When I first began telling people I don’t watch television, the reaction was amusing. They reacted with surprise, as though it were an extreme lifestyle choice. Their skeptical reaction was greater than if I had announced a plan to give up soda or meat. In one instance someone actually asked, “If you don’t watch television, then what do you do?”
The answer, insulting as it may sound, is simple. I don’t imagine living like fictional characters on television. I don’t respond to the constant desire for new gadgets or things I supposedly “need.” It sounds elitist and self righteous, I know, but now I spend more time thinking in one day than I did in several as a TV addicted child, even when I had seven hours of schoolwork on weekdays.
Television isn’t just another point in the pantheon of mediums. It’s fundamentally different than books, radio, and even movies, which are superficially similar, but relatively short. Few people watch two or three movies at a time, and certainly not very often.
Granted, I’m not the first person to argue that a new method of communication was dangerous. Socrates and Plato hated the alphabet and books because, to them, they represented the death of socialization as the primary tool for learning. Plato wrote:
“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves…You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”
Few would agree with him today that books have limited the spread of knowledge, but they did limit social interaction as the primary means of communicating. Television has expanded this trend, destroying the link between learning and socializing. It has transformed the people, and perhaps all peoples around the world, into arrogant dolts who know very little and understand even less, but it has given them the illusion of knowledge.
Some have argued television is a natural evolution of communication, just like the written word revolutionized information. One might be tempted to compare the advent of television to Gutenberg’s press, spreading information faster and farther than before, but that’s where the comparison ends.
We’ve gone from a society that uses words as a means to convey ideas, to a society that uses images and caricatures. But in an image based society, all thinking is novel and quaint. The result: “Thinking about things requires effort. Its something only certain kinds of people do. It’s not for everyone.”
For the most part, the replacement of the written word by images does not come with an intent to inform, but to entertain and to keep you glued to that couch for the next commercial. Remember the adage: “If you get something for free, you’re not the consumer; you’re the product.” Unlike books which are cheap and decentralized, television is expensive and controlled by few companies. To them, knowledge for its own sake is irrelevant or counterproductive. The few social lessons or morals shoehorned in are trite and meaningless.
Philosophers who once claimed religion was the opiate of the masses look quite dated next to the all consuming yet subtle influence of television; it is the ultimate circus distraction, as are its children in the technological world. We watch without context or depth. It is entertaining, but without even the most basic intellectual benefit. It is no coincidence that watching television is the only recreational activity positively correlated with poverty.
Video games are little better, with Pavlovian reward systems urge us to spend not just a few minutes or hours a week but all of our available time seeking short term pleasures. Or perhaps you prefer pictures of cats or the latest humiliating stunt. Even these more harmless forms of distraction leave us no better individually or collectively. Worse, we regress as we forget how to fully assess the real world.
The problem is compounded by an inability for those on the inside, the celebrity loving slaves, to comprehend the danger of their destructive indifference. The few people divorced from television rarely comprehend the all consuming draw of the corporate culture. Trying to explain this is a bit like hitting a punching back. They understand your points on some level, but you never really get anywhere.
Defenders of television usually have a few common refrains. “I only like a few shows,” “It’s harmless fun,” and of course, “It’s OK in moderation.” How they define “a few” and “moderation” is open to debate. One thing is certain, the more they watch, the harder it is to hold a conversation about anything not related to corporate culture.
Citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, writer George Scialabba reminds us, “The average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.”
It is an illusion to think we can continue to act this way forever without consequence. In recent years we’ve seen a rapid rise in narcissism among children and teens. Anyone with a younger sibling or child recognizes the dangers. If I’ve learned anything over the last few years, its that systems of rapid change like this are almost always unsustainable. There will be a backlash.
John Lennon once said, “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.” Is he right? What would happen if television disappeared? Would there be peace or mass riots? Would the suffering of our fellow human beings be lessened? I can’t say, but I do know the unexamined life is not worth living and yet that is what millions of people are doing.