From Pro-TV to Anti-TV
My wake-up calls were George Bush and 'Bowling Alone'.
Over the centuries, western civilization has been steadily improving, going from brutal feudalism, to the Renaissance, to the Enlightenment, to the incredible wealth of modern capitalism and the welfare state. Citizens were now free to pursue their own dreams and muses, with little worry that society wouldn’t continue to improve.
But then George Bush happened, arguably the worse president in American history. I could understand the country making a mistake and voting him in the first time (he even won the popular vote), but then to vote him in a second time after he took the country to a war-of-choice was extremely unsettling.
Why was this happening? To find out I immersed myself in blogs and books on politics, getting a better picture of just how bad things had gotten. Slowly I made my way through Bowling Alone (2000) by Robert Putnam (an extraordinary and seminal book, that is also extremely dry). The basic premise is that the time that people spend socializing, and hanging out, and engaging in organized activities (like bowling in leagues) is incredibly important for building “social capital”. And that social capital is essential for a healthy society and a healthy democracy. Furthermore Bowling Alone argues that society is fraying due to a substantial reduction in social capital, that democracy is weakened, and that the culprit is television.
Note, Bowling Alone has become an enormously influential book, and the importance of social capital has become well accepted. But in reviews and discussion of Bowling Alone, the culprit is usually ignored. Our national addiction to TV is such a touchy subject, that people quite often never mention Robert Putnam’s conclusion that it is television that is decimating our social capital.
From Bowling Alone I veered off to the wonderful world of anti-TV books: from Endangered Minds (Jane M. Healy, 1999), and Plug-In Drug (Marie Winn, 1977), to Get a Life! (David Burke & Jean Lotus, 1998), all excellent books. And then I read Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman, another book that blew me away. Again, the argument was that television is destructive to democracy. Why? Because a literate society is very different from an illiterate society. As TV lures people away from reading, we’re becoming more and more an aliterate society (people can read, but they choose not to). And that an aliterate society is in many ways a lot like an illiterate society, which is not a healthy place for democracy to thrive.
After vowing to volunteer more and donate more for elections (which I do), the next step was to actually stop watching TV or at least cut back severely. For someone like me who loves TV, this was not an easy task, plus though my husband wished me good luck, he was in no hurry to join me in my stop-watching endeavor.
After that, like any true addict, I just kept watching. What finally got me going was reading the book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005) by Steven Johnson. In it Johnson argues that pop culture, including television, is actually making us smarter. That hours in front of the TV is good for kids, and that parents shouldn’t be so nervous. So what if some guy writes a dreadful book about the wonderful effects of TV? What really bothered me was the lack of push back, the reviews were consistently positive, and the New York Times even published his article arguing specifically that TV is making us smarter. For those few reviewers that were somewhat skeptical, they were still very much respectful of his arguments and writing ability.
It was Everything Bad Is Good for You that first infuriated me and then inspired me to set up my tvSmarter.com website. Asking the question “Does TV Make Your Smarter?” and, of course, answering no, not at all. After that it was easier to start cutting back on TV, setting up the website kept me busy and motivated, though cutting back was not so easy.
What makes television so addictive? For me the following very much resonates:
“Heavier viewing appears to perpetuate itself by causing psychological dependence in those who grow accustomed to having their experience so effortlessly structured. Both the relaxation and detraction that television so readily provides leads many viewers to become dependent on the medium.” (Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.)1
Since I am prone to rumination, TV was the perfect cure. To cut back, I needed to replace TV with less addictive distractions. So I upped my reading and got a Rhapsody subscription (online radio), and made sure it was turned on as much as possible. Before any unstructured time, I would make a mental list of things to think about that would be interesting and positive, and then gradually reduced my TV consumption. My hubby kept watching the tube, but since our tastes are so very different, his shows about bridges and cars were not a temptation.
Now my husband still watches TV, but much less than before, and I’m down to about an hour a week (while folding the wash). This has opened up a lot more time for projects and hiking and tennis, etc. And has helped reduce my rumination, now I’m a lot more comfortable with unstructured time and life in general.
Family and friends have not been particularly interested in my critiques of TV, but my step-daughter is so far raising her son (he’s now 3 years old) sans TV thanks to my input. And for my co-worker’s baby shower I gave her (in addition to a baby gift) some articles on the importance of children under two not watching TV and videos, she wasn’t convinced, but her husband was, and her children were raised without TV until they turned two.
Over the years tvSmarter.com (the website and blog) has had just over 203,000 page views and I don’t know how many visitors, but I figure if just a small percent of visitors were swayed towards watching less TV, then it’s been a project worth doing.
Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990. Television and the Quality of Life. Routledge. ↩