Mediums Overpower Messages

I’ve observed that consuming certain kinds of media make me smarter and other kinds of media makes me dumber.

Makes me dumber:

  • Videogames

  • YouTube

  • News

Makes me smarter:

  • 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.

For a long time I rejected this conclusion. Surely playing Kerbal Space Program must be more educational than reading Yu-gi-oh! manga. Nope. Yu-gi-oh! beats it by a long shot. I ran a long series of subjective personal experiments on a variety of timescales over many years. They all confirmed this theory[1]. The medium overpowers the message.

What I am watching on TV is irrelevant compared against the fact that I am watching TV.

I can even plot different mediums on a scale from “makes me dumber” to “makes me smarter” and it use to infer why different mediums have the effect they do.

  • Makes Me Dumber

  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] Videogames

  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] Media feeds

  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] YouTube

  • [BAD & ADDICTIVE] News

  • [BAD] Stack Exchange

  • [BAD] Web surfing

  • Blogs

  • Movies

  • Webcomics

  • Comic books (fiction)

  • [OKAY] Books (fiction)

  • [OKAY] Podcasts

  • [OKAY] Direct messaging (native language)

  • [GOOD] Audiobooks (nonfiction)

  • [GOOD] Books (nonfiction)

  • [GOOD] Direct messaging (foreign language)

  • [GOOD] Blogging

  • [GOOD] Books (textbooks)

  • [GOOD] Writing software

  • [VERY GOOD] Making videos

  • [VERY GOOD] Drawing comics

  • [VERY GOOD] Spaced Repetition Software

  • Makes Me Smarter

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 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, not its content.

That feels wrong. Intuitively, it makes sense that certain mediums should facilitate better content and that’s why they’re educational. Nope. For me, it’s the medium itself.

  1. There are 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. ↩︎

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