The unit bias and culture

When people consume culture – being it news, books, podcasts, music, social media, movies, etc. – we care about the quality of culture. That is, we know that not all culture is created equal. We have high/”highbrow” culture (e.g., arthouse movies and poetry) and low/”lowbrow” culture (e.g., reality TV and Hollywood movies). It is better to read Homer than to watch The Simpsons.

Of course, the way to demonstrate (or signal) your impressive cultural capital is to be well versed in high and low culture (not only high culture), and preferably to be able to connect ideas and references between and across different domains (unless you want to come off as a simple master of your domain). This is one of the reasons why people like to read Slavoj Žižek, I guess. And it is the basic premise of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. The greater the juxtaposition in a comparison or idea you can make, using references to both high and low culture, the greater your cultural capital.

Maybe that is part of why I do not care that much about the quality dimension of culture. It is not about the quality of culture on its own, but how we consume and use it. Accordingly, what I find a lot more interesting these days is the quantity. That is, how do we package culture into units. There is nothing original about the idea that this is important. The medium is the message and whatnot. Also, I am not necessarily concerned about people’s attention span, but I do wonder how our consumption of culture is shaped by the units we consume such culture in. Or, I will argue, quality cannot be understood without quantity.

There is a cognitive bias called the unit bias, i.e., the tendency to think that a unit of some entity is the optimal amount (see, for example, Geler et al. 2006). For material things, such as food consumption, smaller units generally lead to less consumption (if you get a smaller portion of food, you will consume less food — something you can find even in non-Wansink studies). However, for cultural consumption, I wonder whether the opposite is the case. Do we consume more culture as the units get smaller? Do we watch more Netflix when the episodes are shorter?

Could it be that some of the most popular social media sites today are popular because of the limitations that are part of their USP? Not because you can create less, but because you can consume more. Specifically, the technology and UI make smaller ‘cultural units’ easier to consume, especially on a phone. For example, the 1:1 aspect ratio on Instagram and the 140 character limit on Twitter provided smaller units that made it easier to consume multiple units of culture without even being aware of how many units you have consumed. Less is more. Maybe more people would read Karl Ove Knausgård if he simply tweeted out his struggles?

Why should we care? Because there is an essential relationship between quantity and quality. I think we pay more attention to the ‘quality’ when we discuss culture, but it is the ‘quantity’ that is just as relevant when we want to understand how culture is being produced and consumed today (anything from cinematic universes and binge-watching to BookTok and Stories). And maybe it is worse consuming nothing but 15-second opera videos on TikTok for two hours than watching Liam Neeson beat up bad guys for two hours?

If you want to consume as much culture as possible, it seems like a good idea to split it into multiple units. Maybe people found it easier to read War and Peace when it was published serially? I did appreciate the fact that the new mini series The U.S. and the Holocaust was split into three episodes of ~2 hours each, but I also believe Shoah is an even more impactful experience when you see it as one movie (compared to if it had been a mini series). It seems more efficient to split culture into smaller units, but less effective.

In other words, engaging with one unit for 60 minutes is not the same as engaging with 60 different units for one minute each. There is something unique to the (immersive) experience of culture when you engage with one unit of culture for a longer period of time. I try to spend more time these days reading books than tweets. Not because you can directly compare the quality of the two (with the content of books being inherently better than the content on Twitter), but because I believe the additional time spend, on the margin, on one big unit (i.e., one book) is better than the consumption of many small units (i.e., many tweets).

There is a qualitative and quantitative dimension to culture, and I am concerned that we are experiencing a lot less culture these days by consuming more culture.