Today marks the beginning of TV Turn Off Week. I've always had some ambivalence toward this project.
On the one hand, I share many of the critiques of television made by the project's organizers-- critiques of specific television content and critiques of television's connection to the hyper-commercialization of our culture. Turning the television off encourages us to step back for a moment and evaluate the place that TV holds in our lives; certainly that's a good thing to do. Television's ubiquity and its position as a dominant channel of our media culture means that we often take it and its role for granted. As with most social institutions it is in part precisely because of and through this invisibility that it can be such a significant force. Making visible those things we don't always stop and look at in our daily lives, of course I support and encourage that. Indeed, that's what sociology is all about, isn't it?
However, I've long been uncomfortable with the tone of some of the critiques associated with TV Turn Off Week. These critiques are often dripping with contempt for anyone who watches television, which gets painted as universally mind-numbing or soul-killing. The medium as a whole is treated as unambiguously and inevitably negative and beyond repair. But is it really? This seems to me to be a dangerously technologically determinist position. And it completely forecloses any possibilities to engage with and intervene in television-- either at the user or production level.
Listening to a short segment about on this year's TV Turn Off Week, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" on the public radio program Weekend America, helped to bring into focus for me some of what's made me uneasy.
Apparently, the new twist in TV Turn Off Week, this year, is the inclusion of the TV-B-Gone in some of the culture jamming plans from adbusters.org etc. The TV-B-Gone is that key-chain, universal remote control, released a few months ago amidst much hooplah [I'll admit that I was amused when I heard about it], that allows one to turn off random televisions anywhere.
In the Weekend America piece, they visited sports bars, mocked those who might or might not be watching the TVs, zapped the televisions off, then used the fact that almost no one seemed to notice as evidence of... actually I'm not quite sure what that was evidence of. But the patronizing contempt toward both television and tv viewers, which permeated the piece, was more than a little off-putting and really distracted from some of the real criticisms of the unexamined place that television holds in our lives and the ever-expanding encroachment of commercialism that our current television system is a fundamental part of.
This was already irking me, but what really set me off was the juxtaposition of that story about television with one that followed just a few minutes later. In the TV Turn Off story, one of the criticisms was that television keeps us from participating in real life-- how sad it is that we spend more time watching Friends than having friends, viewing images of sexuality than having sex, watching nature programs rather than going into nature, etc. Just minutes later, though, was a story ("Poetry and Place: Susquehanna River")about the power of literature and poetry and specifically about how reading a poem or novel about something or some place can sometimes be more real for us than actually going there. But now, of course, this "more real than reality" quality-- just moments before invoked to dismiss television-- is used to celebrate literature.
The two stories were treated as totally unrelated to one another, but the easy dismissal of television and the easy praise of poetry for the same condition, frustrated me a great deal. The knee-jerk defense of written media and knee-jerk dismissal of the televisual are both part of a problematic technological determinism, which blinds us to the promises and dangers of both and the ways in which the power of either is the result of specific social and cultural practices that are never inevitable or set in stone.
Having just finished reading Steven Johnson's essay (blogged below) about the positive aspects of some current television, just before hearing this radio piece on TV Turn Off Week, undoubtedly helped prime my irritation about the treatment of television vs. poetry on Weekend America, as well as with the tone of the TV Turn Off Week discussion more generally. With all of this on my mind, I went to Johnson's blog and discovered that he, in the larger book from which the TV article was drawn, critiques just this sort of tendency-- the too easily privileging of some media and the too quickly dismissing of others-- along similar lines. Akin to the television/poetry juxtaposition that was frustrating me, Johnson raises these questions about books vs. video games:
It's a little thought experiment that comes near the beginning, trying to get around the traditional prejudice that assumes that reading is invariably "good for you" and that games are mostly a waste of time.
"Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries—and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:
Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.