on tv

There is a passage in the book Things That Can & Cannot Be Said in which Arundhati Roy describes to John Cusack an experience she had in the forests of central India

where the poorest people in the world have stopped some of the richest mining corporations in their tracks. The great irony is that people who live in remote areas, who are illiterate and don’t own TVs, are in some ways more free because they are beyond the reach of indoctrination by the modern mass media. There’s a virtual civil war going on there and few know about it. Anyway, before I went into the forest, I was told by the superintendent of police, “Out there, ma’am… my boys shoot to kill.” … Anyway, then the cop says to me, “See, ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.”

This put me in mind of Jerry Mander’s classic polemic against mass media, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Written in 1978 by an ex-advertising man turned political and social activist, the book articulates the problems of mass broadcasting:

  1. The Mediation of Experience – in which the viewer succombs to a passive role as observer rather than participant;
  2. the Colonisation of Experience – in which the sources of broadcasting content are centralised and controlled by a minority who can afford it and who shape the content according to their own interests;
  3. the Effects of Television on the Human Being – the physical and mental impact of television viewing; and
  4. the Inherent Biases of Television – by which the spectrum of experiencial information is limited and filtered by television viewing.

Coincidentally, my edition of the book is a 1998 reprint by The Other India Press. In its forward, the publishers explain:

The book was originally published in 1978 in the USA at a time when television had begun taking control of the American mind in a big way. Now that a similar situation is overtaking us here twenty years later, we have decided that an Indian reprint of this book would be well appreciated by all those sane humans who are getting increasingly disturbed over the impact of television on their lives and habits of their families particularly the kids.

The relentless onward crush of modernisation across the globe – including the role television plays as a tool of conformity – has been documented in films such as Helena Norburg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (based on her 1991 book of the same name) as well as her more recent The Economics of Happiness (2011). Filmmaker Thomas Balmes has also explored this theme in his 2014 documentary Happiness, observing the experience of Bhutan, which in 1999 became the last country in the world to introduce television. So has more television created more happiness? What do you think?

Television has been tightening its grip over humanity now for over half a century; it is difficult to imagine life without it. Even those of us who try to avoid it cannot escape its touch. How many (countless!) times have I been asked “did you see….?” It barely registers when I reply with no, I don’t own a television, so I didn’t see. The conversation inevitably rolls over this impediment and carries on without me.

Even my idealistic resistance flags. Working fulltime now, my daughter away at university, I arrive home at the end of the day with a brain like mince. What could be easier than sitting back and surfing YouTube, with its reruns of sitcoms and clips from American late night talk shows? The evening is washed away in a blur of mind-numbed disconnection. And that my friends is precisely the point of it. Television provides us with the illusion of connection, of tapping into a shared culture that is greater than our small selves, while all the time we are surrendering our autonomy and allowing our communities to fragment into isolated rooms lit by the glow of a screen.

Don’t worry: I’m fully aware of the irony of arguing against screens here on my WordPress blog. I offer you once more the question I asked you earlier, the question I now ask you in all sincerity to pause and consider: what do you think? Because what we think is the only solution that we have in the face of global broadcasting. Stepping back from what we are told to think, and reclaiming the power to think for ourselves – how beautifully simple is the way out of this mess.

What I think is that it’s time for me to step back from the mindnumbing allure of YouTube, step away from my queasy fascination with US election coverage and my nostalgic binge-viewing of old BBC series; time to refresh my commitment to choose other ways of being.

I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, in which he describes an emerging paradigm that he calls ‘the Story of Interbeing.’ He writes:

So many people squelch the expression of their gifts by thinking that they must do something big with them. One’s own actions are not enough – one must write a book that reaches millions. How quickly this turns into competition over whose ideas get heard. How it invalidates the small, beautiful strivings of the bulk of humanity; invalidates, paradoxically, the very things that we must start doing en masse to sustain a livable planet…. Choice is only small through the eyes of separation. From the perspective of interbeing, your choice is no more or no less important than any of the president’s…. I am not actually suggesting that we do these small acts because they will in some mysterious way change the world (although they will). I am suggesting, rather, that we orient more toward where our choices come from rather than where they are going.

Perhaps as this Story of Interbeing emerges, the power of television over the collective imagination will wither and fade. Perhaps we will rediscover how connected we already are, without the artificial, distracting illusion of mass broadcasting. Perhaps we will somehow – through our small, individual acts of resistance – manage to sort things out.


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