Saturday, June 18, 2011

Theory on the Apparatus of Television and the Destruction of Our Relational Faculties

It's tough to imagine what the world was like before television and mass media.  Some will imagine sitting by the fireplace being regaled by grandpa with exciting stories, while others will imagine a great big world of awkward silence from cradle to grave.  I can't profess to know a whole lot about it which is part of why it fascinates me.  At this point, the cat is out of the bag, which is not entirely good or bad.  I find, though, that the apparatus of television can, in itself, be harmful to man's relational faculties.  Man is by nature a social animal which is why we are the only animal with such developed speech.  Television harms our social nature in at least two ways that I can think of.  It gives us a predisposition towards being passively entertained and it encourages a short attention span.

The first problem of television, mainly in too high doses, is it predisposes us to passive entertainment.  It is not interactive.  It does not encourage us to do something.  It indulges us by doing all the work.  It destroys man's sense of outgoingness.  We do not engage the world, but we selfishly expect the world to engage us.  This constant need for entertainment, mixed with our inability to create it for ourselves, leads to boredom, unhappiness and loneliness.  When multiple people are the awkward shy person waiting for someone else take the lead, the problem is exacerbated all the more.  In creating passiveness, television especially harms the qualities traditionally tied to manhood and male identity.  Movies also contribute to this problem with their content through the cliche of the disproportionately attractive couple where slacker or ineffectual male gets hot girlfriend for little or no reason.  This is of course an indulgent lie.  I'm a believer that the competently outgoing and the charismatic will "take over the world" because the rest of us desperately enjoy their company.

The second problem is that television is scatterbrained and promotes a short attention span.  Television is a near constant state of discontinuity.  A show is interrupted by commercials about every eight minutes (my estimate).  Commercials change every ten to thirty seconds.  If you add in channel-flipping, you've reached the height of discontinuity.   In the course of ten seconds, I can flip from a Steeler game to Hitler to Jersey Shore to Fox News.  The brain is thus scattered in a million unrelated directions in a very short span of time.  Now let's look at mature adult relations.  What is adult conversation but a continuity?  One sentence or topic flows naturally into the next.  This is the usual case and in fact normally the ideal.  Can anyone imagine flipping conversation topics like television channels, not only rapidly, but completely randomly?  Someone would assume that you were not fully with it mentally.  This is the brain process that television promotes and it is naive to think that everyone can just turn off this process once they leave their television.

Film, I personally believe, is less likely than television to cause these problems, although moderation in any activity is good.  The main reason is the continuity.  It is much better to sit your kid in front of a two hour movie than two hours of television.  Watching an entire movie takes a certain mental discipline and focus that television does not.  In general, this should be more positive for the brain.  The longer length of a movie makes you watch them less on a whim and if you go to the theater, at least some work or trip was involved.

There are certainly other ways that television leads to relational breakdown as well as ways in which it builds us up, but these two ways are directly tied to the apparatus of the medium in the case of passive entertainment and tied to the apparatus of most television in the case of being scatterbrained.  Neil Postman wrote a fantastic book on some of the damaging aspects of television, most of which I agree with, but I will not copy all his viewpoints here.

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