Monday, April 25, 2005

Turning the TV Off?

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 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.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Smart TV

Steven Johnson provides an interesting defense of the current state of television in this week's New York Times Magazine, with the provocative title "Watching TV Makes You Smarter." I've excerpted the conclusion, below, but upon further reflection, I suspect that this excerpt might not have been the best one for me to choose: it encapsulates the point of the article (which is part of a larger project from his upcoming book), but perhaps doesn't capture the fun tone and concrete examples of the article as a whole. But I'm feeling too lazy to choose a juicier quote, so you'll just have to read the article for yourself...

In pointing out some of the ways that popular culture has improved our minds, I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves. What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind. Is it a single thread strung together with predictable punch lines every 30 seconds? Or does it map a complex social network? Is your on-screen character running around shooting everything in sight, or is she trying to solve problems and manage resources? If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them to watch ''Survivor'' over ''Fear Factor.'' If they want to watch a mystery show, encourage ''24'' over ''Law and Order.'' If they want to play a violent game, encourage Grand Theft Auto over Quake. Indeed, it might be just as helpful to have a rating system that used mental labor and not obscenity and violence as its classification scheme for the world of mass culture.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Old vs. New Media

Old media trumped new media for me today in alerting me to the selection of the new Pope. I learned the news not from the Internet or even television or radio. Rather, it was the bells that kept ringing outside that alerted me to the development.. I live quite near more than half a dozen churches, so hearing bells isn't altogether uncommon. So the chimes of the bells this morning didn't initially makemuch of an impression. But the bells primarily toll on Saturdays, after the weddings that seem to constantly take place around here. So, when the bells kept ringing and ringing on this Tuesday morning, I started to wonder and it finally dawned on me what it might mean.

Of course, I did have to go online or to the television to find out who in particular was elected. But the bells as initial source of the news for me brought a little smile to my face (the further news of the identity of the new Pope, however, certainly brought no such smile.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Another cool tool: The Annotated New York Times, a subset of blogrunner, compiles discussions and commentary from across the blogosphere that cite particular NYT articles. It looks like a helpful way to chart buzz on a particular topic/article/op-ed piece. Meme-orandum works similarly, with more papers (e.g. Washington Post and Boston Globe) but (I think) a much narrower set of blogs (and a less slick look)

(via A Blog Doesn't Need a Clever Name, via Micropersuasion)

(Hmm, this also brings to mind Paul Boutin's Slate piece, from last month, on a different form of annotating the news: Newsmashing)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Cool? Creepy? Both, I guess

The latest addition to GoogleMaps is its integration with satellite photos. As with so many technologies of this sort, I'm torn between being drawn into its coolness factor and creeped out by the surveillance implications [or at least creeped out by the reminder of the extent of surveillance out there). Of course I couldn't resist going immediately to look for the satellite view of my apartment.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Rank and file

The U.S. News and World Reports annual graduate school rankings are out now and UCSB's sociology department fared quite well in two categories: We're number 6 in culture and number 2 in sex & gender. Our culture program has been ranked right around this number for a while now, but it is the first year that the magazine has included a sex & gender ranking. The methodology used is not without its problems, but it's still pretty nice to see.

Regarding the sex & gender list, Jeremy Freese made the interesting observation that of all of the sociology subfields ranked, and all but one other of any of the 25 social science subfields ranked, sex & gender is the only one to have a complete lack of Ivy League schools.