Revisiting “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”
No doubt legions of authors have been told that the title they have in mind for the book they’re working on is all wrong — that they have to come up with something better. Most of those authors reconsider and settle on something more acceptable. Jerry Mander didn’t.
So it is that, thirty-nine years ago, one of the great works of technology criticism was published with the improbable and audacious title, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It’s likely many of those interested in the impacts of technology today may be unaware of Four Arguments, which is a shame. The point of this post is to remedy that state of affairs in some modest way by revisiting a few of Jerry’s basic ideas, augmented by comments from a recent phone conversation I had with him.
(Note that this is not an unbiased post. I consider Jerry a friend and I have unqualified admiration for his work. He also gave my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, a wonderful endorsement.)
William Morrow published Four Arguments in 1978. Jerry remembers it being generally well received, but the originality of its content, in addition to that audacious title, all but guaranteed that some people wouldn’t get it. In a New York Times review, the well-known critic Richard Schickel called Four Arguments “one of the smugger, more irritating books I’ve ever read on any subject, and surely the most hysterical and feebly argued attack on television ever published.” Even one of our most astute philosophers of technology, Neil Postman, derided Four Arguments in his later book, Technopoly, dismissing as “preposterous” any suggestion that Americans would ever give up their TVs.
(These sentiments were widely shared within William Morrow, Jerry’s publisher. Jim Landis, the Morrow editor who acquired Four Arguments, said he “nearly got laughed out of the building” for doing so. “If I’d had to submit the Mander book to some kind of committee (editorial or marketing), they would never have published it,” he said in an email. Jim adds that he then had the gall to publish Jerry’s book without a subtitle, unheard of for a nonfiction book, figuring that Four Arguments for the Elimination for Television was so provocative it ought to stand on its own. Staff members in Morrow’s sales department disagreed, he recalls: they called the title “stupid.”)
I suspect that a lot of people dismissed Jerry’s book out of hand because they assumed he believed there really was a chance television could be eliminated. He’s not that naïve. And yes, plenty of people told him while he was working on the book that he’d have to change the title. I asked him during our phone chat why he didn’t.
First of all, he answered, he actually does believe television should be eliminated. But he also thought the title presented a challenge: he wanted to force people to think seriously about what our lives would be like without television, and to contemplate the possibility that maybe we would be better off without it. “The title was a practical matter as far as I was concerned,” he said. “I wanted the subject to be taken seriously. There was a whole lot about television that people had not thought about, and it was doing great damage culturally and politically, so I felt it was important to raise the possibility [of eliminating it altogether]. And it was also about, Why can’t we talk about eliminating a technology? Why is it never talked about? Let’s just talk about it.”
So, yes, let’s talk about it. These are Jerry’s four arguments for the elimination of television: The Mediation of Experience, The Colonization of Experience, Effects of Television on the Human Being, The Inherent Biases of Television. Those arguments are really broad headings that encompass a number of points that could be considered arguments for the elimination of television in their own right. What follows here are summaries of three themes that emerge in Jerry’s elucidation of those arguments; they should not be regarded as a comprehensive overview of his thinking.
1. “The Great Spirit was not mentioned.”
Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes Four Arguments from other critiques of television is the fact that it’s focused entirely on the technology of television rather than on the quality of the programs the technology carries. When the book came out complaints about the pitiful state of TV programming abounded — “a vast wasteland,” FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously called it. Jerry’s book, together with Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, And The Family, published the previous year, were the first to address the experience of watching television regardless of what programs were on. Because his interest, then and now, is in the technology and not the programs, the fact that we have today entered what many people consider a golden age of television has not altered the rationale of Jerry’s critique.
Jerry worked for 15 years as an advertising executive creating commercials before dedicating himself to public service campaigns, so he understands how the limitations of television technology define the experience of watching it. As he puts it in the book, “On television the depths are flattened, the spaces edited, the movements distorted and fuzzed-up, the music thinned and the scale reduced.” This is still true today despite the fact that the screens are larger and the speakers louder. As a result television gives us only a fraction of the wealth of information that our senses are capable of receiving from an unfiltered environment. Call it “reality lite.”
Aware of these limitations, television producers strive to make their programs and advertisements more stimulating by pumping up the number of “technical events” per minute. Over time this causes viewers to feel that the pace of life as it’s lived outside television is dull by comparison. Similarly, in order to offer stimulating programming within TV’s constricted spectrum of sensory information, portrayals of relationships between people on television tend to emphasize, as Jerry puts it, “highlight experiences” that lean toward “the grosser end of the human spectrum.” Jerry points out that, unlike people, products don’t have an inner essence to lose — their surface tells all there is to tell. Advertisers seek to imbue them with a borrowed liveliness by associating them with living creatures — dogs and sexy models are popular — or by implying that they give life to living people. So it is that the people in commercials always seem to be bursting with joy.
In the book Jerry describes how hard it is for environmental and other non-profit groups to communicate their messages through television because TV is unable to accurately convey anything close to the full scope of what they’re trying to do. He tells, for example, of an all-day press conference he helped organize in 1973. Hosted by Ralph Nader, its purpose was to attract media attention to Indigena, a group working to protect Indian rights, which were being trampled by developers and miners throughout the Western Hemisphere. (Jerry has written extensively about Native American and other indigenous cultures, most notably in his book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.)
Prior to the event, Nader advised the Indians who would be appearing in it that they needed to provide short, specific, punchy information. This was good advice, Jerry says, but the people from Indigena responded that the only way members of the press could be persuaded to actually care about Indian peoples was to offer them some sense of what it means to be an Indian. Without doing so, they argued, no one would understand what the Indian peoples were at risk of losing. This was also correct, Jerry says.
So it was that when the press conference began, the Indians ignored Nader’s advice and devoted the first hour or so of the conference to ceremonies, prayers, songs, stories and testimonies to the Great Spirit. Nader followed with a burst of facts and figures, corporate names, faulty government policies and the like, but by that time about ninety per cent of the press had departed. As a result the press conference produced no television coverage at all and only a couple of brief articles in the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Great Spirit wasn’t mentioned.
In post mortems of the event, Jerry heard from his political activist friends that the Indians had to learn how to package their stories more effectively for the media. To which Jerry replied, “In other words, the Indians must drop one cultural mind-set, their own, and function in another, that of television.”
This relates to two key points about technology, both emphasized in Jerry’s book. One is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, technologies are not neutral. They aren’t simply tools that can be used for good or for ill. The properties of a given technology determine not only how that technology will be used but also any number of social, psychological and spiritual results of that use, many of them completely unrelated to the avowed purpose of the technology. In the case of the Indigena press conference, television was incapable of capturing the experience of what it means to be an Indian; it opted for showing nothing at all.
This leads in turn to the second key point, which is that we are shaped by our interactions with technology, and not just by television, but by technologies in general. In the book Jerry mentions a yogic concept called “Samadhi,” which suggests that a union occurs between ourselves and the objects or images we look upon. In Buddhism the idea is to gaze upon a figure of the Buddha in order to become more Buddha-like. Psalm 115 of the Hebrew scriptures, which criticizes the worship of false idols, offers the same suggestion from the opposite direction: “Those who make them are like them/so are all who trust in them.”
The point is that an exchange of energy occurs between ourselves and the images or objects we attend to. When we use a technology, we conform to its requirements, and habitual use becomes transformative. As Jerry puts it in the book, “To use the computer, one must develop computer mind. To use the car, car-mind. To build the bomb, bomb mind. To manipulate the media, one must be manipulative. To use television, which broadcasts flatness and one-dimensionality, it is necessary to think flatly and one-dimensionally.”
2. “Conditions are appropriate for the implantation of arbitrary realities.”
If we spend significant time watching television — which of course millions of us do — we are in effect already living within an artificial reality. Real life — tangible, face-to-face connection with who and what affects us — becomes increasingly distant.
“In less than four generations out of an estimated one hundred thousand we have fundamentally changed the nature of our interaction with the planet,” Jerry writes. “…Living within artificial, reconstructed, arbitrary environments that are strictly the products of human conception, we have no way to be sure that we know what is true and what is not.” These are conditions, he adds, “appropriate for the implantation of arbitrary realities.”
With this Jerry anticipated by nearly 40 years the “fake news” phenomenon, which helped convince millions of Americans to elect a stupendously unqualified game show host as their President. In our phone conversation, Jerry pointed out that all of us today are by necessity dependent on people we don’t know to tell us what we need to know. “In some ways you can say that all media is fake media — all media is processed through interpretation,” he said. “It’s true that there are fake news sources that deliberately make up stories to serve a political direction and succeed in reaching part of the population in just being entertaining or stimulating in what they present, and therefore create even more lack of understanding of what’s going on. But even with the best of intentions you still get distortions.”
3. “There are a great variety of trance states. However, common to all is that the subject becomes inattentive to the environment, and yet very focused on a particular thing, like a bird watching a snake.”
One of the more striking and original aspects of Jerry’s book is its examination of the physiological effects of watching television. He notes that many people sit in front of their TVs for several hours a day, relatively motionless, often in dark rooms, gazing at light. Actually, he says, we’re not so much gazing at light as having light projected into us. Nor is the light from our TVs the same as natural light. When we watch TV our brains are occupied with assembling its fragmented images, which come to us as lines scanned by electron beams or, more recently, by pixels. This is why studies have shown that brainwave activity while watching television conforms to a single characteristic pattern no matter what type of program is on. As one expert quoted in Jerry’s book puts it, we’re constantly “chasing” the images on our screens. Another expert says that watching television induces a trance-like state similar to that of a bird watching a snake.
There’ s a “liquid quality” to television, Jerry says. It pours images into us. The ongoing stream of images prevents consideration of ideas and encourages passivity. We take it in, but we don’t process it.
Jerry says he’s not sure how his research into the physiology of TV viewing translates to the physiology of looking at our smartphones and computers. However, he is sure that with all these technologies, what we’re perceiving as we look at our screens is a narrowed window on the world, an artificial reality that shuts out a level of engagement with the environment that, up until very recently, we’d taken for granted as a species. This helps explain, he thinks, why it’s so easy to ignore, or at least disregard, something as consequential as global warming, even as the climate changes around us. Our complacency stems from the fact that we don’t really live in that world any more.
 I know Jim because he also published my first book, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, co-authored with Jeff Weingrad.
Thanks to my friend Bob Mirales for suggesting this post.
Originally published at thequestionconcerningtechnology.blogspot.com on August 14, 2017.