Misunderstanding Media

"Dying is easy; comedy is hard," is the punchline of an old joke about a dying actor. The particular plight of a writer for a weekly television situation comedy involves inventing new variations on scenes and settings that can occur within the household, where most such shows take place. There are two basic social activities we perform in the house which can be shown on television: eating and watching television. Ironically, the family watching television together is very difficult to use as a hook for comedy: there is no dialog. Media, which loves to consume itself, is prevented from becoming self-referential in this instance because all comedy, and indeed all drama, dies in the family television room.

Most commentators on television--Newton Minow, Harlan Ellison, Neil Postman are the first three names that pop into mind--regard it as a wasteland, a glass tit, a drug. It is, of course, all of these things. But most such discourse involves a reification of media, a definition of it that at once makes it much more, and less, than it really is.

Like any argument about technology, your opinion of the effect that media have upon us has a hidden subtext: your opinion of human nature. Technological determinists, who believe our tools shape us, have a dismal view of other people, as mindless automatons or, at best, easily manipulated saps, capable, as Thoreau said, of becoming "the tools of their tools." (It is easy to believe that the cynical views of college professors like Neil Postman are shaped by too much contact with college undergraduates, not enough with the rest of society.) Since we make our tools, and tend to make them at a time when we are ready to risk them (if rarely mature enough to handle them), the statement that our tools shape us avoids ultimate moral responsibility; it is we who are shaping ourselves.

The fact that the average American spends most of his or her free time watching television is alarming, but becomes less so when you place it in context. Throughout human history, people have needed their distractions from each other; it is hard to say with certainty that there was a time (other than the illusory golden past of our imaginations) when human contact was of a much higher quality, or even much more prolonged, than it is today. When I walked the three hundred mile Long Trail in Vermont, in 1980, my life was simplified: I woke with the dawn and went to sleep, exhausted, as soon as it got dark; I didn't have four hours of evening time to fill with conversation or other activities. As Sartre said, "Hell is other people"; even loved ones become unbearable after a certain amount of forced contact; every human needs a certain amount of quiet time, trance or daydream time, to reconstruct himself after the events of the day. Some need more than others, and some use it more productively than others. But to say that, if we didn't have television, we would spend more time with our children or each other, is a vast oversimplification.

In order to understand why people watch television, you would need to understand first what leisure time is and how hard it is to fill. We tend to take it for granted, but anthropologists know that it is a relatively recent human creation, and still unknown to some of us, for example farmers whose day begins milking the cows at three a.m. Leisure time is credited for the creation, or at least the possibility, of all art and culture--you cannot write songs or carve statues when every moment of the waking day is a brutal grind for subsistence. But leisure time--which first became possible through our technology--is equally responsible for the release of a great fund of other energy, no longer bound up in the daily battle for survival, which needs to be disposed of somewhere.

Years ago, I recognized that writing, reading and playing computer games all drew on the same source in me, as well as presenting alternatives for the use of the same leisure time. For a certain period of my life, I played strategy games for an hour or two a day, and didn't write at all; now, in zealous overreaction, I write every day, and haven't played a game in years. Just as our medical technology allows us to live longer, without giving us any hint what to do with the extra segment of our lives, we have produced leisure time for ourselves without any concrete idea about how to dispose of it.

A friend of mine, who has been through AA, told me that each of us has our "drug of choice"; for some, it may be food, others alcohol or cocaine; when I asked my wife what mine was, she immediately replied, "Reading", without needing to think. All my life--even when I was escaping into computer games-- I also escaped into books, to lose and re-create myself, to find a place where I did not have to be with other people. Aside from the responsibility we have to raise our children--which has as much to do with the quality of our behavior to them as the sheer amount of time we spend with them--most criticism of media assumes that pure human contact is the highest good. This other subtext of media criticism also needs examination. From an elite, judgmental standpoint, much human interaction--like the hilarious strings of inconsequent nonsequiturs presented as conversations in the TV series Cheers--is as empty, boring and trivial as watching television.

In the nineteenth century, when spectacles could not yet be piped into the home, people gathered together to watch them in public places. Peace to Neil Postman and his point that people spent seven hours at a time watching Lincoln debate Douglas; people also went to the prize fights, immemorable lousy plays, and electrical spectacles, the true predecessors of television, where they watched unusual effects produced with the new electric lights. It would be hard to argue that all of this was more enlightening than television, simply because experienced in a crowd.

Most people will give or do whatever they are capable of. One hopes that there are no potential great novelists whom we missed because they spent their lives watching television and never wrote a book. If we think of people as saps, then television is something government gives them to keep them quiet and obedient, as a modern day equivalent of bread and circuses, because there is no longer enough work to do to exhaust them; but if we think of people as autonomous human actors, with moral choices to make, then watching television is simply, for good or evil, an exercise of Mill-ian liberty: an activity which may or may not harm the viewer, but which certainly harms no-one else.

Asking why people watch so much television is asking the wrong question. Here are some more interesting questions, that the television question diverts us from, or masks: