Literature on the deleterious effects of television on our minds has a long history. From garden-variety paranoia, to studies indicating an increase in passivity after viewing, to scathing social critiques like Neil Postman’s in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and literary condemnation through Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” and Fahrenheit 451—the Box will forever live in infamy. With the sudden blossoming of the Internet in the past two decades, one might expect a similar literature to sprout with respect to this new technology.
In many respects, it has. But to my surprise, I discovered several critiques of sweeping, popular complaints of “internet addiction” as I researched this article. Moreover, many of these critiques themselves are from the mainstream media.
“Worrying about the internet,” writes Tom Stafford in a 2012 article on BBC Future, “is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technology might bring.” Later that year, Monica Hesse took a bite out of Web-hypochondria herself, asking: “Are we doomed to become hysterical doomsayers with every technological advance, to cower in front of fire before realizing that we could use it to cook our bison?” (Article here.) A New York times editorial from 2010 questions the very foundation of Internet-related health concerns. Its title? “The Attention-Span Myth.”
The consensus amongst these and other critics of the Internet’s detractors is that although there is such a thing as compulsive or maladaptive Internet use, said detractors grossly overstate its magnitude and severity. In response to accusations that the Internet rewires our brains, they respond—rightly—that everything we do rewires our brains. The Web is hardly special in that respect, and while some of us may have difficulty controlling our behavior, even then we are far from helpless.
Though my small sample size may be a factor, I have not found anyone riding to the defense of television. Indeed, my observations have shown the opposite. In October of 2012—around the time of Halloween, I might add—Slate ran an article (originally from AlterNet) titled: “Does TV actuallybrainwash Americans?”
Sensationalist title aside, the article raises some valid concerns about the medium. The most relevant issues come from a 2002 ScientificAmerican article by Robert Kubey and psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi. According to the Scientific American piece, the television set commands our attention on a basic neurological level. The illusion of motion it presents, as well as the convention of quick edits, activates our “orienting response” — the neurological mechanism that calls our attention to change in our physical environment. On a deeper level, watching television relaxes viewers and instills a feeling of passivity. The relaxation ends with the viewing, which reinforces the habit, but the sense of passivity does not. This effect stands in contrast with hobbies, which tend to keep participants’ stress levels lower and does not instill the same passiveness. (Kubey and Csikszenmihalyi, 2002)
The author of the AlterNet/Slate article, Bruce Levine, claims that this lingering passivity which results from watching television renders the medium “a staple of American pacification.” It does stand to reason that lasting exposure to this effect could mollify a population. While “brainwashing” may be too strong a word, individuals primed for passivity may be less likely to act in the face of injustice, or speak out against falsehoods, or care about the consequences of events they have come to believe are outside of their control.
Certainly, the content of television holds great sway over us. Levine asserts that “Fear-based TV programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for an authoritarian society[.]” Research indicates this to be true. The cultivation theory of mass media indicates that what we see on television, as with other media, cultivates a particular worldview based upon what we see and hear in said media. Violent media makes people believe the world is more violent than it may actually be, and thus may tend to seek out and trust authorities who promise to protect them.
Nonetheless, Levine’s article comes across as a bit yellow in its journalism. He opens the piece with the proclamation: “Historically, television viewing has been used by various authorities to quiet potentially disruptive people[…]” And who are these people? Rebels? Political dissidents? Not quite. They range “from kids, to psychiatric inpatients, to prison inmates.”
While prisons and psychiatric wards are frightening in their application and abuse of authority, using TV to shut up grumpy children or inmates is not what comes to mind when pondering the propaganda potential of mass media. This particular use of television is about as menacing as giving a pacifier to a baby. Furthermore, Levine embellishes Kubey’s and Csikszenmihalyi’s article by omission. He uses its title, “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” to indicate that its authors believe TV to be a devastatingly addictive drug when, in fact, they take a more nuanced approach in the article itself. “The term ‘TV addiction’ is imprecise and laden with value judgments,” they write, “but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon.”
As the authors continue to expound upon television’s addictive effects, they temper their discourse with a reminder that “little evidence suggests that adults or children should stop watching TV altogether. The problems come from heavy or prolonged viewing.” Though Levine’s comparison of television to beer early in the article echoes the Scientific American article’s statement, the remainder of his article does not read as temperate. His citing the works of Jerry Mander, whom he describes as a “‘reformed sinner’ of sorts” and who published a 1978 book titled “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” does not suggest a moderate perspective.
This sort of sensational reporting is what characterizes television as a propaganda machine, and yet we see traces of it in a written article. Such things are not new: the phrase “yellow journalism” describes the hyperbolic rhetoric and loose reporting of newspapers in the 19th century. In an era where the papers were one’s only link to news outside of the hometown, cultivation theory no doubt applied to these tabloid rags as well. Television is the more recent king of an old throne.
Ultimately, what distinguishes television from older media is the fact that you cannot talk back to a TV set. Because it is so passive an activity, it is easy to refrain from questioning what flashes before one’s eyes. Moreover, few of us learn to regard video as critically as we do writing. Clever documentarians and reporters alike can exploit our lack of film literacy and recast the truth as an actor in a convincing lie.
But questioning the screen is exactly what the doctor ordered. The pioneer of cultivation theory, George Gerbner, once said that when it came to ameliorating the negative effects of violent television on children, that “Just having a notion of alternatives is already a kind of immunizing factor.” (Transcript here.) Indeed, I suspect that sentiment is related to why I found at least three articles critical of those who decried the Internet for its deleterious effects on health. You might not be able to talk back to the TV, but you can talk back to the Web. You can talk back in the comments. You can talk back on your blog. You can make your own video in response. You can look up opposing viewpoints in an instant. The freedom and interactivity which the Internet grants can be addicting, but it appears to be more truly fulfilling than passively watching the tube on your couch.
By and large, Levine’s article is correct about how television can be an instrument of indoctrination. Indeed, my forthcoming Wednesday post explores how television news and mass media lies and equivocates to us on a regular basis. But it is not the final word on television, or any other medium. In the end, a medium is only as bad as the uses to which we put it. Television may make us feel passive, but we are not helpless. As the Internet cannibalizes TV, I suspect that sense of passivity will also diminish. To raise the cloud of mass-media propaganda and Internet addiction without also mentioning the silver lining—how we may overcome these problems and use these media to our benefit—is to cultivate a sense of hopelessness in your readers. A sense of hopelessness which is also useful to those who wish to usurp power.