Sunday, November 13, 2005

Teleblindness: The evil in our midst

"Watching things occupies more and more of our time, while doing things occupies less and less"

- Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

One of the most pernicious ideas that our age is prey to is the notion, prevalent in almost all mass media, that entertainment can only be achieved at the cost of intelligence. That people can only enjoy what does not challenge them, does not require them to think. That the media, like some caring mother bird, must soften all news and opinion to the sort of intellectual mushiness that will prove palatable to even the meanest of human intelligences. This is the dark side of democracy - where intellectual superiority can no longer be acknowledged, where intelligence equals elitism, everything must perforce be reduced to the lowest common denominator.

Perhaps the most willing accomplice in (if not the perpetrator of) this conspiracy is Television. More than any other form of communication, television is an inherently vegetative medium, one that encourages reduced attention span and undermines the human capacity for dialogue. The world of television is a two-dimensional one - it looks pretty but there's no depth to it.

Why television in particular?[1] Studies have shown that television, alone among most other media discourages social participation and is closely correlated with social isolation and a retreat into purely private realms. People who watch more television are statistically less likely to take an active interest in world events, socialise, volunteer, etc. [2]. TV has also been shown to fragment the family unit - this is especially true in households that have multiple television sets, but it is also true of single TV families because family members spend more time watching TV than talking to each other. The result is that you could end up knowing more about the life of characters in your favourite soap than you know about people in your own family. Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, argues that the advent of television may be responsible for more than 25% of the deterioration in American social capital today - a phenomenon associated with higher crime rates, lower educational performance, poorer health conditions and higher incidence of emotional and psychological trauma.

Why is it that television, and television alone has this negative influence? Putnam and other researchers point to a number of factors. First, TV is habit-forming, even addictive. This makes television a time-sink - studies show that advances in technology over the last 50 years made available as much as one hour a day of additional leisure time. On an average though, more than that time got taken up in watching TV, so that we ended up with less time for other activities.

Second, and more dangerously, TV creates the illusion of being engaged with the world without actually providing that engagement. Precisely because television is neither interactive (like the internet) nor particularly challenging (like literature / the arts), it allows us to get the benefits of participating in other people's lives without having to develop the skills and abilities to earn that right; it allows us to share in other people's thoughts without having to think ourselves. This is made worse by the Tivo-enabled ubiquity of television, so that even when people are actually interacting with other people they may end up talking about television. This non-interactive nature of television also means that watching television is insulating - because we experience the world from safely behind a glass screen, we do not see the need to actively participate in it.

In a sense then, TV is self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling. As more and more people spend increasing amounts of time in front of the TV screen, their intellectual abilities atrophy and their ability to engage in meaningful or serious thought (or to appreciate more nuanced art) is compromised. Offered more rigorous and intelligent fare, these people find themselves unable to cope - a fact that is used to prove that television is what the people 'really want'. Donne writes:

Do his hurts reach me? doth my worth decay?
Or do they reach his judging mind, that he
Should now love less what he did love to see?
That which in him was fair and delicate
Was but the milk, which in love's childish state
Did nurse it: who now is grown strong enough
To feed on that, which to disused tastes seems tough.

It is a shame to think that the apotheosis of human civilisation should be a childlike state where the human intellect is capable of little better than the soul-deadening mindless stimulus-response that passes for entertainment on television.

You could argue, of course, that as long as people are happy, all of this does not matter [3]. Unfortunately, there are also studies to show that television doesn't actually make people happier. Studies by Bowden and Offer and by Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi have shown that television watching is not associated with particularly high levels of enjoyment (it may in fact, be about as enjoyable as doing housework) and is often associated with general malaise - poor health, headaches, depression, etc. Television is 'popular' not because people like it, but because it represents the least demanding way of killing time. Like junk food, people crave television not because they like the taste, but because it's the easy way out. This is the true sense in which TV is escapist - it allows us to get away with not thinking, not needing to have an opinion. It may give us very little, but it demands even less.

Here again, we see the seditiousness of the medium - the more television you watch, the lower your ability to transcend its confines and make the effort to actually do something more challenging and stimulating - therefore the more television you end up watching. Call me an idealist, but it is my belief that human beings want to be stimulated, that the human consciousness longs to be engaged and forced to think. It's only that such engagement is threatening, and television, by providing a medium that can never really threaten our self-security, allows us to remain safe within our mindless wombs, and this is a temptation that proves too much for most of us.

To summarise, it seems to me that television is a sort of intellectual cancer, a malignancy that grows rapidly amongst us, feeding on and ultimately destroying our human and social intelligence. We have seen the face of the enemy - and it has 87 channels. It's tele-blindness, not television.

I personally do not own a television set - I've decided I'd rather read and listen to music than waste my time watching Fox News. It may be the best decision I've ever made in my life.


Post inspired by watching Good Night, and Good Luck. It seems to me that Ed Murrow's prophecy about the evolution of television has come scarily true in our age - television has become precisely the instrument of idiocy, of intellectual complacence, that Murrow feared it would become.

[1] The 'facts' quoted here draw heavily upon Robert Putnam's powerful and interesting book Bowling Alone. Some of Putnam's empirics are a little dodgy, taken by themselves, but it's hard to argue with the overall conclusions of his book. A highly recommended read. In particular, in the context of this post, see Chapter 13.

[2] One could argue, of course, that correlation is not causality and that the association between social insularity and television may arise from the fact that people who are more isolated, depressed, etc. may be precisely the ones who watch more television. This is possible, but there is some research to show that causality runs from television to disengagement, and some of the inter-generational statistics are hard to argue with. Even if there is a selection bias built in, however, the fact remains that television, by giving people who have a natural tendency to be disengaged an easy and legitimate option, only makes that trend significantly stronger.

[3] That conclusion is a function of whether you believe that the goal of human existence is happiness or stimulation, but that's a debate I don't want to get into here.


Mrudula said...

I agree with the study. Can't comment on anything else since I don't watch Television nor the drivel they dish out. I neither have the time nor the inclination to watch it.

Kamini said...

Excellent article, beautifully written. It was a real pleasure to read. I found it via the link in Ammani's blog. Thank you.