Television’s Role in Society
In the first chapter of his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky makes the obvious observation that the post-industrial world has brought free time, a notion only historically familiar to a lucky few, to the masses. Further (and not so obviously), we have squandered a nauseating amount of this gift on television over the past half century, consuming 200 billion hours of programming each year in America alone.
Why do we spend so much time attached to the tube? Shirky says the culprit is loneliness. Excess free time is again the link to this particular flavor of individual isolation and agony: Humans are social creatures, but the explosion of our surplus of free time coincided with a steady reduction in social capital–our stock of relationships with people we trust and rely on.” Shirky goes on to cite numerous psychological studies regarding TV’s effects on individuals, championing a “social surrogacy hypothesis.” This hypothesis is two-pronged. First, TV displaces our interactions with others by being an activity so embedded in our culture that we don’t even question its role in our homes and thus neglect time that could otherwise be spent productively. Second, the characters that we watch and grow familiar with actually act as surrogates for real human interaction. Further, though we can subscribe to this sad stand-in for friendship, it will only make us lonelier in the end. This may be seen in the fact that volume of TV consumption is inversely correlated with happiness. In other words, replacing your social life with television is sort of like marrying a body pillow. It may help quell your anxiety for a bit, but it gets sad pretty fast.
In his 1990 essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, David Foster Wallace echoes Shirky’s sentiment regarding the intimate connection between television and loneliness while exploring a parallel image of TV as a mirror for society. In his opinion, “television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see.” Through this lens, television both provides us with companionship and shows a picture of what we should aspire to be. It’s no surprise that research cited by Shirky indicates that the more television we consume the more materialistic and anxious we tend to be. Our world is not defined by healthy relationships. Rather, our 6 hour daily dose has given us “unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.” Our standard for self-worth in an era where pop culture is imposed on us, the passive audience, is then determined by whoever has the money to air their content on one of the finite number of channels on each home’s cable subscription.
Moving Past TV’s Grip (In Some Capacity)
Thanks to the internet, our unprecedented amounts of free time don’t have to be defined by unprecedented amounts of passive consumption. Rather, we can channel our diverse individual knowledge and specialties into projects that benefit countless people throughout the world, like Wikipedia. As I reflect on this new horizon of human creation, though, I find myself plagued by the status of Wallace’s “watchableness” thesis. Wallace’s concerns about a reality “rooted in the phenomenon of watching,” don’t necessarily seem to be broken down as easily as Shirky’s concerns over idle time. Sure, we aren’t logging into social media solely to look at others’ lives. We have news to catch up on and events to plan. However, curating the self-portrait that we present to the world still seems to be the main activity of our social media endeavors. In other words, we continually attempt to show others a watchable version of ourselves.
Though the TV-era quest for watchability remains, our definition of what is watchable seems to be broadening exponentially. Television used to be a picture of the “average”—a stimulating slice of America balanced to appeal to as many as possible. Our archetypal jocks, slackers, yuppies, etc. were presented in a normalized, straightforward fashion. The digital world, however, provides us with a vast array of communities to identify with. The essence of a mogul skier, a bird watcher, or a member of a radical religious sect would have never been distilled in prime time stock characters, but we can now consume as many images of these communities as our free time allows and fold them into our understanding of ourselves.
When we embed ourselves in these digital communities and present ourselves along the lines of their influence, meaning is still intimately connected with what we deem to be “watchable.” Our obsession with image has been democratized rather than thwarted. The impacts of this cultural phenomenon are heavily debated. A Guardian article titled The Future of Loneliness both warns of the dangers of perpetually malleable identities that may “warp and melt” while praising the benefits to “people whose sexuality, gender or race is considered marginal, of being able to construct and manifest an identity that is often off-limits or forbidden in the physical world.” In other words, submitting oneself to unmediated identity flux based on some site’s images can obviously be problematic, but the countless lines of identity definition available in online communities are also phenomenally liberating for those who would otherwise be isolated in the physical world.
Richard Kearney, a philosophy professor at Boston College, throws his hat into the debate by reminding us of “Plato’s Gyges, who could see everything at a distance but was touched by nothing” and implores us to “find our way to the tactile world again.” This reminder is particularly refreshing because the development of media over the last half century has been defined by images and sounds, diminishing our appreciation for our other senses. A framework that bridges Kearney’s return to the tactile and the important role of the digital world as a tool for self-definition may enable us to break from the paradigm of the watchable and move toward identities marked by full realization of our potentials in the physical world rather than self-consciousness. Cutting down the 200 billion hour figure with respect to both television and the internet are a great first step toward this perspective shift.