Sunday, March 29, 2009
My son the engineering graduate student installed a digital TV converter box for me two days ago. While I appreciate his help, I am having second thoughts about upgrading my viewing technology. All that I watch that provides any consistent benefit is the weather segment of the local news. So, insofar as most of what I receive over the airwaves is visual sewage, is it really an advantage to bring a more advanced sewer pipe into my living room? (I was too lazy to find a sewer to photograph by way of illustration. The sudsy spillway above is provided as a substitute.)
Sometimes my mind boggles when I consider the magnitude of the unprecedented psychological and sociological experiment that has been conducted on the American public during the last sixty years of television exposure. The relentless visual stimulus has damaged literacy and personal health; the increasingly degraded content has undermined morals; and the techniques of television advertising have driven serious consideration of issues clean out of political campaigning.
Neil Postman (1931-2003), the New York University professor and media critic, was one of the first to sound the alarm about television's bad effects. He argued that television presents "a peek-a-boo world where now this event, now that pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense, a world that does not ask us, indeed does not permit us to do anything...but like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining." He described his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" as "an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television."
Well, Professor Postman is no longer with us. But he left us some insights, my favorite being the following quote:
"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 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."
Put your money on Huxley.