TV's Purpose and the Need to be Entertained

Published: 2023-10-15

I recently finished reading Neal Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to death and late last year I read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander. I know what you're thinking "Wow, this guy must be real fun at parties!". I know I may come off as anti-fun from someone with a stick up his ass, but I think it's important to take a step and really think critically about the modern mass media and the entertainment industry that we all heavily consume, and understand just how integral it is to not just western cultures, but cultures globally. This post is a collection of notes and summaries of what I think are the key points from both authors.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neal Postman argues that although TV has not brought about an Orwellian future as so many people had predicted since it's conception. It has, however, brought about a future more closely aligned to the future Aldous Huxley described in Brave New World. Huxley's depicts a world where the powers that be had no need to censor information and suppress groups because people are voluntarily giving up their rights and freedoms while medicating themselves into bliss with "soma", the pleasure drug in Brave New World. Postman makes the connection between Huxley's "soma" and modern television and the entertainment industry in general.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions."
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Marshall McLuhan's coinage of the aphorism "the medium is the message" meant that the medium itself provides a unique orientation for thought, expression, and sensibility, that the medium itself should be the primary focus of study and not the content. Television (and our modern digital equivalents) is incredibly limited in terms of it's usefulness to learning as opposed long-form text such as books and essays - what Postman refers to as "the written word". The written word, Postman argues, endures, whereas the spoken word disappears - and that's why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Reading also requires intense intellectual involvement where the reader must keep their mind engaged. In contrast, television only requires passive involvement with minimal, if any, intellectual involvement.

Typography and the act of reading has been a far greater benefit to humanity, whereas television has proven to be a deficit. Reading can alter one's habits of mind in that the process encourages rationality, or "analytic management of knowledge". To engage with the written word means to follow a line of thought which requires the ability to classify, make inference, and reason. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, and detect flaws in logic and common sense. Reading nurtures a kind of "typographic mind". This type of engagement is severely diminish, if not outright absent, when consuming TV content.

Additionally, televised "news" (and arguably almost all news), is packaged as a means to entertain us than it is to inform. When the news is regularly interrupted with advertisements, contains theme music, sensationalized "stories", and non-stories designed to fill the space between stories, it's difficult to take it seriously. I don't think it takes much imagination from the average person to comprehend that headlines and outrageous stories are meant to draw us in and keeping our attention for as long a possible, pulling in those sweet advertising dollars along the way.

Television has reshaped the way we approach other methods of communicating and processing information. Because TV has primed us to be constantly be entertained, certain practices like teaching now becomes something that should include entertainment. Of course, there is nothing wrong with entertainment, however we quickly lose interest in things, unless we're being entertained. Every moment when we must face being left alone with our thoughts, we pull out our smartphone. Sitting alone in silence is torture.

Postman's primary argument is that TV is not useful for deep understanding of any subject, and we should stop pretending like it is because it's doing far more harm than good.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

In his book, Jerry Mander suggests the outright elimination of television entirely from our lives. This differs from Postman who makes it clear that he enjoys "junk" just as much as the next person, but television content should be treated as that - junk. In fact, although he admits that Mander makes some solid points, Postman outright calls him a Luddite near the end of Amusing Ourselves to Death! Jerry Mander had worked in the advertising industry for 15 years, often promoting progressive and ecological causes.

Mander argues that television creates an unrealistic view of reality and distorts our worldview. I don't think anyone would dispute this, however I think we apply this understanding to other people instead of ourselves (ie other people watch too much TV or spend too much time online, but not me). Television, and currently the modern internet, removes a sense of shared reality with people. It keeps people isolated, more disengaged from their community, and dulls their minds, while promoting a docile mind to make it easier for the advertisements to influence behavior.

Mander also points out that TV exists solely to push advertisements to the masses. I had ever considered this because it just seemed like ads were a fact of life, but indeed, TV was only able to take off in the early days solely because it was a means to display advertisements directly into people's homes, and content therefore had a source of revenue to pay for production of content. It is ultimately a tool that promotes capitalism, injecting thoughts and ideas into our minds, priming us to buy some product and sway us to agree with some argument.

Television is dominated by a handful of corporate powers. "Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A conspiracy of technological and economic factors made this inevitable and continue to."

I will say that I didn't find all of Mander's book useful or insightful. There were some sections where he started to get into new age woo-woo nonsense, but I don't fault him for that. He also spent a section talking about how the light emitted from TV can negatively effect humans, making them more prone to illness as well as psychological conditioning and autocratic control. Any effects on human health, I would chalk up to a sedentary lifestyle, as opposed to the light the TV emits. As for the psychological effects, I haven't looked at the research, but from first hand experience, binge-watching a TV show has made me feel almost hypnotized.

TV in My Life

I recently sold my TV off on Craigslist. It's something I had planned on doing for a while, but we've decided to move back to the Pacific Northwest soon, and the TV was one the first things we decided not to take with us. I'm not sure if I necessarily advocate that no one have a TV, and I very well may buy another after the move, but there are certainly more benefits to not owning a TV than there are drawbacks, at least for me. I do think it's important to spend more time reading than watching TV, movies, YouTube, etc, and getting rid of the TV is a good way to do that. If I want to significantly cut down on sugar, then the first step is to not keep any sweets in the house. I prefer life without a giant screen in my home. That isn't to say I straight up stopped watching movies and TV shows, but the removal of the TV has reduced my consumption substantially. And this isn't to say I'm against movies and TV shows because the fact is is that I do find it enjoyable to turn my brain off, kick back, and watch Star Trek.

TV has played a big role in my life, especially my childhood. Growing up, there was never a time when we didn't have a TV. I was raised by the TV in some respects. I have certainly gone without TV in the places I've lived at, but I still had a laptop to consume content. That being said, I think many of the arguments that both authors make can also be tied to the modern internet - specifically with social media.

The takeaway from Postman's book is TV will continue to be nothing more than junk and we should treat it as such. If we want to enrich ourselves, the written word is the superior medium. The takeaway I got from Mander is to be distrustful of TV and any medium that's primarily controlled by a profit-seeking company (which still applies to the modern digital equivalents). TV can distort common sense, making us less likely to consider information outside of what we see on a screen.

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