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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.”
Postman wrote his book in 1985, a time when television dominated all aspects of public life. But his warnings faded into the background as a new, alternative space caught everybody’s attention. The growth of the domestic internet, which began to emerge in the mid-1990s, helped launch the World Wide Web, which quickly began to look like it would become television’s greatest threat yet — especially among youth. The web of those days looked nothing like television; it was text-based, decentralized, interactive, and diverse. It did not quash traditional television, but it stopped its rapid growth (both in revenue and audience) for nearly two decades.
Social media platforms gradually changed that. With the spread of mobile phones from the early 2010s, social media began to dominate the time people spent online. Social media sites were radically different from the hyperlink-powered sites of the open web, creating proprietary services that shared among themselves. Social media turned mobile phones into personal televisions, not just because Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and even Twitter provided more and more videos, but because they created a highly emotive space where sensationalism would win over rationality.
Think about how these platforms shamelessly optimize their content to encourage more engagement, how they push users to do live personal broadcasts and visual personal diaries — their “Stories” — and display them in the form of traditional television with names like Instagram Television (IGTV). That’s in addition to YouTube TV and Facebook Watch, which feature professionally produced video or live television feeds.
Now there are fewer and fewer people watching traditional television, but more and more are spending their time on social media. The Wall Street Journal reported in February 2017 that “YouTube viewers worldwide are now watching more than 1 billion hours of videos a day, threatening to eclipse U.S. television viewership.”
I think of this as neo-television, because much of the internet today has become something you watch instead of read.
The shift is beyond some of the more gradual evolutionary steps we have seen in media or technology. It speaks of a shift in civilization itself, inaugurating an era where the ideals of perhaps the greatest human achievement — the Enlightenment — are waning.
The rebirth of television symbolizes a new era, where images and emotions are replacing words and reason, where faith outsmarts facts. Welcome to the post-Enlightenment.
“It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails,” Postman writes. “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.”
If these words were not fully comprehensible in 1985, they are now. Donald Trump was a product of television who ran a campaign largely based on free airtime, got elected in the most televised society in the world, and now conducts politics through television — and televised tweets.
Television is a simulation of real life when we can’t — or don’t want to — access real life directly.
Look at how he handled the North Korean negotiations: After months of dramatic and highly televised Twitter fights — not unlike the bickering and gossipy inserts of a reality TV show — Trump announced that the two leaders were going to meet. As if to add to the drama, the meeting was canceled and planned again. The plot finally reached its climax when Trump flew to Singapore, met with Kim Jong Un, and in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers shook hands and signed a piece of paper that basically stated, “Let’s talk.” It doesn’t seem to matter that, in reality, nothing has been agreed on yet or that North Korea has been expanding its nuclear capability ever since.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, summed it up in a tweet: “News that NK is expanding nuclear capacity is irrelevant to #trump. In his mind, the episode with Kim has aired and is over and now it’s time to move on to the episode featuring guest star Vladimir Putin. It’s not statecraft; it’s showbiz.”
Another good example is how Trump decided to send long-range missiles (itself a television-friendly weapon) to suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria. He did so not in response to reading news reports or intelligence briefings, but after watching images of the young victims of the chemical attacks. Trump actually stopped reading daily intelligence briefings in early 2018, according to the Washington Post, and asked instead for oral presentations with maps, images, and videos.
Trump has described his own alternate reality — “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” — and it occurs not just on the medium of television but within the paradigm of television.
French thinker Jean Baudrillard perhaps theorized this best, famously saying in the 1990s that the first U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991 didn’t actually happen. He didn’t mean that there was no mobilization of forces and military equipment to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Neither did he mean there were no deaths or explosions. But what Baudrillard was saying to Western observers of the war, who saw nothing from the other side, was that the war was mostly experienced as a media event.
This provocative claim was an attempt to show how the media, and especially television, can create a parallel reality that has no reference to the real world. Baudrillard’s best example of the concept, which he calls simulacrum, is Disneyland: a symbolic representation of an imaginary symbol, which itself is a symbolic depiction of reality. A recreation of a fantasy world with little tie to the reality. A copy of a copy of a copy.
Trump seems to operate within this world; if you want him to hear you, get on Fox News. But so do his diehard fans, which makes things difficult, because his lies are not untrue in his parallel universe. In the words of Sa’adi, the famous Persian poet: خفته را خفته کی کند بیدار
How can the sleeping wake those who are asleep?
There are some good things about living within this televisual world, though.
While in prison, nothing could transport my mind more powerfully than television. Books couldn’t fully do it, and neither could newspapers. It needed to be images rather than words, because words keep you conscious and thoughtful, whereas moving images can disrupt thought.
Perhaps that is the case for all prisoners. It must be why television sets are so central to life in prison. Many inmates, especially those in solitary confinement, probably would have lost their minds without television. They don’t just watch the world inside that box; they live in it.
Victoria Knight, author of Remote Control: Television in Prison (2016), found that prisoners use TV to stay connected to a world they are severed from and to feel that they are simultaneously sharing a televisual experience with other people, such as family and friends. They also want to stay informed and be part of public debate, feel close to others, be less isolated and less bored, and have things to talk about.
Television also helps time pass — time that is often experienced as long and empty, it enables the viewer to make choices and remain actively in control of what they want to watch and so provides some autonomy, and it provides a domain of privacy in an otherwise very public institution.
Television helps not only prisoners but also those who are trapped in isolated spaces. While I was in solitary and had nothing to read or write or watch, I thought a lot about my grandmother, who lived with us in the basement of our family home in Tehran for many years.
She used to come upstairs for a few hours twice a day. But as she grew older and less mobile because of problems with her knees and legs, she became more attached to her television set. She followed every TV series and watched news bulletins every day. The same goes for patients laid up in hospital rooms, or for many others whose jobs confine them to a closed space — security guards, receptionists, or kitchen staff for example.
Television is a simulation of real life when we can’t — or don’t want to — access real life directly. Sometimes it’s better than the real, and sometimes it’s worse. But if you are a citizen of a democratic state, you can’t delegate power to somebody who lives in a different universe.
Unless, of course, you can get everyone to watch and live in the world of Fox News.
Update: This article previously incorrectly stated the location where Trump met Kim Jong Un for the US-N. Korea summit. They met in Singapore.