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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Turned Off TV

We're in the middle of Screen-Free Week – it began April 30 – and I've seen little publicity about it. Then again, I don't watch TV. But even internet news sources have failed to offer much. It's been happening since 1994, formerly called TV Turnoff Week, and the official website is here. My own epiphany came in 1980, as described in the article below. It's long and pretends to scholarly import (with a bibliography, even!), so take a deep breath. And it's followed by an interview piece about Bill McKibben that was published in Metroland Magazine many years ago. Remember: you can help make the world safe for yourself and others with a TV-B-Gone. I never leave home without it.


I’VE NEVER SEEN an episode of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld.” I’ve never even seen “M*A*S*H.”  I have a vague idea of what’s going on with “The Sopranos.” I’m a former television addict who inadvertently took a break from the box and never went back to watching it.

I can confess, along with so many millions of others, that TV was a babysitter and companion throughout my childhood. From Saturday morning cartoons to the Friday night primetime schedule (that’s when a couple of seasons of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” aired), I rushed to see what the living room’s oracle had to offer. In the pre-cable days, these were all commercial offerings, and even now I get an emotional jolt when I come across a vintage ad on an Internet site.

My family dined on TV dinners perched on TV tray stands in front of the TV, silently gumming Salisbury steak as Red Skelton cavorted in front of us (a scene poignantly recreated in Barry Levinson’s movie “Avalon.”) My allegiance began to shift slightly when, late in my high-school years, I discovered vintage movies, which at that time were to be found in a handful of revival houses – and on television, usually late at night. Still interrupted by commercials.

In the mid-1970s, however, I went into the restaurant business, first as a waiter, then learning to cook. I worked split shifts six days a week. There was no time or opportunity to watch TV, and almost nobody around me watched it – a phenomenon born more of the number of boozehounds in the business, who followed a late-night shift with even later-night drinking.

I changed career in 1980 and took an early-morning airshift at a radio station, giving me back my evenings for the first time in five years. I got hold of a TV and turned it on to watch my first program in a long, long time. I wish I could tell you what it was; all I remember is that it was a canned laughter-enhanced sitcom, badly written, poorly acted, interrupted by ads the audio volume of which was far louder than the program itself. I felt bored and angry and insulted. I got rid of the TV and haven’t tuned in since.

Making that commitment was easy at first: I was new in town and was seeking a social life. As I met and visited more people, however, I’d find myself forced to sit in a living room with the TV blaring, among grown-ups whose attention was always diverted by the stuff onscreen. TV programs formed the chief topic of workplace conversation. No possibility existed of anything other than cursory, superficial chatter.

The farther I withdrew from our TV-centric society, that more heartbroken I felt at the dilemma of my culture – and the loss of my friends, hooked on the most addictive drug ever injected into the aorta of mankind. They protest: “I only watch the news.” “I only watch the History Channel.” “I only watch PBS.” This is like a crack addict boasting that he obtains his drug only from the most high-class sources.

Whether it’s judged from the perspective of information, entertainment, technology, or sociology, television reveals itself to be dangerous medium. That you’ll find a TV set in almost every living room, unquestioningly placed there – often at great expense – with the idea that it’s a necessity is appalling. TV Turnoff Week challenges you to do without it for a week. I’m suggesting you give it up for good, and I’m going to turn to some other voices to reinforce my suggestion.

Our TV lives in an upstairs room of its own, with no broadcast or cable reception. We have pre-recorded movies that we watch as a family event, much as we used to go out to movies when back in the days when there was truly entertaining fare and an audience willing to quietly sit through a show. Now that audience has been television-massaged into rude impatience, quelled only by rapid cutting and frequent violence.


“If you decide to watch television, then there’s no choice but to accept the stream of electronic images as it comes,” writes former ad-man Jerry Mander. “Since there is no way to stop the images, one merely gives over to them. More than this, one has to clear all channels of reception to allow them in more cleanly. Thinking only gets in the way.” Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television was published in 1977, but his conclusions remain depressingly up to date.

“Television offers neither rest nor stimulation,” he writes. “Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation, or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that’s as far as television goes. . . . The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What's worse, it is filled with someone else’s obsessive thoughts and images.”

Yet we delude ourselves into thinking that we have earned some kind of right to be entertained – entertained passively, without making that entertainment for ourselves – or enjoying it in a convivial setting.

Ivan Illich examined the sociological impact of technology in his book Tools for Conviviality: “I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.”

A point easily reinforced by Mander: “If forty million people see a commercial for a car, then forty million people have a car commercial in their heads, all at the same time. This is bound to have more beneficial effect on the commodity system than if, at that moment, all those people were thinking separate thoughts which, in some cases, might not be about commodities at all.”

Illich – who never prognosticates in half-measure – conjures a vision of “bureaucratic management of human survival”: “Man would live in a plastic bubble that would protect his survival and make it increasingly worthless. Since man’s tolerance would become the most serious limitation to growth, the alchemist’s endeavor would be renewed in the attempt to produce a monstrous type of man fit to live among reason’s dreams. A major function of engineering would become the psychogenetic tooling of man himself as a condition for further growth. People would be confined from birth to death in a world-wide schoolhouse, treated in a world-wide hospital, surrounded by television screens, and the man-made environment would be distinguishable in name only from a world-wide prison.”

Can you convincingly argue that this hasn’t happened? Add to that vision the Internet-connected computer screen and you have what’s already metaphorically accurate. Television not only presents itself as a key component of that scenario: it also has created a society of willing participants, lulled into soporific assent by a combination of fear and hypnosis. (We’ll get to the hypnosis part – and it may surprise you – in a moment.)

“It was only after a long while and many half-steps of change in viewpoint that I finally faced the fact that television is not reformable, that it must be gotten rid of totally if our society is to return to something like sane and democratic functioning,” writes Mander in the introduction to his text. “So, to argue that case, especially considering that it involves a technology accepted as readily and utterly as electric light itself, is not something that ought to be done rapidly or lightly. Nor can such a case be confined to the technology itself, as if it existed aside from a context.

“The first argument is theoretical and environmental. It attempts to set the framework by which we can understand television’s place in modern society. Yet, this argument is not about television itself. . . It is about a process, already long underway, which has successfully redirected and confined human experience and therefore knowledge and perceived reality. We have all been moved into such a narrow and deprived channel of experience that a dangerous instrument like television can come along and seem useful, interesting, sane, and worthwhile at the same time it further boxes people into a physical and mental condition appropriate for the emergence of autocratic control.”

This point is echoed in Bill McKibben’s 1992 book, The Age of Missing Information: “We believe that we live in the ‘age of information,’” he writes, “that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.” (See interview below.)

As a professor of media studies at NYU, Neil Postman wrote frequently about education and technology. His call for school reform, The End of Education, coupled with his depressing look at the erosion of the innocent fantasy world of kids in The Disappearance of Childhood, made him an inevitable observer of the ills of TV.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he writes, “(T)o enter the great television conversation, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. This is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago.”

Mander’s second argument is titled “The Colonization of Experience”: “That television would be used and expanded by the present powers-that-be was inevitable, and should have been predictable at the outset. The technology permits of no other controllers.” What seemed oppressive 30 years ago is far worse, as that ownership has consolidated not only in the ever-fewer number of corporate owners but also the rigid, consumerist philosophy they share – and that makes them ever more wealthy. “It is no accident that television has been dominated by a handful of corporate powers. Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A conspiracy of technological and economic factors made this inevitable and continue to do so.”


Here’s the hypnotism part, which informs Mander’s third argument. “Television technology produces neuro-physiological responses in the people who watch it. It may create illness, it certainly produces confusion and submission to external imagery. Taken together, the effects condition for autocratic control.”

This phenomenon was examined by Wes Moore in a 2001 issue of “The Journal of Cognitive Liberties”: “When you watch TV, brain activity switches from the left to the right hemisphere. In fact, experiments conducted by researcher Herbert Krugman showed that while viewers are watching television, the right hemisphere is twice as active as the left, a neurological anomaly. The crossover from left to right releases a surge of the body’s natural opiates: endorphins, which include beta-endorphins and enkephalins. Endorphins are structurally identical to opium and its derivatives (morphine, codeine, heroin, etc.) Activities that release endorphins (also called opioid peptides) are usually habit-forming (we rarely call them addictive).

“(E)ven casual television viewers experience such opiate-withdrawal symptoms if they stop watching TV for a prolonged period of time. An article from South Africa’s Eastern Province Herald  (October 1975) described two experiments in which people from various socio-economic milieus were asked to stop watching television. In one experiment, several families volunteered to turn off their TVs for just one month. The poorest family gave in after one week, and the others suffered from depression, saying they felt as though they had “lost a friend.” In the other experiment, 182 West Germans agreed to kick their television viewing habit for a year, with the added bonus of payment. None could resist the urge longer than six months, and over time all of the participants showed the symptoms of opiate withdrawal: increased anxiety, frustration, and depression.”

Television provokes the viewer’s brain to produce alpha waves in less than a minute, “which indicates torpid (almost comatose) rates of activity. Alpha brain waves are associated with unfocused, overly receptive states of consciousness. A high frequency alpha waves does not occur normally when the eyes are open. In fact, (the implications is) that watching television is neurologically analogous to staring at a blank wall.” Reassuring news for advertisers: “Alpha waves are present during the ‘light hypnotic’ state used by hypno-therapists for suggestion therapy.”

“Along with the venality of its controllers, the technology of television predetermines the boundaries of its content. Some information can be conveyed completely, some partially, some not at all. The most effective telecommunications are the gross, simplified linear messages and programs which conveniently fit the purposes of the medium's commercial controllers.” Thus begins Mander’s fourth argument: “The Inherent Biases of Television.”

“Television's highest potential is advertising. This cannot be changed. The bias is inherent in the technology.”

Adds Postman: “There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have changed. Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now almost complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.”

Which leads Mander to his no-compromise conclusion. “What is revealed in the end is that there is ideology in the technology itself. To speak of television as ‘neutral’ and therefore subject to change is as absurd as speaking of the reform of a technology such as guns.”


The craven inanity of our national discourse – whether it be about the latest dead pseudo-celebrity or the feckless behavior of a TV-hyped sports star – should be reason enough to give up the tube. Add to that our widespread ignorance of affairs of state, fragmented attention spans, and near-total lack of cultural literacy, and the notion of TV as an educational source looks preposterous.

I agree with Mander: It’s an all-or-nothing game, and you win by turning the TV off and leaving it off. It’s not enough to try to shield your kids from what’s on. As the attendants insist on your airplane flights, make sure that you get the oxygen first.


Illich, Ivan, Tools for Conviviality, Harper & Row, NY, 1973.
Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Quill, NY, 1977.
McKibben, Bill, The Age of Missing Information, Random House, NY, 1992.
Moore, Wes, “Television: Opiate of the Masses,” The Journal of Cognitive Liberties,
     Vol. 2, Issue No. 2, 2001.
Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show
     Business. Penguin Books, NY, 1985.


Bill McKibben | Creative Commons | Rachel Kao, 2011
A CHILLY MIST shrouds the tops of the mountains surrounding Bill McKibben’s Warren County home. As is true of most large old rural houses, his has a front door as well as a door as well as a door that everybody uses. That one’s around the back.

Tall and wiry, with close-cropped hair and an high forehead, he looks like any area farmer. Boots, jeans and a plaid flannel shirt added a touch of North Country ease. “Didn’t expect it to be so cold out today,” he says. “I’m sorry you can’t see the mountains. Come on in and have some soup with me.”

McKibben, once a staff writer for The New Yorker who also ran a small homeless shelter in Manhattan, has now spent several years in what might seem like rural seclusion. But it was logical and necessary choice, explained in his books The End of Nature and, just recently, The Age of Missing Information.

“I had to do this experiment,” he explains, “and see what came of it. I was hoping for a book, but I had very few preconceptions, fewer than usual.” The experiment placed him in front of a television set for several months, auditing over a thousand hours of television programming – everything that was available on each of the hundred cable stations in Fairfax, Virginia, during the 24 hours of May 3, 1990.

At that time, Fairfax boasted the largest cable service in the country. McKibben’s purpose was to examine the information that is available during a day’s worth of TV and compare it to the information found in nature: specifically, a 24-hour camping trip on one of those mist-wrapped mountains partially visible through the kitchen window.

Although he describes himself as having gone into the experiment with no preconceptions, with no desire to slap television with adverse judgments, he didn’t emerge from it any kind of a fan of the box.

“I was in Canada recently, where I came across this guy named Dr. Tomorrow who has 20 satellite dishes and says he’s connected to 4700 computer databases. He goes around and lectures, but the topic is not, say, ‘War and Peace,’ or something that he’s learned from all that TV – it’s about how much information there is in the world. He’s simply saying, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of information out there!’ Who cares? It’s like saying, ‘If you’re thirsty, there’s all of Lake Ontario’ – but you don’t need all of Lake Ontario and if you try to drink it all it’ll do you more harm than good. You need a cup of water and then you need to go on and do something else.”

In terms of aesthetics, Television is still a black-and-white world. Although McKibben isn’t exactly a detractor – he’s more interested in why people are doing so much of this watching – it must be clear to the TV powers that he’s an enemy.

“I was on one or two interview programs,” he says, “but TV’s not very interested and I’m not very interested.” An appearance on “Good Morning, America” was typical of such sessions: a few minutes to describe his reaction to watching all that TV, and then “Charlie Gibson said, ‘Well, we have fifteen seconds left, tell me about the natural world.’”

It’s an ironic counterpoint to the book. “One of the conclusions I reached is that TV is pretty unimportant for particular things,” McKibben says. “It’s so constant that you can’t remember anything you just saw.”

He expands upon that topic often in the book. For example: “If God decided to deliver the Ten Commandments on the Today show, it’s true he’d have an enormous audience. But the minute he was finished, or maybe after he’d gotten through six or seven, it would be time for a commercial and then a discussion with a pet psychiatrist about how to introduce your dog to your new baby.”

McKibben writes in an easy-to-read, punctilious style that’s livened with wry humor. He seems too friendly, too accessible to be some kind of a crank, and the message of his book makes more and more sense as you go along.  “One purpose of writing, for me, is to make people doubt their perceived understanding of the world. This idea that we’re incredibly smart and live in an information age – this seems to me largely a joke. We have immense amounts of a very limited kind of information, and we’re incredibly unwise in other ways. I just tried to give a few extended examples of the kinds of understanding of things you could get from an activity as supposedly unstimulating as going for a walk in the woods.”

His book is constructed in sections that take you around the clock as you go around the channels; each time period also contains an examination of the quiet information a natural setting imparts. “I realized very quickly that I needed some kind of baseline for real reality to set against the packaging of television. It could as easily have been the middle of the city, with a lot of contact with human beings. When I lived in New York City I started and ran a small homeless shelter, and I could as easily have used that experience to play against. The point was to remind myself how incredibly information drenched any actual contact with other people is, any actual experience is, as opposed to the forgettable emptiness of letting other people have experiences for you – setting them to music and putting them on TV.”

Before beginning the experiment, McKibben had fallen out of the TV habit. To watch it again “was like going home after a semester for Christmas vacation and suddenly having enough distance to understand your parents in a way you never did when you lived with them, with all sorts of insights clicking into place.”

The appeal of television is twofold, he believes. “It allows us to feel hip while we’re doing things that are manifestly un-hip. Such as staring at MTV for hour upon hour. Even if you bought the idea that the kind of things portrayed on MTV are hip, certainly it’s only hip to go out and do them and not just sit and look at them all day. And one of the reasons television is so effective as a selling device is that it’s entirely predictable. You couldn’t put on Kraft Playhouse any more because the audience wouldn’t know from night to night if it’s going to be scary or funny, and that doesn’t work for advertisers.

“That’s how we’ve come to use TV to affect our moods. If we want to be scared, we want to know in advance that we’re going to be scared. We want the exact same mood that Jeopardy conjures up every single night. Alex Treback is never going to offend you, arouse you, alarm you, amuse you any more or less than any other night.

“It turns out that an enormous number of people share a visceral dissatisfaction and unease with the amount of their lives devoted to television. You don’t usually find anyone who’s really happy to be spending thirty hours a week in front of a television set. If you want to use television constructively, the argument is always that you should watch Public Broadcasting. But someone said to me the other day, and I think it’s true – that’s just being passive at a slightly higher intellectual level.

“Television has made us think of ourselves as being all-important as individuals, because it’s so consumer oriented. The point of it is always: Your happiness is paramount. It should immediately be gratified.”

Television is therefore the catalyst for our rampant consumerism. “One of the strange things about a consumer society is that it doesn’t make us particularly happy. Television is the great proof of it. Everyone who sits there for a couple of hours hears that voice in the back of the head saying, ‘I wish I were doing something more interesting than this.’”

In contrast to that hollow consumerism, the quiet, insistent voice of nature has a message, too, and McKibben believes it’s a vital one. “It’s telling us that there might be some limits on what we can or should do – or want to do – in terms of what we need. The End of Nature was largely an argument that environmental considerations should force us to change our daily habits. This book goes further: it says that we not only have to change those habits, but that we need to get back in touch with the desire to change them.”

Toward the end of his book, he writes, “ ... we live at the curious moment when this choice matters – when aesthetic notions about the good life and community and sufficiency and so on, long the province of moral philosophers and preachers, coincide with interests of atmospheric chemists. You can look at our environmental problems like this – almost everyone on the planet is causing friction, some because they have too much and consume it wastefully, some because they have too little and must abuse the earth.”

Television will never be an agent for societal change: it’s up to the individual to take control. McKibben lives in a manner that reinforces his beliefs, next to the mountains he loves to explore.

Although he’s taking on an electronic Goliath, the message was reinforced for me shortly before my interview, when a friend mentioned that she’d seen John Leonard on television disparage McKibben’s book. What did Leonard say?

“Oh. I can’t remember,” she said.

Metroland Magazine, June 12, 1992                                   

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