Popular Culture  •  November 18, 2006

Television Isn’t the Problem

There is a saying that goes “Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise.” This can be extended to our relationship with our TVs. Even if TV is a fool, it should not prevent a wise person from learning something from it. In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing number of people around me who tossed their TVs out of their living rooms, asserting that TV is stupid, superficial, and annoying. Whenever I would mention something on TV, they would proudly announce that they don’t own a TV. I’m sure this is not a national phenomenon, but within my own circle of friends and associates, it is becoming a trend, or even a fad.

The trivial nature of the content of TV is irrelevant in terms of measuring how useful and resourceful it is. Beyond the intentions of the content creators, there is much to be learned from TV. If you are interested in mass psychology, for instance, there is no better place to observe and study. If you are interested in photography or videography, you could spend all day watching the TV for how subjects are lit, shot, and edited. You can also study how graphic design is used on TV (like I do). You can study animation techniques, interviewing techniques, storytelling techniques, acting techniques, etc.. You can observe and learn different usages of language (accents, dialects, slang, etc..). You can watch foreign networks to see how popular cultures manifest in other countries. You can pay attention to how music is used, composed, and appropriated. You can analyze what sort of psychological effects the sound effects have on the visuals. You can also study the techniques the media and the advertising agencies use to manipulate the audience and consumers. The possibilities are endless.

The common criticism of TV as a medium is that it is a passive medium. This, I believe, stems from the fact that television is a time-based medium where the audience is not in control of the pace at which information is relayed. In contrast, we read books at our own pace. This gives off the feeling of being “active,” that is, actively in control of the pace at which information is relayed and digested. However, I would argue that this is a superficial difference, much like the difference between exercising on a treadmill (the machine controls the pace) and a StairMaster (you control the pace). As it is possible to watch TV mindlessly without digesting any of the content, it is also possible to read a book in the same way (like a stenographer who mindlessly transcribes what is being said).

The word “passive” also implies that the audience is not actively thinking, i.e., not formulating their own ideas. The mass media is often criticized for telling people what to think, preventing or discouraging them from thinking for themselves. This is rather ironic since the boycotters of TV often complain about the lack of intelligent programming; obviously, they are expecting TV to feed them something that is already intelligent. Rather than forming intelligent thoughts themselves from observing mundane or everyday phenomena, they want intelligent people to passively feed them intelligent thoughts. In other words, they are too lazy to form intelligent thoughts themselves.

If an evolutionary psychologist, zoologist, or anthropologist were stuck in a room with a chimpanzee, the whole experience might turn out to be intellectually stimulating, enlightening, or inspirational. But if you are a passive thinker who expects others to feed them intelligent thoughts, all you would see is a dumb animal staring at you for hours. Such a person would not learn how to think for himself even if he were to read thousands of intelligent books. Knowing how to think for oneself, has nothing to do with the quality of the content one consumes. And, ability to think for oneself is different from being intelligent. It is perfectly possible for someone to be highly intelligent, able to understand complex ideas, and have no original thought of his own.

It is true that the content of television tends to be trivial. This is because television is a “cool” medium. As Marshal McLuhan theorized, “cool” (low-resolution) mediums are suited for lighter, more casual content (like talk shows), whereas “hot” (high-resolution) mediums like movies are better suited for more serious content (like dramas). However, just like watching a chimpanzee in your room, the intelligence of the content itself should not prevent you from experiencing it intelligently.

When I hear people proudly pronounce that they don’t own a television, what I think of is an alcoholic who is incapable of enjoying alcohol because of his emotional, psychological, or physical dependency on it. Television can become addictive because it is effective in diverting one’s attention. For those who have much to deny, suppress, and avoid, television becomes a handy tool to keep up their self-deception. TV is also used to cope with the stress of everyday life. Most forms of fear and stress subside as soon as you take your attention away from them. Television is one of the most effective devices for this purpose (food and sex are examples of other effective devices). Many TV producers create content that enhances the effectiveness of television to suppress unwanted thoughts by filling their heads with positive affirmations, or by showcasing problems that are far worse than their own. Once you become a frequent user of television for this purpose, you become dependent on it, unable to manage your stress without it. I often see parents projecting these problems onto their own children. For toddlers who have no need to deny or suppress anything, television would not function as Prozac or Valium. Because these abuses of television are so wide-spread, we assume that there is something harmful in the medium itself.

Boycotting TV also turns the whole medium into a symbolic device to define one’s own identity. The connotations of “TV” in our culture is largely negative. We think of TV as something superficial, shallow, lazy, dumb, vain, and vulgar. Unlike other mediums like the Internet, the values associated with TV are certainly not neutral. Books represent the opposite of TV; thought-provoking, intelligent, educational, and enlightening. But these associations are cultural, not universal. They are not inherent in these mediums. But once these values are assigned to specific mediums, they are further reinforced by their symbolic usage to represent those values. Because of the strong negative values associated with television, the lack of it makes a poignant statement, allowing one to associate all the opposite (positive) values to one’s identity. But such an attempt at symbolically manipulating one’s identity or self-image would only deepen the problem of self-deception.

If you feel that you are addicted to TV, and if you feel that you need to stay away from it altogether, you may want to consider doing the following. Place a mirror right next to the television, or have a camera pointing at you and feed the signal to the frame of “picture-in-picture” of your TV screen. This way, television would ceases to be an attention-diverting tool because you would constantly see the very thing you want to divert your attention from. You might see how thought-provoking television can be.