I like YouTube. I like it more than television. Sometimes more than reading. It has plenty of strange alcoves and diverse pickings, from “weird YouTube” with its singing manikins and smashed together YouTube poop to the comedy skits of Mega64 and others. And this just scratches the surface.
I’ve noticed an interesting figure in some of these places. I call it the YouTube Intellectual. An ever-growing spattering of YouTube channels center on intellectual topics or deal with popular topics, like video games, in intellectual ways.
In the past, I’ve referenced Idea Channel, a PBS channel hosted by Mike Rugnetta, which, according to their about page, “examines the connections between pop culture, technology and art.”Analyzing the cartoon Over the Garden Wall with Keirkegaard or remakes through Adorno and Horkeimer’s “culture industry” is typical fare for this fast-moving, meme-heavy show, where one is always asked to leave comments that get responses in the next show.
PBS has other shows. Jamin at Game/Show uses game theory and cultural theory to analyze games, ranging from feminism and race to jump mechanics. Joe Hanson hosts It’s OK to Be Smart, a general science show, and astrophysicist Gabe Perez-Giz hosts Space Time, a show about physics.
Many channels outside of PBS exist: Olly on Philosophy Tube, who just graduated with his M.A. in philosophy from St. Andrews; the controversial Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency; the “nerd fighters” of Hank Green and others on SciShow and its related channels; Dianna Cowern at Physics Girl; Michael Stevens at VSauce; and many, many more. One can also cite The School of Life and Wisecrack, though these differ somewhat from these others as they have multiple shows and quite varied content.
I think these sorts of channels show that the attacks of some, like Nicholas Carr or Andrew Keen, against the Internet are not universal. Instead, notable exceptions exist. As Carr writes in “Is Google Making Us Stupider,” “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.”
For Carr, this change presents issues, as the Internet, with its fast-paced content and information-fishing algorithms, reduces our ability to ponder through larger, denser swaths of information, like books. Carr’s comments align well with a lot of other reading scares.
I think he’s right to some extent–and I think his argument has more relevance than others who broadside the Internet, like Keen. Kathryn Hayles’ 2010 paper “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” observes that technology has changed the way we read, allowing for “hyperreading” (a term from James Sosnoski), which refers to the sort of scanning, jumping, and machine-aided “reading” we do. This differs from the “close reading” of the literary profession or even print reading more broadly.
Most importantly, hyper-reading lets us process information differently, but this difference is not necessarily bad throughout.
This is where the YouTube Intellectual comes in. If one watches an Idea Channel movie, for example, one gets memes, graphics, fast-paced talking, witty pop culture references, and other Internet-savvy examples of literacy. These YouTube Intellectuals are deeply imbibed with Internet culture. The videos also tend to be short, ranging from 3 to 7 minutes on average, with additional 3-7 for comment responses.
But they also have the content of more traditional sources, drawing in Kierkegaard to look at a cartoon, as noted, or showcasing Kant through “Kantra.” While some are bluntly educational, simply informing viewers on a topic, others are more contentious, particularly in areas surrounding race and gender, using Judith Butler or bell hooks to make specific arguments.
While we may lose some (even substantial) content through the translation, these YouTube videos still educate. They are not “making us stupider.” They show that a difference in form does not necessitate a complete breakdown in content. Instead a new form allows this content to reach new audiences and topics. Far from “amusing ourselves to death,” to use Niel Postman’s famous title, such channels revitalize learning.
And with the potential for comments, discussions can occur. While many of these comments can still be violent, unhelpful, reactionary, or trolling– the kickback against Anita Sarkeesian being the most famous example–many discussions can be helpful. And perhaps as our rhetorical skills improve in such spaces these comment threads could be a source of learning and insight.
Personally, as someone who loved Discovery Channel and History Channel as a kid, yet see it increasingly filled with reality TV and conspiracy theories, I’m happy to have channels where I can still learn.