I’ve struggled of late (actually for several decades) to define my life to myself in order to focus my scattershot efforts at trying to do something useful and intelligent with my life. And I’m still not having a lot of success with that.
The closest I’ve come to some sort of definition, or defining quality, is that I like to learn stuff. All kinds of stuff. Not to become an expert in anything, nor to win a job or a grade or a girl, but just… because.
Unfortunately one of the obstacles I’ve allowed to get in the way is an insidious drug, an intensely addictive, if ethereal, substance. It is highly addictive, as any number of social and neuroscientific studies have shown. It is corrosive, eating away at the brain, which it simultaneously deadens, much as certain insects anesthetize their prey while their venom eats away at very substance of the victim.
Unlike insect poisonings, however, this thing also insults the intellect by hurling at the still living brain a continuous slew of commercials.
Yeah, yeah, I’m talking about television.
My brain is addicted. Neuroscientists have shown that feeding the visual centers of the brain an image that changes about every two seconds makes the brain happy, almost like those lab rats so addicted to cocaine that they will forgo food for another hit of the drug. The brain will hang there in the increasingly empty space of the skull and insist on more, more, more moving imagery. It can’t get enough. And of course the television people, the people who make the commercials and the programs, know the same bit of science, so they keep that image moving along, bang, bang, bang. That science may explain why an intelligent discussion on PBS can’t compete with… well, with anything else on television, except perhaps the old midnight test patterns.
As for me, I would rather watch a rerun of Bones or Criminal Minds for the third or fourth time than crack open a really interesting book like Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason or Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. A few months ago it was NCIS reruns, and before that Angel, and Buffy. Lately I’ve exhausted the Bones reruns and the Criminal Minds reruns. Not even watching CM’s Lola Glaudini gun down a serial rapist in cold blood and get away with it holds any charms for me now.
Of late I have found myself sitting in the recliner realizing I was bored out of my skull, feeling insulted by every idiot commercial (there are no other kinds) seeking to suck money from my pocket and intelligence from my mind, and angry that I was still sitting there.
Even the shows I like a lot and that I think have some merit, shows like Stargate Universe and Caprica, barely do it for me anymore, even on tape that lets me speed through the commercials (no machine can go fast enough). The other day, twenty minutes into a brand new, and interesting, episode of Bones, I quit the show during a spate of commercials that had no end in sight, and that seemed to possess no end of stupidity and insult. I didn’t just change the channel. I turned the damned thing off. Click. Gone.
And I think I actually felt my brain breathe a sigh of relief. Or at least relax, as if it had been spasming and suddenly stopped and calmed. The relief was physical, palpable, and utterly enjoyable.
After a few moments basking in the silence of the room and of my mind, I decided it was time to kill the beast, or if not kill it entirely, at least make it miserable. For starters I took a demonic-looking, sort-of-maybe-Mayan cloth and draped it over the television screen, thusly:
Perhaps I should have turned it so that the face faced the screen, but that would require me to acquiesce in my brain’s belief that little people live in the box, and I’m just not that far gone.
So far, so good. I have watched some, but not much. I can barely stand to watch anything. Today I tried to watch the Patriots game and once more realized that NFL football is nothing more than a long string of commercials occasionally interrupted by men doing something with a pointy ball. The SyFy (dumbass name) channel held no no more charms for me either, and within a few minutes the set was off and the demon back in place.
There are those, and they shall be nameless, who would say that television does have some good things going for the viewer. They would be wrong, aside from some intelligent work on the Rachel Maddow show, and some things now and again on PBS, but the good stuff is so slight that it hardly qualifies as ‘good things’.
Well, perhaps the news? No. The news shows today are dumbshows, but with noise and words. The producers of television news have subordinated genuine, informative news to personality and to trivia and to trivial personalities. To these people in-depth coverage equates to dipping one’s little toe in the deep end of the pool for a few seconds and then withdrawing it because someone might get offended and not buy the sponsor’s product. ‘The news’ dragged the United States into two useless wars in the last decade, and has dragged itself downwards into its own muck in the process. With the possible exception of the Jon Stewart faux news show, which does a much better job of presenting the news than pretty much any other show.
Dramatic shows? I doubt there are any that can survive the onslaught of commercial nonsense that pays the actors’ salaries. An aware, intelligent mind can’t put up with the commercial stupidity and the general insipid repetitiveness of the so-called dramas unless it has allowed itself to be deadened by too much exposure to television, as I have been.
American sports? See my comment above about the NFL.
Science and learning shows? Sure, that’s an improvement, but those shows are pretty much dumbed down for an increasingly poorly educated American public, and most would rather present a dramatic image or graphic than try to explain a moderately difficult concept like the meaning of the word ‘theory’ in science.
And so on. Newton Minow had it right when he called television a ‘vast wasteland’ in 1961.
- "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
- But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
- You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
Nothing has changed in almost fifty years, though I do think he was wrong in the first sentence. Television has become more sophisticated in many ways, but at heart it is still the same old crap that so disturbed Minow. The little bit of good that might sneak by the purveyors of telecrap doesn’t make the entire enterprise worth watching. If you dress the village idiot in a thousand dollar suit and make him a CEO, he’ll still be the village idiot.
But in the end the struggle is, as all struggles are, personal. To watch or not to watch. To watch one’s mind decay or to click the ‘Off’ button and cover the set with a demon-infested piece of cloth. I still feel the pull of the addiction, but now I try to take a different path. I’ll turn on the radio and listen to NPR or some music. I’ll pull out a book I’ve read part of and neglected, set a timer, and read. I’ll go for a walk or do some exercise while listening to a CD of Buddhist chants (very heady stuff). But sometimes I’ll push the demon cloth aside and stare at something moving around on the screen for a while until I realize how screamingly bored and utterly disgusted I feel. Then, ‘click’. I’d rather sleep. There’s more to be learned in struggling to sleep, more to be learned in sleep, than anything that piece of electronics can provide to my mind.
Sorry, Rachel. Sorry, Lola. Sorry, Zoe. You can’t be my friends anymore.