Why Clickbait Makes Shrimp Of Us All

It is a truth universally acknowledged that excessive media consumption turns us into proverbial vegetables. Drawing this comparison doesn’t, however, seem to have had the desired effect. Now that we’re all tuned in, no one seems quite capable of dropping out. Just maybe, the reason we remain hooked to our TVs and phones is because no one actually believes themselves to be a vegetable. Aside, that is, from the girls who see more than a hint of the potato in their make-up free features.


So, an alternative hypothesis: it’s turning us into mantis shrimp.


The clue is the etymology of the word clickbait itself, although over time it has metamorphosed into a word indivisible to it’s component parts, much like laptop, hatchback and arctic monkeys. Beyond that, it doesn’t even hold particularly negative connotations any more. Say the word and most people will associate it with cat videos and animal memes, which are studies in inoffensiveness.


For all that, it’s worth never letting go of the violence inherent in the word ‘bait’.Irresistible and deadly might be buzzwords for an aftershave advert, but in the real world are liable to be much less soft-focus and much more wearing on one’s quality, enjoyment and length of life.


Deadly is, of course, an over-exaggeration. Theres a wide range of things one might take into one’s hand when sat alone scrolling the internet, but one’s life isn’t one of them. Instead, what we’re left with is a fate worse than death. Turning into a mantis shrimp, to be precise.


Just hang on a second, you say, I’d rather turn into an animal than die. Would you really though? Because I saw that yawn when James Bond impaled the umpteenth henchman on a jewel encrusted billiards cue (or whatever). Jeff Goldblum’s transformation from man to eponymous Fly, on the other hand, put me off gelatinous foods for a full month. Hell, I don’t know about you, but even Animorphs gave me the willies on a semi-regular basis.


So, first a clarification as to what this transformation won’t entail. This process is not going to be a physiological one, which is in many ways a shame, as we wont even gain seagoing abilities as a trade off. Obviously this also precludes any shift in the general deliciousness of the human race, which, to be fair, does not constitute much of an evolutionary advantage. Instead, the transformation will come in how we process the world. Some may not think this a massive deal, but just think of the differences in how a block of cheese and a computer process a JPEG file.


In the human eye are three colour receptors, and it’s a convenient shorthand to label these red, green and blue. It wouldn’t stand you in good stead in a biology pHD, but then, if you’re enrolled in one of those, you probably shouldn’t be trawling the internet at this time of day anyway.


It is through the interplay of these cone cells and the brain that we humans can distinguish roughly 10 million different colours. Most mammals make do with two: dogs, for instance, possess only yellow and blue. On the other hand, many birds and invertebrates lack the ‘red’ cone cell, but are capable of seeing ultraviolet colours. In short, a rainbow looks very different to a dog, bumblebee and human.


One creature that was clearly at the front of the queue when vision cones were handed out, and seemingly bought a few more from touts for good measure, is the mantis shrimp, which possess a staggering twelve. Now, before that sets you scrambling to work out the billions of colour combinations, an important caveat: the mantis shrimp’s brain is nowhere near complex enough to process so many colours. So why twelve? Biologists have a theory, and it hinges on that very absence of brain power. Supposedly, the shrimp use colours as a stimuli for behaviour. Imagine a red rag to a bull, and you’re on the right track, except that in the case of the shrimp, it is not a momentary impulse, but a substitute, in effect, for a decision making system.


That’s what we’re becoming. Here’s how we’re going to get there. In Tim Wu’s excellent The Attention Merchants, he characterises the business model of ‘clickbait’ sites as one that depends on generating as much internet traffic to webpages as possible, regardless of the veracity or quality of what might be found there. Resultantly, the images and headlines that populate our social media accounts tend to be sensationalist, or else feed upon users’ tendency for procrastination.


He cites studies which reveal that the decision making centres of the brain are increasingly uninvolved with our decision to click on the shiniest, most in-you-face link. We are, incrementally, surrendering our faculty for logical thought so that we might act as we’re exhorted to in every sci-fi and sports movie one you’d care to imagine, which is to trust in instinct. Except that in this case, that instinct isn’t helping you sink that injury-time shot, or sink that martian battle frigate, but instead sinking you further into that sofa.


We are not yet beyond the point of no return, but we need to seriously evaluate what it is we’re internalising and making habit. Because braindeath-by-meme would be the most embarrassing, damp-squib way imaginable for the human race to fall apart.

Author: Nor Wellington

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