David Foster Wallace once admitted in an interview that “most of his existence has been mediated by entertainment that he passively chose to receive.” Wallace had a lot to say about media, particularly Television. In his Bible-length novel Infinite Jest, Television is one of the main themes. He even wrote an essay titled E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. I find it a bit scary and a bit sad the idea that a big part of our experiences, our thoughts, and our world views are something that we got from watching Television and not our own.
Ever since I read The Information Diet: A Case for Concsious Consumption I’ve been trying and struggling to get on a “media diet” that works for me. What I have learned is that even though I spend a big chunk of my day online, I’ve been watching more Television that I would like to admit to. In Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus he argues that the reason things like Wikipedia exist is because we have replaced the time we spend with Tv with time on the web. He’s definitely right, but I think he didn’t take into consideration how much more “Televised” the web has become. You can be actively consuming media on the web and give back to it and participate in it, and all that good stuff, but you have to want to do that. Otherwise the web can be just another “boob tube” with a mouse.
This is something that I realized the day I decided on not watching Television for 24 hours. That meant also no Netflix, no Youtube, nor any kind of audio-visual moving picture. Because if you’re going to watch video on the web, you’re still in a sense watching Television. So I permitted myself to just browsing the web, read some books, and listen to some music and Podcasts. You would think it’s easy, but I had to skip probably more than a hundred of either video embeds or a link to a video.
Every time we hear that someone decides that they’re going to quit some type of technology, particularly a media technology, people have strong reactions to it. We get surprised. A bit freaked out even. Just the thought of contemplating living life without X technology scares us or thrills us. While I was drafting up this post, one of the writers of The Verge decided to quit the internet. That surely got some attention and criticism. I liked a lot what he said in the video that the internet “is supposed to be like a utility, like the sewer. You don’t go down into the sewer, it just helps you, it’s a helper. If you go down into the sewer of the internet, after a while you’re going to start feeling dirty.”
I tweeted semi-joking reacting to that story that “the problem is not that people don’t know they’re in The Matrix. The problem is that even if the knew, they wouldn’t want to leave.”
I don’t hate Television and I don’t know if I could quit it for a year, or if I ever really want to. I enjoy watching movies and Tv shows. I even watch traditional broadcast media like sitcoms and series like Fringe on their air dates. But I don’t have cable and I don’t think I’m ever going to have cable again. As that line from the vast wasteland speech says:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
The day I went without Tv for 24 hours I noticed that I could see clearer. I mean that literally. I could see more details in the textures of the objects that surrounded me. Reality looks so much better than HD and so much crisper than a light emitting screen. Jerry Mander, author of the Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, explains in this video interview, that the reason for this is because Television speeds up our sensory perception. It’s hard for us to experience grass growing for example.
Watching Television is also how we deal with boredom, solitude, and loneliness. And that’s why we have a hard time filtering out for quality and watching it deliberately. When we are in that state we just want to see and hear something happening, so we watch anything.
Of course it’s hard not to tag people like Jerry Mander as an alarmist contrarian. I feel the same way about Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, a book I’m currently reading. But I also have a hard time ignoring what they have to say. Whenever I see everyone agreeing that a new technology media is the best thing since bread came sliced I start worrying. So god bless the tech contrarians.
But we also have to be careful about the alarmists and take everything that they say with a pinch of salt. See Ted Kaczynski and his anti-technology ideology.
I hope the takeaway of this post, if you read this far, is to really ask yourself if the media you consume, specially Television, has made your life any better and happier. If you’re watching Television because that’s exactly what you want to do at this very moment, that’s perfectly ok. If not, own up to it and do something about it. It’s that simple. But is not that easy.