Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TV makes you nervous

There are those smartypants lovers of popular culture who've marketed the idea that television makes us smarter. I'd counter that the boob tube, now an accessory to larger telecom media tentacles, makes us more nervous;there's the frequently made error of thinking that heightened awareness of what's going about you for an increase intellect. Rather, I think it makes for the kind of overwhelming where the raw input becomes a torrential blur ; static , in other words. Television used wisely diverts the smart mind when it's time to uncork , but it becomes a nagging, noising chain of it's own accord.

TV has succeeded in making us measurably dumber. Not stupider, mind you, just dumber, which is tendency to accept mediocrity across the board in the kind of false-consciousness that embraces the equality of all cultural matters and mediums .God has a cruel wit if what we have are real people with fake lives watching TV shows full of fake people acting out real ones. Social anxiety disorder is a real condition, though we dispensed with the trend of making every discomfort a disease and just referred to sufferers as either existentially perplexed, or more simply, "neurotic".

Any good post-war coffee cooler philosophe knows the cure to the constant fretting and despair: GET A LIFE, or at least create one. In the current age, we can start with turning off the TV and getting a library card, for nothing makes you smarter as well has reading books , one page at a time, at pace where you're allowed, or rather compelled to develop sound thinking. TV has replaced the ability to abstract with the mere capacity to summarize, which is the difference between synthesizing information and formulating a solution to a problem under inspection, and the other merely a form of inventory taking, hardly more than putting everything in specimen jars, labeling them, and categorizing them in a method that renders the information inert, useless, and mere clutter. We're coming to approach ideas like statistic laden sports fans who have amassed data very quickly but have nothing they can do with it. TV, as fine and brilliant as some of the drama has become, does not provide for a structure through which critical thinking is possible, as would the reading of books. With the latter cannot argue with the screen, cannot add to a conversation under way. It remains entertainment best assessed with other disciplines hopefully read from books that were thoroughly interrogated by personalities that are aware that images are fleeting and forgotten, but words are forever and therefore powerful.

It's misleading to argue that TV overall is better and more brilliant than it was in the past and that as a consequence viewers have become smarter as they interact with the subtler and more complex programming. To my mind, the ratio of quality programming to the rot is about the same, ten percent to eighty percent (in descending order); those shows that one isn't embarrassed to admit to watching--Sopranos, The West Wing , et al--are better than the fabled Hill Street Blues, but the promise of cable television never materialized as you might have hoped. With some exceptions, we have five hundred channels with nothing to watch, to paraphrase Springsteen, and what we have, really, are millions of viewers who are knowledgeable about scores of things of little consequence at all. Being able to link the difficulties with the goon show that was the Michael Jackson trial with the daily debacle of the O.J. Simpson murder case in the minutest detail is not the same as garnering information that would help you devise better ways to educate, employ and protect a community. Television only makes you smarter about television, and I chance it to say that what people remember about Hardball are Chris Matthew's volume and how well or badly his haircut might have been, and not the details of his questions to his political guests.

The situation hasn't made us any smarter in ways that make interaction more successful; most of the discussion that one places so much stress on happens online, alone, in private, which more or less reduces the phenomenon to the consumption of pornography.

1 comment:

  1. TV is an all-too-fruitful subject for splenetic rants and venomous jeremiads. You sound like a latter-day Phillip Wylie here, taking a sharp stick to a new generation of vipers. And I for one am with you, brother.

    There’s a couple of points you make about the creeping brain-rot that is TV that I found especially provocative. You state that “TV has replaced the ability to abstract with the mere capacity to summarize, which is the difference between synthesizing information…and the other merely a form of inventory taking, hardly more than putting everything in specimen jars…” I would say that television has been a prime engine in driving what I might call the anecdotalization of culture, meaning that the public now sees most everything in terms of individual stories rather than broader meanings. People seem to savor the juicy specific details about ANYONE’S life, be it Paris Hilton or some poor schlub on a home redecoration reality show. One of the hallmarks of rap music is that the rapper’s monologues and diatribes are all about specific people that we are supposed to care about – Eminem, for instance, might run on and on about his mom and his wife and his baby as if there is something transcendently interesting about these people. He’s not making a universal connection with your feelings about your parents or wife or kids. All he’s doing is spewing “facts” to invite voyeurism or envy or something. It’s incredibly real and incredible irrelevant at the same time. Ultimately, why are we supposed to give a frig?

    You go on to say that a passive viewer “cannot argue with the screen, cannot add to a conversation under way...” Of course, with computer games you can do exactly that: interact with a cartoon character that you choose to deal with as a living being. In the end, you are playing a sort of schizophrenic solitaire and “playing checkers with your own life’ (as Prophet Omega once put it). The objective has become subjective, a vast and endless labyrinth erected in your skull. The TV hard-wired to your head is ultimately worse than the big flat screen leering in the corner.

    Oh well. Try a new salad dressing!


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