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The real danger of TikTok

Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady doing their bit for democracy in The White Lotus

My husband Henry Dimbleby and I have just written a book explaining the “entire food system, from farm to fork”, says Jemima Lewis in The Daily Telegraph. Piecing together this sprawling, nuanced subject made us feel we were attempting something “weirdly old-fashioned”: using words to make a complex topic comprehensible. For today, we live “in the age of the image, not the word” – a world of memes, selfies and YouTube shorts. And the sharp decline in both reading and writing, “as the screen supplants the book”, helps explain the “polarisation and lack of nuance” in today’s debate. Reading keeps our minds “supple and curious. The less we practise following long trains of complex thought, the less patience we have with complexity itself.”

This is the real danger of TikTok, says James Marriott in The Times: not the way it hoovers up personal data, but the threat it poses to our minds. By hooking its users on short, ephemeral videos, the app is accelerating the “inanition of our political culture”. Ultimately, liberal democracies depend on mental habits “associated with literate society”. Our democratic institutions were formed at a time when print culture was “ascendant”; citizens were encouraged to acquire “certain distinctively literary virtues”, to learn how to concentrate on complex ideas and “critically evaluate arguments”. Whereas literary culture is “inherently liberal” – because readers are encouraged to think through ideas independently – the increasingly visual culture of social media is “fundamentally illiberal, promoting groupthink and trivia”. No wonder autocracies and authoritarian states have always hated books.