Turn It Off


Chances are you have one of the most insidiously dangerous objects ever created--and one of the State's most powerful tools of domination--in your living room right now. You may very well have one in your bedroom, too, and in your basement.

It's insidious because most Americans don't think of them as dangerous, nor do they think of them as tools of State domination; otherwise they wouldn't have them in their homes. In fact, most Americans love them. Most can't go a single day without them. You might even say they were addicted to them.

I'm talking, of course, about television.

We've all heard the statistics that get tossed about--how many hours people spend watching it, the number of commercials it exposes people to, the effects of violence of children and on society in general. We might not know as much about how it affects us mentally and physiologically. But we tend to think that whatever bad effects it causes happen to other people, to people who watch too much television. We tell ourselves it can't happen to us--we're too smart, too well-read, too aware, too knowledgeable. We don't watch too much. And what we watch is good television: PBS or the History Channel. We might watch Seinfeld or the Simpsons ' you know, good programs, with quality writing--but that's it! And those commercials? We're onto them! We change channels while they're on or hit the mute button. There's no effect ' not on us.

But even a little exposure to this object can damage you, if only because it takes you away from things you could be doing much more profitably. Think of all the alternatives to watching television:

1.  Reading. An intelligent person never has enough time to read. Thanks to our modern technologies, we theoretically have more time to read than ever before. We don't have to spend quite so much time washing clothes or cooking dinner. And there are so many books to be read! So much to learn!

2.  Writing. Reading's twin. It takes time and effort to learn to write well, but the advantages are immense. The literate brain is much different from the television brain. It processes information in a very different way. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman explains the effects of literacy on early America in some detail. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain provides another fascinating account of the effects of literacy upon civilization. Writing is the other side of reading. They are yin and yang, breathing in and breathing out. Just as our culture and our 'educational' indoctrination systems teach reading in such a way that relatively few will even subsequently pick up a book and read it on their own for their own purposes and their own reasons, they teach writing in such a way that even fewer will ever sit down to write on their own for their own purposes and their own reasons. The numbers of the truly literate--those who can and do both read and write--dwindle every day.

3.  Talking. When's the last time you had a good, interesting conversation, let alone just call up a friend (or better yet, visit!) just to talk? Too often, people don't even converse with their wives or husbands or children--they're just much too busy for that, scurrying here and there, hither and yon, and when they're not, they're "winding down" or "relaxing," often in front of the television set (which is precisely the worst time to expose yourself to it). How many people even sit down as a family anymore at the dinner table and eat together (which, of course, begs the next question: How many even have families as such anymore?)? Most talk, when it does happen, is almost strictly utilitarian. Deep, extended conversation has become for the most part a thing of the past.

4.  Playing music. And by this, I don't mean switching on the radio or the stereo. I mean actually playing a musical instrument. Like writing, this can take time and energy to learn but, again like writing, it has immense advantages. But also like writing, it's a skill that fewer and fewer people possess, leaving us in the hands of "experts" who "know what they're doing." How sad! How scary!

5.  Listening and dancing to live music. It's ironic that Ricky Ricardo in "I Love Lucy," one of the first major television programs, was a nightclub musician because that show and television in general decimated live music in almost every city in America. In the Thirties and Forties, even the small city in which I live had clubs in which you could hear live music practically every night. But that ended as, increasingly, people stayed home to watch television.

6.  Drawing and painting. Anything artistic and creative. Get your camera and take a stroll around the neighborhood or walk downtown. There are interesting photographs everywhere ' you never know what you might see, what you might create. Drawing and painting help you learn to see more precisely and, perhaps more importantly, more objectively. In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, for example, Betty Edwards explains that people have difficulty drawing because they don't see objectively ' they see interpretively, with their left brain, and that interferes with their drawing (just as many people think and read subjectively rather than objectively). Learning to see ' and to think ' objectively goes a long way in enabling you to see and think intelligently.

These are just a few of the possibilities. And we haven't even touched the effects of television itself on the mind and the soul and the psyche. To learn about that, you might want to look at Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death as well as Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert William Kubey, an online article from Scientific American by the same authors, or Joyce Nelson's fascinating The Perfect Machine: Television and the Bomb.

Each of us only has so much time allotted to him. We glow but a short while upon this earth, and then the flame dies. Why would we spend even a second of it in the fatal radiation of an infernal device that promises 'entertainment,' that promises 'enlightenment,' but delivers only weak facsimiles?

Adbusters, a Canadian anti-commercial group, has declared this week, April 21-27, TV Turn Off Week. Why not give it a try? Shut it down for the next few days and see what you can accomplish in the time you would have wasted in front of that television set. Deny the State that power over you. After all, it's not like you're addicted to it or anything . . . .

Are you?

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.