Television’s Reinvention and the Era of Post-Enlightenment

We now live in a reality that prizes emotion over reason and images over words

Hossein Derakhshan

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Illustration: Jessica Siao

The first time I watched television was a few months after an eight-month-long detention in solitary. I was in Evin Prison in Tehran, in October 2008, on political charges. I’d had nothing to read or watch or listen to. I was constantly walking back and forth in my cell, talking to myself — an endless internal dialogue with almost anything that my brain contained or could create. I whistled all the songs I knew, talked in every language I knew some words in, imagined blog posts I would write after my freedom, made a film in my head with every detail of directing, scripting, acting, lighting, camera movements, sound design, and editing. I was really going insane.

Being able to watch television ended that. The internal dialogue gave way to the external one between the people on the screen and between me and the screen. Television saved my sanity, my humanity as a social animal, the same way I imagine it has been a savior for hundreds of millions of senior citizens, hospital patients, and people in isolation. The truth is we don’t really just look at television, we also live in television.

I’ve written a lot about why television is bad and why it is wrong to think that, with social media, the threat television poses to our civilization is gone. Television has gone through a form of reinvention because of social media, as I explained in “The Web We Have to Save,” the first essay I wrote upon release from prison.

The argument, inspired by Neil Postman’s must-read Amusing Ourselves to Death, holds that television is not just a medium but a paradigm — or a discourse. It doesn’t just reflect things—it also shapes how we think, how we relate to things. Postman patiently explains, for the skeptics, how the shift from words to images, or from typography to photography, trivializes public conversation. That is not only crucial but also, as I have explained, the very definition of representative democracy.

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.”

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Hossein Derakhshan

Researcher at Harvard's Shorenstein and MIT Media Lab. Spent 6 years in prison over blogging in Iran till 2014. hoder at hoder dot com