It never used to be this way. Not too many years ago short-form non-fiction was called a magazine article. Magazine articles were easier to consume than whole books and often concerned subjects of timely relevance. Magazine articles appear as all sorts, from substantial, erudite reporting a la The New Yorker and Harper's to short form, lightweight articles like People and Time. But even in fluffy celebrity puff pieces, the rules of language and critical thinking usually helped give shape and structure to whatever idea or information the author wanted to present.
Then the world melted into “listicles”. The word itself is a portmaneau of “list” and “article”.
People say that the present is just like the past, only newer. I say, “Au contraire”. While life spans may have crept up, attention spans have most certainly slid down. People are distracted like nervous gazelles on the savannah these days, endlessly twitching at every new sound they hear, hyper vigilant lest they miss something dangerous that eats them, or something desirable and tasty that passes them by. I suppose that makes listicles evolutionary inevitabilities, but just because life takes a natural path doesn’t mean it’s a path to which you necessarily want to aspire.
Listicles are often repeated and regurgitated. Where’s the origin of anything anymore? Without smart citation, we erode our cultural heritage. Does anyone know Cicero, Seneca, or Sophocles anymore? No? That’s funny, because their names and work appear in oddly reproduced, bizarro forms every day in lists.
Suffice to say, I now submit my own list. Here are Five Reasons to Minimize your Time Reading Structured Lists Like This One
1) Most of us don’t meet people in our offices, at gas stations, at bar-b-ques and say, “What were your top five most memorable events from the past week?” Unless done consciously and carefully, hierarchic information structure can degrade the value of information. Hierarchic information can distract readers from the content itself by placing artificial value on the ordinal position of information in the list rather than placing focus directly on the information itself.
2) Lists become their own tautologies. Accumulations of decontextualized information often hoodwink readers into thinking they’re reading something new simply because they’ve been packaged into bite-sized, easy to consume morsels. Instead, lists make readers lazy thinkers. Lists often repeat things readers already know, but readers, conditioned by an endless stream of pre-packaged pseudo-thinking, learn how to forget faster than they learn how to learn. When we abandon context for the easy-to-digest sugar buzz of pre-chewed list items, we limit our ability to recall very much. With the world’s listable information just a click away, why take the time to learn anything? Once we lose the ability or the will to learn things—when we come to rely on hierarchal information to supplant our former abilities to think critically—one has to wonder if the snake will eat itself.
3) If lists are tautologies, are there ever moments of cultural ontology anymore? Information placed into artificial context removes the moment of genesis from the lineage of that information. By dislocating the ontology of information, we bleach its innate, substantive meaning. We excise facts from the tethers grounding it to the world in which we actually live, where things connect to each other physically, philosophically, and temporally. Lists try to tell us that information only has context when it appears in artificial constructions, numbered and ordered according to little more than convenience.
4) Lists are often intentionally incomplete. If complex ideas cannot be reduced to fifty words or fewer, those ideas often don’t make it to lists. Considering that most complex thoughts require more than fifty words, or that many thoughts do not synthesize easily into bite-sized morsels, the general value of lists loses it’s punch.
5) Lists objectify our lives. By turning ideas into disposable fragments of data, lists reduce our ability to tell what matters and what doesn't. By objectifying information we get more comfortable objectifying people. Endless reduction of information into decontextualized bits is like examining a room full of colleagues by their desirable and undesirable body parts. After a while we forget to see whole people. Same goes for ideas: after a while, lists transform cogent thoughts into irrelevant components.
There you have it: my list of five reasons to avoid reading lists. I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject. Hey: you can even rank them in order, just to keep yourself organized.