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The all-consuming tube
On YouTube influencers, what older Americans do with their time, and the case for studying the techniques of annoying web ads
The most recent American Time Use Survey, using data collected in 2022, reveals that Americans have a particular addiction that intensifies with age: Watching television. The average adult aged 25 to 34 years old watches just a little bit less than two hours of television per day -- but the average person aged 75 or older is in front of the tube for nearly five hours a day (and rising above five hours on weekends).
■ We devote a great deal of attention to the prospects for new technologies like artificial intelligence to affect both individuals and the culture at large. That's likely a prudent concern. There are a great number of ways in which emerging tools have been either under-examined or whose effects defy easy forecasting.
■ But it's not always the new that poses the most substantial hazards, nor should we overlook old risks just because we've become numb to their effects. Television (and other video products, regardless of how they are delivered) remains a profoundly powerful medium -- one that has been used for great edifying purposes (see "Sesame Street") as well as for purposes that are so plainly stupid that their hosts and producers deserve to be sent into exile.
■ One of our biggest failures as a society is that spammers, phonies, crooks, cranks, and extremists have invested so much effort in learning the secrets of getting people hooked on their content, with almost nobody applying the same lessons on the side of good. It's the ne'er-do-wells who have figured out how to exploit psychological tools like "curiosity gap" marketing to get viewers to click on crude web ads and annoying pre-roll videos. And the murky bottoms they occupy are adjacent to the ones where we find snake-oil "influencers", political and psychological cults, and full-fledged malicious psyops.
■ There isn't enough counterbalancing motive for people with good motivations to learn and apply the same techniques. Quick riches can await the clever influencer running elaborate stunts on YouTube, but nobody's getting wealthy by convincing people to read the Federalist Papers.
■ That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though; in fact, the gap is really much as it has always been: Certain virtues, like duty, persistence, self-improvement, and integrity, have always been slow to pay off, and often not in remunerative ways at all. But even if the techniques are being pioneered most aggressively by people taking advantage of the passivity of others, those same techniques can (and ought to be) studied and reappropriated by people of goodwill.