In Europe, few people know Gwyneth Paltrow as anything other than an American actress. In the United States, however, her “modern lifestyle” wellness brand called goop is growing her reputation—in a negative way.
Promoted as a hub for “cutting-edge wellness advice from doctors, vetted travel recommendations, and a curated shop of clean beauty, fashion, and home,” goop has become a synonym for the kind of business prosperity that is built on public gullibility. It is what you get when you pack pseudoscience into nice graphics and sell it for big money.
Did you know that a jade stone held between the thighs cultivates fertility? Or that, to balance the levels of female hormones, you can “cleanse your uterus” with vaginal steam douching? I hope you didn’t, because, are pure inventions. The first is a simple superstition, the second, a health hazard—and they both can be found amongst the pseudo-information that made Gwyneth’s website the favourite destination of those who are critical of the medical sciences—so critical in fact, that they will believe the medical advice of an actress instead. To cover the dimensions of the goop business and the wellness phenomenon it subscribes to, journalist Amy Larocca wrote a revealing analysis titled “The Wellness Epidemic” that is still as relevant today as it was in 2017 when it was first published.
However, it seems that health is not the only field clustering public attention around celebrities who are completely unqualified to give medical advice, but who present themselves as experts anyway.
Propelled by online social networks, the new internet is the perfect launchpad for guru wannabes. Analysts have been warning of this since the dawn of Web 2.0. Interestingly, they do not blame the guru-like personalities, who haven’t been missing from the public space in any era. Instead, they blame the infrastructure that amplifies their voices and makes it simultaneously more profitable and harmful than ever before in history.
The internet is changing the way we think
A widely-read editorial published in The Guardian calls for “a new literacy for the digital age.” The appeal follows a demonstration which argued that new media, through its particular way of transmitting the written word, encourage a superficial reading style.
Skim reading, so typical for online communication, is thought to produce biological changes in the brain, manifested in a decreased disposition and ability to comprehend complex phenomena, understand the feelings of others, or even perceive beauty.
When we are not willing to invest attention and time in an activity, our ability to achieve it steadily decreases. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learning, and Social Justice at UCLA, has written an entire book on the subject: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. In her book, Wolf laments that the younger generations are losing interest in spending time reading a book, preferring to read the summary instead. The summary may help them pick up the essential information very quickly, but it gives them no time for reflection. The researcher believes that, this way, the human brain develops a new infrastructure circuit, adapted to ultra-fast reading, but one that is increasingly incompatible with slow and analytical reading. Wolf says this could be a consequence of the spread of instant communication media: social networks and online media.
In her Guardian piece, Wolf resumes the same narrative she adopted in a 2011 editorial which she affirms: it does not take long for the brain processes related to deep reading to be lost, because they involve a consumption of time that a culture that values speed, multitasking, and information overloading is not willing or able to allocate.
Wolf begins from the observations of a visionary in the philosophy of communication, Marshal McLuhan, whose insight, “the medium is the message,” has achieved international notoriety. She states that it is not only the information content, but also the communication channels delivering it, that influence us, even without us realizing it. McLuhan states that people tend to focus more on the obvious, so they often ignore the effects of the communication environment itself.
The marginalization of solid information
Nearly half a century after McLuhan, digital media entrepreneur Andrew Keen, a well-known critic of Web 2.0, anticipated that user participation—a key feature of Web 2.0—will contribute to the marginalization of verified and factual information, while cultivating amateur opinions. Keen writes that the second generation internet is “a grand utopian movement” that “worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone, even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves.” As a result, Keen says, “the enemy of Web 2.0 is ‘elitist’ traditional media.”
On the same page with Keen are two opinion leaders whose critique of the degradation of human culture (that use of the internet enables) is supported by the consistent knowledge they both have in the field.
One of them is Jaron Lanier, an IT specialist and a “computer philosophy writer” who is considered the founding father of virtual reality. Lanier, who has enjoyed an enviable career in Silicon Valley, wrote in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget that Web 2.0 development devalues progress and innovation and glorifies community at the expense of the individual. (This was before Facebook revealed the ‘price’ of the individual user, when they were involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and before the FBI proved the Russian involvement in the American elections.) Lanier actually criticized one of the websites that is less associated with notoriety: Wikipedia. He said this resource tarnished the reputation of experts by promoting a hegemony of amateur publishers who could very well promote unscientific content.
The second opinion leader is Nicholas Carr, a writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 2011 and has authored several well-known books dealing with the way information technology affects the everyday lives of individuals. Is Google Making Us Stupid? is the title of one of his most famous works, which was also covered in the main story of The Atlantic‘s annual special edition, which is dedicated to inspiring ideas. In his book, which has become referential on this subject, Carr vehemently argues that the internet can have detrimental effects on our cognitive ability because it diminishes our ability to concentrate and contemplate. In the same text, the writer refers to the research of Maryanna Wolf, who was then a developmental research psychologist at Tufts University.
“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice,” Carr wrote. But he ends up quoting Wolf and saying that, however, it is not only “what we read” that matters, but also “how” we read. Carr laments, in unison with Wolf, that our ability to interpret a text and to make rich mental connections remains unstimulated because we no longer read deeply and without distractions. (Apparently, if we were to replace the time we use to go to our favourite online social networks with time for deep reading, it would allow us to read about 200 books a year).
Education is true wellness
Whole fields of evidence open up when we look at the fake news arena and the often tragic influence it exerts in digitally-unprepared environments. Dozens of murders which happened in India demonstrate just how vulnerable people are in social environments where smartphones with internet access can be turned into a weapon against the less educated. Completely innocent people were killed because, in the eyes of the crowds enraged by alarmist rumours circulating on WhatsApp, they seemed to have been involved in heinous acts. False rumours about gangs of child abductors were what caused the most trouble, but the scale of the genocide against the Rohingya ethnic group shows that the effects of the inability to process information transmitted through new communication pathways can become uncontrollably large.
The internet is the friend of information, but it is the enemy of thought, American writer Alan Jacobs said. Most likely, Web 2.0 is yet to fully show its ability to shape our society. From this perspective, it is easy to imagine becoming a victim. But the same infrastructure that perpetuates evil (with all the emotional charge of that word) can be a platform for good. All that is needed is for those who are searching for the good to be willing to make an effort to share it—at the very least with their friend list.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times and ST Network.