Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Television's Dark Vision

The 2004 U.S. Presidential race cost Americans $693 million dollars. The 2008 election is projected to cost at least twice as much. In contrast, the 1988 election that put Bush the elder in office cost just 59 million dollars. If this trend continues, in a few decades presidential elections are going to cost more than health care for Americans.

Most of that money goes for TV ads. But how much can one tell about a candidate from TV ads? At the same time that American political parties have been spending an increasing amount on TV ads there has been a trend towards fewer and fewer people voting in elections. There is something ominous about these two trends, if you ask me. And the common denominator is television itself.

I've already talked about the decline in civic engagement from the mid 1960's to the present, chronicled by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. According to Putnam, most of that decline is due to the passing of the generation that fought in the Second World War. But Putnam also points out that the next strongest cause of the decline in social and civic engagement is television.

The trend is clear, the more television that people watch the less they are involved in social and community life. Part of this disengagement is due to time constraints. If one is spending time watching TV then one has less time to pursue activities outside the home. But the same cannot be said for other activities such as reading newspapers, which is positively correlated with civic engagement.

Television was first introduced to a mass audience in the 1950's. By 1959, 90% of Americans had a TV. Since then the amount of time people spend watching TV has steadily increased, until by the 1990's Americans were watching on the average four hours of television a day.

Not only is amount of TV watched correlated with social disconnection, the greater the exposure to TV during childhood the greater the degree of disconnection. My parents didn't get a TV until I was about five, and during the fifties there wasn't a lot to watch. I did watch a lot of TV in my adolescence but I was never wedded to it. But the generation after me, Generation X, grew up with the presence of TV from the moment they were born. That's a big reason why Generation X'ers both watch more TV and are less socially engaged than baby boomers.

“Television is the cheapest and least demanding way of averting boredom”, says Putnam. It engages our attention without requiring the effort of actually being engaged. But what makes TV so attractive is exactly what makes it so potentially dangerous for democracy. It's no coincidence that television plays such a sinister role in 1984, George Orwell's famous novel on Totalitarianism.

As Putnam says, TV privatizes leisure. It makes us feel engaged with events and people without actually having to leave our houses or spend time with anyone else. The problem is that if not enough people are involved and volunteering in civic and political organizations then democracy itself becomes staged - a virtual reality like everything else on TV.

I'm not suggesting that we throw away our TV's but we might consider watching less. And, instead of just turning it on to see what's on we ought to be more purposeful about what we do watch.

Spending time outside the home, whether volunteering, playing in a local band, serving on a comittee, playing sports, learning a new subject, visiting friends, or just going for a walk is ultimately more satisfying than watching TV. The strictly private environment of television is an impoverished environment. Getting involved in social activities has a wide range of benefits for both ourselves and society as a whole. The thing is it takes effort and courage to get involved. But the rewards are more profound and can last a lifetime.

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