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 con­sume 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. ↩︎