Utility vs. entertainment

A graduate seminar is going on, with a dozen students paying a fortune to fill seats that are in high demand. Some of the students are using cell phones to update Facebook or tweet–and they are sitting right next to students listening intently and not merely taking notes. This juxtaposition puts a very sharp point on an overlooked distinction: some forms of media we engage with because there's a significant utility, and sometimes, we're merely entertaining ourselves.

Every student in the lecture makes a choice in each moment–to be entertained and be in sync with the crowd online, or to find utility, by doing the more difficult work of focusing on something that only pays off in the long run.

And if that was the end of it, caveat emptor. But it's not, because media consumed doesn't merely have an impact on the consumer.

Media, of course, has morphed and expanded, and the change is accelerating. It has grown in both time spent and impact on us. Now, media consumption changes just about everything in our lives, all day long. While a century ago, a few minutes a day might have been spent with a newspaper or reading a letter, today, it's not unusual for every minute of the day to involve consuming or creating media (or dealing with the repercussions of that). Media doesn't just change what we focus on, it changes the culture it is part of.

I think we can agree that sending animated gifs or wasting an hour with the Jersey Shore have no utility, really, other than as a pastime. Court TV didn't make us smarter, it just wasted our time and attention. At the other extreme is learning a difficult new skill or attending an essential meeting, bringing full attention to something that doesn't always delight or tantalize. Or consider the difference between viewing politics as a sporting event with winners and losers each day, compared with the difficult work of digging in and actually understanding (and participating in) what's being discussed…

The blended situations, though, are worth sorting out. Is watching the news an activity that has utility? Perhaps it does for a headline, but is an endless, shallow, pundit-filled examination of politics or disasters actually producing value? When we involve desperate strangers in reality TV shows (planned or not), where is the utility? Does it make us better?

The media-industrial complex, of course, wants to turn everything into a profitable show. Is that what we want? 

More media is not better media.

Fast media is not improved media.

Pack media is not the media we need.

Entertaining media is not the only option.