Only a few decades ago, Type 2 diabetes was known as adult-onset diabetes. Now, rates of “adult-onset” diabetes are increasing at 5 percent per year for youths under age 20. And this isn’t just in the United States. Overconsumption of calories is becoming an international health crisis.
Though many factors are involved, a major one is what some call ultra-processed foods. Ubiquitous and compulsively consumable, these calorie-dense foods are engineered to hijack our natural appetites and keep us eating. Manufactured on an industrial scale, they’re extremely cheap and virtually effortless to consume. Just pop the can or tear open the package.
It’s too late to prevent the health crisis caused by these foods, but learning from it can help prevent another crisis in the making, caused by a remarkably similar product: ultra-processed information.
Like ultra-processed food, ultra-processed information is ubiquitous, cheap, formulated for compulsive consumption, and dangerous in large quantities. And it works by hijacking similar features of our biology.
What is the information version of fat, salt, and sugar? Warnings of imminent danger. Certainty about what’s dangerous or what’s safe. Simplistic myths of good and evil, Us and Them. Symbols of identity and belonging. Shortcuts to health, wealth, and happiness. Salacious gossip. Pornography.
These ingredients have always been with us, just as fat, salt, and sugar have. But in the same way that new technology dramatically expanded the possible combinations of those food ingredients, along with the potential for mass production, the same is happening with information. From social media to ChatGPT, the options for combining and distributing the building blocks are proliferating, perfectly tailored to our tastes, and ubiquitously — even freely — available.
Cravings for clickbait
The human appetite for information is as biologically ingrained as our appetite for food. In both cases, that appetite has been shaped primarily by an evolutionary context that no longer exists. Mismatch between an organism’s biology and its environment can be catastrophic. An orangutan given unsupervised access to junk food will overeat pathologically. Turtle hatchlings that evolved with the stars as their guides are confused by brightly lit cities, wandering inland instead of toward the sea.
It’s easy to ignore the biological appetite for information. Our pre-agricultural ancestors are often referred to as “hunter-gatherers,” which suggests that securing food was their most important biological imperative. But gathering information was equally important.
Effective hunting and gathering requires knowing how and where to hunt and gather. And staying alive means identifying threats, both short- and long-term — including the difference between kin and strangers, insiders and outsiders — those who might attack your community during times of scarcity, and those you can trust. In other words, information scarcity can lead to starvation, thirst, sickness, and plunder.
The information humans naturally crave isn’t inherently bad or false, just like the foods we naturally crave aren’t inherently unhealthy. It’s good to know where danger is coming from, whom to trust, and what community we belong to.
But our natural cravings make us vulnerable. Human appetites that evolved in the context of caloric scarcity struggle to resist high-tech combinations of fat, salt, and sugar, extruded and molded, dressed up with dyes and color stabilizers, all meant to keep us eating, not keep us healthy.
Likewise, we struggle to resist ultra-processed information, produced at industrial scale for effortless consumption, shaped with the information version of those dyes and molds. Instead of artificial colors, throw in a sexual image, manipulated in Photoshop. Season with hashtags. Add a “like” button.
The result is sickness: a collective chronic condition that creeps up slowly, getting progressively worse. The symptoms of this chronic condition:
▪ Rising levels of anxiety.
▪ Unsustainable political polarization.
▪ Ignorance about our ideological opponents.
▪ Reflexive suspicion of expertise that contradicts our prior convictions.
▪ Proliferation of conspiracy theories.
▪ Compulsive consumption of social media.
▪ Replacement of friends and family with fragile online communities.
The good news is that, unlike our well-established global food system, our new information ecosystem is still in its infancy. Just over 30 years ago, the Internet didn’t exist. If we take these problems seriously, we can stop the progression of our symptoms and even reverse them.
Fighting this emerging problem won’t be easy. An irony of ultra-processed information is that solutions meant to address it are often part of the problem.
Take our penchant for creating villains with capital letters, like Big Tech and Big Food. Public health experts rightfully resist holding individuals accountable for exploding rates of calorie consumption. Big Food, with its relentless push to increase “stomach share,” as one soda executive put it, must be held accountable, and anything else seems like victim blaming. This is not an epidemic of weak will; it is an epidemic of dangerous food and unscrupulous, profit-motivated manufacturers. The same is true for Big Tech’s engineering of our information ecosystem. Exposing and shaming companies for taking these approaches is an essential part of the solution.
However, blaming Big Food and Big Tech alone is a textbook case of ultra-processed information. There is no single villain, no pure evil against which innocents are powerless. Cultural norms can and do shape what companies produce, as well as how those products are consumed. Consider the differences between McDonald’s offerings from one country to the next, or the company’s ongoing adoption of plant-based meats. Likewise, laws are a part of culture. In the United Kingdom, Kellogg’s cannot market its sugary cereals directly to children, whereas in the United States it can.
In other words, “ultra-processed food” isn’t defined solely by ingredients or processing methods. It’s part of a system that encompasses marketing, laws, and cultural norms; demand alongside supply.
Similarly, blame for the symptoms caused by ultra-processed information has been placed on YouTube’s radicalizing algorithms, or the politicization of facts by powerful actors seeking power. They are certainly parts of the problem, just as our profit-seeking food industry is part of the ultra-processed food problem.
But we cannot effectively address the problem of ultra-processed information with more ultra-processed information. And that means recognizing another part of the problem: ourselves.
Our collective addiction to ultra-processed information isn’t just about consumption. We are also addicted to producing and distributing it on our smartphones and computers. Make the meme. Post it. Watch it go viral. The jolt of pleasure is huge. We have as much of an appetite for sharing gossip as consuming it.
Thankfully, there is still time to fight at every level of our society: with a combination of new laws, new cultural norms, and new personal rituals, like putting our phones to bed far from our own beds, or locking them up before we sit down to eat. These rituals of friction, like saying grace before a meal, work against mindless consumption. Corporations can help. In 2020, Twitter introduced a ritual of friction by prompting users to read before retweeting. Information is sacred, the prompt implies — don’t you want to treat it with respect? Hey Elon, we’re all ears for more of these!
Rituals can be difficult to maintain without a community to reinforce them. We have norms around drinking alcohol that serve to control its consumption. The same could be true for information consumption. It should be socially unacceptable, for instance, to check your phone while someone is talking with you, barring exceptional emergency circumstances. Talking openly with your friends and family about these norms doesn’t need to be preachy. After all, they are probably struggling with the exact same issues that you are.
Full awareness of the damage done by ultra-processed information — and our active role in facilitating it — is the first step. For individuals, that awareness can provide necessary motivation to retrain our information palates and reform our information habits. With practice and reflection, cravings for clickbait can turn into revulsion. Do you want to be the kind of person who’s manipulated by “one weird trick for weight loss”? Do you want to be the kind of person who joins an online shaming mob? The impulse to broadcast outrage can also be tempered by mindful reflection. We may not be able to avoid exposure to ultra-processed information, just like there’s junk food everywhere. But no one is forcing us to participate in its distribution.
Education can help at every level. The health crisis catalyzed by ultra-processed food has inspired increased attention to nutrition in schools and doctors’ offices. That attention should also be paid to information. We tell children to be careful of what they share online, lest they be shamed. We should also explain to them how social media is designed to manipulate them. When I learned how the haptic feedback in my phone mimics slot machines, I turned it off.
It’s important to be clear that fear of ultra-processed information, like fear of ultra-processed food, is not mere anti-technological pessimism. Ultra-processed food isn’t bad because it’s highly processed. It’s bad because it is processed with the goal of maximizing “stomach share.” The same is true for ultra-processed information, which is meant to maximize its share of our brains, not our wisdom.
Now is the time to build movements to counteract ultra-processed information at every level of society: in our families, in our communities, our businesses, and our collective norms. If we neglect any of these, the chronic illness will continue to get worse. We failed with ultra-processed food. But together, we can succeed in resisting the information equivalent.
Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religion at James Madison University and the author of “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.” Follow him on Twitter @alanlevinovitz.