Home 2021 The Bytes We Snack On

The Bytes We Snack On

by Vidya Hariharan
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Illustration by the author

In India, the late 90s saw the arrival of Ready to Eat food products across the country.  They were amazing, high on taste, available easily and the best part was there was something for everyone from poorest to the richest.  Prior to that, biscuits and candies and a few chocolates were all that was available.  Anything fancier would have to be made at home.  But the packaged food took the ‘fanciness’ to very different levels.  People went high on snacks, some even skipped meals as the snacks would satiate them.  Snacks had the answer for everything — lack of time, feeling stressed, feeling ecstatic, feeling depressed, feeling angry…bite a snack, sip a drink and you will be in heaven.

As people made ready-to-eat food a part of their regular lifestyles, their bodies started responding negatively, and now it was the turn of the fitness industry and the medical industry to make their bucks.  The drama and the debates followed, and they continue as every individual tries their own level best to strike the balance — to consume the right food, in the right amounts, at the right times, and exercise.  The bodies slowly started breathing a sigh of relief as people became a wee bit more conscious to exercise as well as exercise some caution on what they dump inside their bodies.

Slowly and surely, the next demon was already in tow.  The digital bytes.  The snack bites took a decade to create havoc, be identified and addressed. But the digital bytes, true to their nature, are faster, have a much wider and deeper impact.  The packaged food was primarily harmful to the body alone.  It didn’t usually mess with the mind, though of course there are a few exceptions where addictions happen especially to aerated drinks, gums, etc.  For the masses at large, the mind was untouched.  Not anymore.  The digital bytes ensure they touch us whole and soul.

But the digital bytes, true to their nature, are faster, have a much wider and deeper impact…The digital bytes ensure they touch us whole and soul.

A cute puppy playing ball is always a warm sight to watch.  It may be just a 3mt video.  You watch and admire it, maybe even forward it, and move on.  Precious 3 mts of life lost.  And then there is a video with some acrobatics, and then there is one with some quotes that claim to be life-changing and some jokes that claim to be the funniest.  Many who have commitments to keep, end up skipping 90% of the content and still the 10% we read takes away so many precious moments from our life.  The information we watch is usually of no use to us. We didn’t seek it; it is thrust upon us.  It is not the same as reading.  While reading, you are in fact using your brain to comprehend and it acts as an exercise.  Videos especially are just too easy to consume (just like the ready-to-eat snack) and the message is direct.  There is no scope to interpret as per your ideas as the message is usually directly enforced.

Besides an overdose, there is also an issue of force-feeding.  The ads and notifications ensure that you at least consume a small percentage of what they intend to feed you, and often entice you into viewing the entire thing.  If social media extended the virtual network of family and friends, it also ensured that it made this menace more prevalent.  Not to be left behind, the media houses also ensure that they sensationalize every bit of information till it becomes misinformation.  Even if you don’t want to be informed, one or the other app will ensure you are always “well informed”.  It is like having an extremely gossipy set of friends.

The results are showing already.  This time, the demon didn’t need a decade to take effect.  It covered all sections of the population, covered all genders, and all age groups. Just like how too much effortless eating damaged the bodies, effortless information overload is damaging the ability to think, ability to learn, ability to interpret, ability to comprehend.  Simply put, the ability to form an opinion.  The brain needs its share of exercise too.  But there is no time to process any information as it is being fed continuously.  For the young and old, the damage may be recoverable as the brain had some skills earlier.  For the tiny ones who are growing in this age of information overdose and force-feeding, they will just lose the learnability that is so innate to human nature.  They will just lose the inquisitiveness that is so natural in a child.  They will lose the power to think, to try, to analyze, to choose.

Just like how too much effortless eating damaged the bodies, effortless information overload is damaging the ability to think, ability to learn, ability to interpret, ability to comprehend.

If the demon was only lurking in the dark and quietly doing its damage, COVID ensured it was brought to the forefront and made into a hero and master.  No doubt, we couldn’t have survived this COVID era without digitization.  Right from being in touch, to shopping, to medical care, to education and work everything was possible during COVID only because we embraced the digital world.  Yes, just like food, availability is essential, and it is a blessing.  And just like food, the quality and quantity matter a lot here as well.

Are we not snacking a bit too much on these digital bytes?  And depending on how we are feeling on a given day, we tend to binge here as well.  Information overload is as harmful as overeating.  As time passes, the brain gets confused on what to retain and what to drop, it gets confused on the individuality, as we keep feeding it so much junk of all kinds.  We are unnecessarily ‘byting’ into a lot more than it can ‘chew’.  The brain is left wondering what this person is all about- what are the principles, preferences and priorities.  If some mindful eating and a little exercise help our bodies, the same applies to the little organ called the brain as well.  Finally, it all boils down to that one mantra —  awareness and self-discipline.

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