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Pulitzer Prize-winning author and data expert Walt Hickey explains the power of entertainment to change our biology, our beliefs, how we see ourselves, and how nations gain power.
WALT HICKEY writes Numlock News, a daily stat-based newsletter full of fascinating stories about everything from art heists to lost cities to MoviePass. He is a deputy editor at Insider for data and analysis. Formerly, he was chief culture writer at FiveThirtyEight. He won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Illustrated Reporting.
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“You probably haven’t encountered many books like You Are What You Watch. It convinced me that we take pop culture too much for granted, and the footprint it leaves in everything from our bodily health to how we name our kids.”
--Nate Silver, founder of acclaimed data site FiveThirtyEight
The average American spends more than a fifth of their life watching movies and TV, reading books, and listening to music. Consuming media, in other words. We tend to dismiss this as mere diversion, as if when we walk out of a theater we go back to being exactly who we were. In fact, the opposite is the case. The media we consume, and the act of consuming it, has incontrovertible effects on people, on culture—on the world—that are complex, fascinating, profound, and unexpected.
In You Are What You Watch, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Walt Hickey explores exactly how this thing we blithely call “entertainment” has such a tremendous effect on us. Through compelling reporting and research and the creation of dozens and dozens of colorful data visuals, Hickey shows how something like a movie or TV show not only has a direct physical effect on the viewer—how the chemistry of our breath changes with a movie’s ups and downs, or a scary scene can be literally bloodcurdling—but also has a measurable impact on society, politics, the economy, and even the future.
Some effects are simply happy—look at the correlation between characters’ names and the trends in baby names. Some quite sad—shark populations sharply decreased after Jaws. Some prove that there’s a blurry line between fiction and reality—both British and American spy services have poached ideas from the James Bond franchise. Some are so direct that the film feels like an advertisement—navy recruitment rates shot up after Top Gun. And some are so counterintuitive that they bring fresh insights to the deeper currents in our world—like how violent movies can actually lead to less real-world violence (because people who sit in theaters watching violent movies aren’t out on the streets committing crimes).
From how media, and not NASA, got Americans to believe in space travel to the surprising light professional wrestling sheds on creative work environments, You Are What You Watch tells truths that are even more compelling than the made-up stories that inspired them.
1: HOW CULTURE AFFECTS OUR BODIES
2: HOW CULTURE CAPTURES US
3: HOW CULTURE RELFECTS US
4: HOW CULTURE CHANGES US
5: COMMERCE & CULTURE & COMMERCE
6: HOW CULTURE FUELS EMPIRES
7: HOW CULTURE SURVIVES
8: WHAT STORIES DO TO THEIR CREATORS