This is the Modem World: Digital junk food

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|05.15.13

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This is the Modem World: Digital junk food

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I'm hanging out in Atlanta right now, getting ready to speak at Digital Summit 2013 about things you're probably not terribly interested in. Most importantly, I'm sitting at a bar and just ordered what looks to be a monster of a burger called the "Hot Mess" at a place called Park Bar near my hotel. Despite my disdain for online review sites, it was either this via Yelp or the hotel bar and, well, I find hotel bars depressing.

It's also pretty clear that the only reason I ordered the Hot Mess is because my wife isn't here to give me a hard time about it. No, I'm not a kept man, but I respect her knowledge of health and try to let her guide me most of the time. But when I'm on the road, I sometimes let all bets fall to the floor so that daddy can dig into a burger uninterrupted.

She'd tell me that junk food is a waste of calories, that the immediate thrill of meat and cheese and bread is far outweighed by the damage it does to the system. In general, she'd say, it should be avoided at all costs. And she's right.

But this place has tater tots. TATER TOTS.

Here's the thing, though: She's currently addicted to Diner Dash. She played it almost all last Sunday while I was out mountain biking, washing the car and breaking down IKEA boxes. While I'm sure the game is fun, you would have to put me in the most boring situation in the universe to get me to play something like Diner Dash.

It's digital junk food.

Defining digital junk food presumes that there is digital stuff that's good for you. A lot of the reading we do -- in fact, the reading you're doing right now -- hopefully makes you think, challenges you and contains little to no additives or preservatives. At least I hope so.

Many video games are good for you as well. As Steven Johnson explained in Everything Bad Is Good For You, video games teach you how to telescope -- to think about the distant ramifications of the decisions you make in split seconds. One can certainly understand how that's an important skill.

One could argue that social networking, at least at its core level, is a healthy activity: it contains human interaction, thoughtfulness and even a splash of compassion. That is, if you're doing it right.

To be fair to my wife, it's completely possible that Diner Dash is exercising a part of her brain that will ultimately be good for her. And to be fair to me, it's totally possible that the Hot Mess I just ate made me really happy and satisfied, and I'm going to get an amazing night of sleep and kill it at the conference resulting in fame and fortune. I'll be so happy that I'll bring gifts home for her and everyone wins. Unicorns, rainbows, etc.

But those are residual effects. Fact is, some things we do with our gadgets just aren't good for us. One has to wonder if we will reach a time -- just like we did with food -- in which we'll need to think about the contents of what we're consuming. How much telescoping does that game have that my kid is about to play? What's the expected time commitment for starting up a Candy Crush Saga game, and what will I get out of it?

I mean, the game is called Candy Crush Saga. It even sounds like junk food.

There are already allusions to health food in our digital diet. Mental Floss, one of my favorite sites, has a namesake that conjures brain cleansing. An online colloquialism, "Eye Bleach," is the act of cleansing one's vision with images of puppies and rainbows after having seen the unseeable, like a bulimic cleanse for untoward things we've done in the digital domain.

Consider this future: an internet governed by health food-like warnings, telling us that what we're about to view or do isn't good for us, that it's not digitally nutritious and that we should probably follow it up with something more well-rounded.

Could happen. Burp.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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