Rene Dubos, writing in 1974, observed that a person living in safety can spend a lot of time watching journalistic reports of catastrophes in faraway places, yet still feel that their own life is lacking. This is because television reports may not necessarily impart a sense of gratitude that nothing terrible is happening to them; rather, the time they have wasted in front of the television has prevented anything interesting from happening to them, and this lack of interestingness is what stirs within them. But is this simultaneous lack of interestingness and lack of gratitude a fault of the television, or is it a fault of the person watching the television?
In 1973, a young female college student published a book in which she presented 'a chronicle of growing old in the sixties.' On her own account, the most significant influence in her life had been that before she was twenty she had spent more than 5,000 hours watching television. She had witnessed on the screen John F. Kennedy's assassination, civil rights marches, student riots, the Vietnam war, space shots, moon landings — in short, all the spectacular events of the present era. Television thus had made her knowledgeable about the contemporary world, but it had not given her a real feeling for what she had watched on the screen. Although she had grown up in a comfortable and safe environment, she felt that her childhood had been more 'traumatic' than that of most other people because of 'the eventlessness' of her life. Apparently television watching did not make her realize that misery in the American slums or the tragedies of Vietnam had been experiences incomparably more traumatic than the emotional emptiness of her own life. She had watched television as a voyeur, not as a person really involved in the human pathos of world events. Learning about the world through news reports, talk shows, television broadcasts gives the artificial thrill that comes from the illusion of proximity to events without the necessity of being involved in them; it does not elicit an organic interaction and therefore gives at best a trivial quality to the experience of the global village.
Many people do not experience it as a choice. When television is ubiquitous enough, it may seem that there is no other choice than to watch it and whatever is on it, as well as to go along for the ride with whatever else is happening in life. Some people do not experience life and culture as a choice. A novelist put it:
Most days the orderlies would just line the three of them [the severely brain-damaged patients] up in front of the TV. They'd shit their pants and piss on themselves. If they was lucky, somebody would turn the channel. In some ways it wasn't much different than how half the people in the fucking world lived. And whether they believed it or not, none of them, not Ben or the other two, or all the rest of the motherfuckers in the world, had a choice.
It is a rare eccentric who can compartmentalize and ignore television and claim that it is not part of the real world, not part of the immediate culture that surrounds them.
He [British physicist Peter Higgs] doesn't own a TV, but not because he lacks interest in the outside world. 'I don't regard television as the outside world,' he offers dryly. 'I regard it as an artifact.'
People used to gather, sing, and meditate, said Zen teacher Alan Watts, before there was television. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his classic Wherever You Go, There You Are (published in 1994), said that television (as well as newspapers) can destroy the silence and space in which to listen to the world and to ourselves, and thus impede our attentiveness and inner peace. Kabat-Zinn wrote:
We watch television at the end of the day, a pale electronic fire energy, and pale in comparison [to a fireplace]. We submit ourselves to constant bombardment by sounds and images that come from minds other than our own, that fill our heads with information and trivia, other people's adventures and excitement and desires. Watching television leaves even less room in the day for experiencing stillness. It soaks up time, space, and silence, a soporific, lulling us into mindless passivity. 'Bubble gum for the eyes,' Steve Allen called it. Newspapers do much the same. They are not bad in themselves, but we frequently conspire to use them to rob ourselves of many precious moments in which we might be living more fully.
From an early point in TV history — 1961 — even those working in the industry itself have felt that the broadcast content is a "wasteland".
Fifty years ago next month, I stood before the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters for my inaugural public address as President Kennedy's chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. My first objective in the job was to clean up the agency and the industry, which before I arrived had been embroiled in quiz-show, payola, and agency scandals. My second was to expand choice for viewers, by advancing new technologies in the belief that more choice would result in more and better content.
* * *
Television, I said, was too often a 'vast wasteland.'
I knew broadcasters would not be happy. My favorite response was from Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz, who named the sinking ship in Gilligan's Island after me. The 'vast wasteland' was a metaphor for a particular time in our nation's communications history, and to my surprise it became part of the American lexicon. It has come to identify me. My daughters threaten to engrave on my tombstone: ON TO A VASTER WASTELAND. But those were not the two words I intended to be remembered. The two words I wanted to endure were public interest.
Kurt Vonnegut called television an "eraser" because it replaces its viewers' ideas and images with material of its own.
It even eats the culture, as Ron Powers put it in 1990:
It was the Eighties in which American television peeled itself away from its remaining adherences to external norms, scales, and restraints, and asserted itself as a primary, generative force in the culture. In its brokering of three Presidential elections (not to mention countless other political campaigns); in its transformation of news and information; in its desanctifying of the Protestant liturgy; in its usurpation of text as the basis of education in many public schools; in its unrestrained celebration of majoritarian, corporatist values; in its merging with the technologies of data storage and of surveillance; in its radical destabilization of typographic culture; and in its invention of a pervasive, sui generis idiom — the decontextualized idiom of MTV — television in the Eighties finally fulfilled the worst nightmares of a half century: It devoured its host culture.
A technology that has potential to broaden cultural engagement and foster diversity instead is used to homogenize public opinion. Much of what television teaches is through its advertisements; it teaches the centrality of consumerism to society. Its materialistic values contribute to frustration and maybe even violence.
Amin Maalouf wrote:
Sometimes it's thought that with so many newspapers and radio and television channels likely to be available we shall have access to an infinite variety of opinions. Then the reverse seems to be true: the transmitters are so powerful that they merely amplify the currently prevailing opinion, drowning out any other point of view.
The credo of modern consumerism screamed at me from the bumper sticker: 'I Shop, Therefore I Am.' This contemporary version of Descartes's old maxim, 'I think, therefore I am,' momentarily took my breath away, with its stark truthfulness about our materialistic age. The same week I saw the bumper sticker, another murder occurred in my neighborhood — this time over basketball shoes. * * * The portrayal of overconsumption as a deserved right has emptied human life of meaning and turned us into increasingly violent creatures. When people are told on their televisions that they deserve all the goods of American life and then are denied their attainment, more and more resort to just taking the stuff.
Jeremy Rifkin felt the 'pounding' and 'assault' of information even in 1985, before the Internet's impact on society; in that era, the information came largely from the television, which the average American watched for five hours a day. He wrote:
Today we are bombarded with information. Advertising, the mass media, our educational system are pounding on us with thousands and thousands of messages every day. from the time we get up in the morning until the moment we fall asleep at night, we are literally assaulted with bits of information. The advertising industry alone spent over $47 billion last year 'educating' the consumer. The average American is subject to the one-way flow of information from the television set for over five hours every day. Economic historians like Daniel Bell assert that our economy is now making the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial mode, where communication and information systems will dominate the economic activity of the nation.
Rene Dubos, Beast Or Angel?: Choices that Make Us Human. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. p 86-7
James Frey. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. Gagosian Gallery, 2011. [Kindle Edition.]
"The hermit physicist." The Week, Dec. 27, 2013. p. 8. Citing Decca Aitkenhead's article in The Guardian (U.K.)
Alan Watts. Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation. Novato, California: New World Library, 2000. p 68.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, p 174
"A vaster wasteland." Newton N. Minow. The Atlantic, April 2011, pp. 50-51.
Kurt Vonnegut. Timequake. New York: Berkley Books, 1997. p 221.
Ron Powers, The Beast, The Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. p xiii.
Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. (1996) Translated by Barbara Bray. (2000) New York: Penguin Books, 2003. p. 111.
Jim Wallis. The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left". New York: Harvest, 1995. pp. 151, 156.
Jeremy Rifkin (with Ted Howard). Entropy: A New World View. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p 184.