fly for you.

As you may imagine, this approach can be a gamble.

On the one hand, skilled chefs can take the gift of a creative license to put on an artistic performance for you. Imagine each dish customized and catered perfectly to your tastes by a highly-tuned and sensible chef. You may even get rare, off-menu cuts of fresh fish at a stellar price.

On the other hand... it could all go awry. You may have the unfortunate experience of finding something staring back at you on the plate that you couldn’t imagine stomaching. Or you may be served something due to some hidden incentives — like the kitchen wanting to clear inventory for a fish that wasn’t selling (not saying this happens, but you never know!). Ultimately, this approach boils down to trust, control, and luck.

Most current models for information on the internet are omakase.

We put our full trust in publishers and algorithms to provide us a constant feed that we have little control over. Although sometimes this approach is fine, just as how omakase may sometimes be exactly what you’re feeling, this mode of consumption gets overrepresented, often being our only option! What’s worse in my opinion is that this mode of consumption is normalized to such an extent, that we rarely even consider other options.

So what would an alternative look like? Imagine the more traditional a la carte approach at restaurants, where you’re seated and then given a menu to choose from.

Imagine logging into Twitter and being asked to place an order:

  • Give me 2 of your freshest viral tweets
  • I’ll take 3 of the latest hot takes from my followers
  • I want to see a little bit of what is going on in the tech sphere, so I’ll take the assorted platter there
  • Please hold the politics, I have a media sensitivity
  • I’ll then finish with the regular: @thoughtleader’s tweetstorm that I’ve been meditating on every day for the past month... to cleanse the palate and so I can leave with something to marinate on.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Food for thought: What are the different types of information feeds in your life, both obvious and non-obvious? How can you take more control over what the feeds are feeding you?


Metaphor #2: The illusion of variety

Things bundle, then unbundle, then bundle, and unbundle. Such is the way of life. Jim Barksdale famously said that there are only two ways to make money: bundling and unbundling.

Sometimes though, a unique phenomena happens: the unbundled bundle, or the illusion of unbundling. This illusion is how bundles resist the pressure of unbundling, by making it seem as if they’re already unbundled. To quote Peter Thiel: “Anyone that has a monopoly will pretend that they’re in incredible competition.”

This is extremely common in the food industry. Much of what we consume or what we see on grocery store shelves are produced by a few megacorporations. Unfortunately, this results in the common perils of monopolies: a lack of true choice, blanket policies and regulations that trickle down to the sub-brands (for better or for worse), and a lack of opportunity for new and innovative upstart brands who cannot compete with these entrenched suppliers. With the deception, the customers — you & I — come out as the losers.

With information & media, this phenomenon is sometimes harder to notice, though it is still very much real. 90% of traditional U.S. media is controlled by 6 media giants: Comcast, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, TimeWarner, and CBS. A handful of executives at these firms can set the overall narrative and direction for 90% of traditional U.S. media.

Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci touched on the dangers of this “central planning” approach as early as the early 20th century in his writings on cultural hegemony.

Mr. Gramsci

Gramsci mentions how a small ruling elite could easily alter the culture of a society and “its beliefs and explanations, perceptions, values, and mores — so that the imposed, ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm.”

The internet, for a while, has been the disruptor to this old media vanguard, however it is naïve to think that social media and the internet won’t be subject to the same gravitational bundling pressures that is the natural way of things. We are already seeing a marginal step in this direction with social media platforms deciding what can and cannot be published on their platforms. As apps also replace web browsers as people’s common method of accessing internet media, the open web trends towards closed, and this homogenization is more likely to occur.

Food for thought: How can we help mitigate this centralization? Perhaps as we would go to a farmer’s market or order from niche food-brands online, we should sign up for more direct options, like mailing lists and Substacks. Perhaps we should get around to supporting our favorite content creator on Patreon. Or perhaps we could just write more ourselves! These essays are my own attempt at breaking up the orthodoxy.


Metaphor #3: When we were told to give our babies Coca-Cola, or what could we be “wrong” about today?

One of my favorite pastimes is looking back at vintage ads. They’re a great window into a different time, and every so often you’ll find things that feel so weird and out of place... like Jello salad.

Similarly, it’s also not a huge leap of faith to say that things that were deemed abnormal and preposterous then, could be considered normal and sensible now. For example, laboratory grown meat, a la the Impossible Burger, comes to mind.

The lesson here is to be aware of the relativity of “normality” and “abnormality”. Sometimes it’s good to buck social convention and follow your gut — “No, I will not give my baby Coca-Cola!”. On the contrary, sometimes it’s good to have humility, be less judgmental, and keep an open mind.

The “normal” habits of our information consumption today may turn out to be the laughingstock of our progeny.

Perhaps future generations will look back at us in sheer stupor — can you believe they were connected to information 80% of their waking hours! And they just consumed endless scrolling feeds of information that were driven by company KPIs! How surreal!

Perhaps they will laugh at how crazy we were to let advertisers track us across different properties. Or how we put up with annoying cookie pop-ups that didn’t really prevent tracking since we just approved them in annoyance anyway.

Speaking of which, admire the irony of this huge, half-page tracked ad (I recently purchased a domain name) above a New York Times article denouncing the same:

I just purchased a domain name a week ago. The irony here is palpable, New York Times.

We don’t have to wait for future generations to laugh at us for this one, it’s already funny.

Food for thought: Perhaps year-long retreats into the wilderness should be normalized. Or responding to Instagram DMs only once a week. Or if you work at an organization, maybe more of us should muster up the courage to ask for something like no-communication hours every Wednesday and Friday, job-permitting.


Metaphor #4: Intermittent fasting, or scheduling down-time

I’ve recently experimented with time-restricted feeding, also known as intermittent fasting, or just fasting. The general idea is that when we constantly eat, we never fully let our gut ferment, break down, and recover from our last meal. It’s easy to enter a paradoxical state of eating so much, yet deriving only little nutrition.

Food in the developed world has gone from something scarce to something always in abundance, and our outdated biological reward system is not fully equipped to handle the permanent availability of this temptation.

Give yourself time to digest new ideas. Fasting from ideas may help you break down what’s already floating around in your mind. Just as the body enters a phase of autophagy (or self-eating) during fasting, one can think of their mind entering a similar phase. Imagine taking the plethora of ideas that already exist within your mind, and giving them time to be broken down, absorbed, and integrated into our existence. Could constant information intake lead to metabolic disorders as would food?

Food for thought: Excess food consumption can lead to obesity — what does information obesity look like? What if you were to schedule information down-time everyday or once a week? What would that look like? Could apps like Zero that are designed for intermittent fasting be repurposed for intermittent information fasting?


Metaphor #5: The Paleo Diet, or favoring what’s old

You could spend your entire life, or multiple lives, reading the information produced in the world in just the past hour. Content is never ending. David Perell has an excellent essay on this titled The Never Ending Now.

Do we really need this much information? If we’re constantly fixated on the carousel of new information every day, it’s easy to forget about the pieces of work that have withstood the test of time.

Grandma’s special recipe for sauerkraut survived for generations, because maybe it was actually good for us.

Nassim Taleb’s idea of the Lindy effect has really caught on lately, and it aptly describes this phenomena. The Lindy effect, simply put, is the idea that the longer a concept has been around, the longer it is likely to stick around in the future.

Things withstand the test of time for a reason, and we should be wise to explore why, even though we may not understand all of the finer details. By always being distracted by the unvetted new, we forget to reflect back on the old that survived.

Perhaps we should budget time in our information consumption to read the actual text of Newton’s foundational Principia Mathematica, learn about the old phlogiston theory and how experiments done there led to the discovery of oxygen, learn about the American Founding Fathers’ dilemma in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion (imagine the tough spot of having to quell a rebellion right after staging your own!), or use the NYTimes Article Archive feature to explore what was written on the front page 100 years ago.

Food for thought: How much of the information that you consume was produced in the past day? The past year? Past decade? Past century? Do you have a balanced diet chronologically?


Metaphor #6: The Keto Diet, or running on different fuel

The general idea of the ketogenic diet is that our body can run on two different fuels, ketones or glucose. Almost everyone today with a standard Western diet runs their body on glucose. However, the ketogenic diet proposes that by lowering carbohydrate intake and increasing fat intake, your body will learn to adapt to metabolizing fat instead. This produces ketone bodies, which are then used instead of glucose by your brain, and may result in certain benefits — apparently even treating epilepsy in children.

When our metabolism is glucose-adapted, it’s difficult for us to metabolize fat appropriately. Similarly, when we only consume highly engaging short-form information, our bodies become adapted to running on this form of energy. It then becomes increasingly harder to metabolize other forms of information. I marvel sometimes at how I was able to read all 7 Harry Potter books when I was younger. I can’t imagine even reading half of one book today. To force a metaphor, this is because I’ve “fallen out of ketosis”.

My mind has become so adapted to running off of one form of fuel, that it’s difficult to get back into metabolizing slow, longer forms of literature. By lowering my short-form intake and easing into longer forms of content again, I’m sure I can adapt my mind back into metabolizing long-form content again. As in my experiences with keto, it takes time, some frustration, and patience, but it is possible.

Food for thought: If you have difficulty finishing large books, what if you read 5 pages a day of any book, and slowly worked your way up? What if you alternated between a diet of exclusively reading large books and then short-form media every other week?


Metaphor #7: Beware green-washing, or virtue deception

Sometimes what’s worse than something that’s obviously unhealthy, is something that’s pretending to be healthy, but is actually unhealthy. The deception gets us to lower our guards and we may overconsume, lulled into a false sense of security.

This is pretty common with foods. For example, did you know that just because the meat you bought says grass-fed, doesn’t actually mean the animal only ate grass. For that, it must say “grass-fed, grass-finished” as livestock is often gorged with grains right before slaughter, which the “grass-fed” designation somehow permits. Not sure if you can feel my eyes roll hard through these words.

There are a lot of slights of hands and charlatans in the information space as well. You never know which brands you admire may be getting privately sponsored to publish certain content. Even well-meaning articles claiming to have your best interests at heart, could accidentally be misleading you if they’ve been misled themselves.

Trusted recommendations, background checks, and “following the money” are always good approaches to take here, though not always feasible. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame once said, “Be wary of all earnestness,” and this epigram has stuck with me since.

Food for thought: Have you done skeptical due diligence on your most trusted information sources? Which of your information sources present themselves as the most earnest?


Metaphor #8: If you’re never full, are you eating for satiety?

Certain foods have over time become caricatured to do nothing else but hit all of our reward centers, providing little to no actual nutritional value. In the food world, one example of this is “empty calories”. There are surely corollaries in the information world as well. I have often spent countless hours scrolling through my Twitter feed, refreshing, reading the same stale tweets again and again, not feeling particularly satisfied, and repeating the process. Or jumping from Clubhouse room to Clubhouse room hoping to scrounge some new insight, chasing the delight and promise of some novel content.

At the end of the day, what am I really craving though? Is it connecting and networking with people? Is it a morsel of motivation that helps me take action on what I really want to do? Is it just for passing the time and guffawing at memes? Then follows the question: is this consumption habit the best way of achieving that goal?

Food for thought: What would a continuous glucose monitor for our information diets look like?


I hope these metaphors were helpful in expanding your ways of relating to media. I’m always open to discussing these ideas and learning about your experiences — feel free to reach me me on Twitter: @pratik_is_.