Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television

In this excerpt from Four Arguments for the Elimination Of Television, Jerry Mander demonstrates that TV can only present event-driven, streamlined, frenetic modes of thinking even when a program might favor contemplative, holistic approaches.
By Jerry Mander
March/April 1980
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Jerry Mander contends the inherent biases of television argue for its elimination.
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What's the matter with our modern, technologically based society anyway? Why isn't it more satisfying? Why do so many of us now feel that some vague something hounds us and diminishes us and makes us into something less than we should be? Most specifically of all, do we really use television—and so many other "benefits" and "tools" of our technological age—or does it use us? Jerry Mander speaks the unspeakable and asks the unaskable in a remarkable new book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, that is being completely serialized in this magazine. This excerpt, the tenth installment in the series, is reprinted with the permission of William Morrow and Company Inc.  


Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television - Argument Four: The Inherent Biases of Television

Along with the venality of its controllers, the technology of television predetermines the boundaries of its content. Some information can be conveyed completely, some partially, some not at all. The most effective telecommunications are the gross, simplified linear messages and programs which conveniently fit the purposes of the medium's commercial controllers. Television's highest potential is advertising. This cannot be changed. It is the technology's inherent bias.

The Pieces That Fall Through the Filter

As a way of drawing together the technical limits and tendencies of television technology so that a pattern emerges, I would like to offer a list, a sort of potpourri. A number of the items in it have been touched on earlier. They are included here again so that we can gain a unified impression of the medium, what kind of world it must inevitably transmit.

Thirty-Three Miscellaneous Inherent Biases 

[1] War is better television than peace. It is filled with highlighted moments, contains action and resolution, and delivers a powerful emotion: fear. Peace is amorphous and broad. The emotions connected with it are subtle, personal, and internal. These are far more difficult to televise.

[2] Violence is better television than nonviolence.

[3] When there is a choice between objective events (incidents, data) and subjective information (perspectives, thoughts, feelings), the objective event will be chosen. It is more likely to take visual form.

[4] Cars (and most commodities) are more visible on television, and come across with less information loss, than any living thing, aside from human faces. The smaller a plant or creature, or the more complex an image it presents, the harder it is to convey and the less likely it is to be chosen. Cars, like most urban forms, offer a clean, straight, uncomplicated message. They communicate their essence more efficiently than plants do. We are bound to have more images of cars and urban forms on television than natural environments and creatures.

[5] Religions with charismatic leaders such as Billy Graham, Jesus Christ, Reverend Moon, Maharishi, or L. Ron Hubbard are far simpler to handle on television than leaderless or nature-based religions like Zen Buddhism, Christian Science, American Indians, or druidism, or, for that matter, atheism. Single, all-powerful gods, or individual godlike figures are simpler to describe because they have highly defined characteristics. Nature-based religions are dependent upon a gestalt of human feeling and perceptual exchanges with the planet. To be presented on television, they would need to be too simplified to retain meaning.

[6] Political movements with single charismatic leaders are also more suitable and efficient for television. When a movement has no leader or focus, television needs to create one. Mao is simpler to transmit than Chinese communism. Chavez is better television than farm workers. Steinem is better than women. Graham is better than Christianity. Erhard is better than the "human potential movement." Hitler is easier to convey than fascism. Nader is easier than consumerism. And, Nixon is better than corruption.

[7] The one is easier than the many. The personality or the symbol is easier than the philosophy. The philosophy requires depth, time, development, and in some cases sensory information. This remains true unless the many are made into copies of each other. Then the one is the same as the many.

[8] For the same reasons, hierarchy is easier to report upon than democracy or collectivity. The former is focused and has a specific form: leaders and followers. Only the leaders need to be interviewed. Democratic or collective forms involve flow processes with power constantly shifting. Television reporters don't have time to interview everyone.

[9] Superficiality is easier than depth.

[10] Short subjects with beginnings and endings are simpler to transmit than extended and multifaceted information. The conclusion is simpler than the process.

[11] Verbal information is easier to convey than sensory information since television can deliver words with little information loss. Sensory information is easier to convey than intuitive information, if the former is confined to the two operative senses of television. Intuitive information, which has no form at all, can barely be sent or received.

[12] Feelings of conflict, and their embodiment in actions, work better on television than feelings of agreement and their embodiment in calm and unity. Conflict is outward, agreement is inward, and so the former is more visible than the latter.

[13] Lust is better television than satisfaction. Ebullience and anxiety are better than tranquility. On the other hand, anger is better than anxiety. Jealousy is better television than acceptance. All of these work more easily than love. Passionate love is more communicable than brotherly and sisterly love.

[14] Competition is inherently more televisable than cooperation as it involves drama, winning, wanting, and loss. Cooperation offers no conflict and becomes boring.

[15] Materialism, acquisitiveness, and ambition, all highly focused attitudes, work better than spirituality, nonseeking, openness and yielding. The medium cannot deal with ambiguity, subtlety, and diversity.

[16] Doing is easier to convey than being. Activity will always be chosen over inactivity.

[17] When dealing with primitive peoples, objective events such as hunting, building, fighting or dancing are easier to convey through television than subjective details of qualities of experience, ways of mind, alternative perceptions. The latter qualities, which form the heart of life for primitive people, are dropped out in favor of the former.

[18] Loud is easier to televise than soft. Close is easier than distant. Large is easier than small. Too large is harder than medium. The narrow is easier than the wide.

[19] Linear information works better on television than information that comes as a matrix or has dimension. The singular is more understandable than the eclectic. The speculative is easier than the ambiguous.

[20] The fixed is better than the evolutionary; the static is better than the fluid.

[21] The bizarre always get more attention on television than the usual.

[22] Facts concerning the moon are better television than poetry concerning the moon. Any facts work better than any poetry.

[23] The tree is easier to convey than the landscape. The bus is easier than the street. The street is easier than the forest path. The river is easier than the mountain. The flower is easier than the field. The road is easier than the river.

[24] The specific is always easier than the general.

[25] The expression is easier than the feeling, and so crying is better television than sadness. Verbal is always better than nonverbal.

[26] The desires of black people for jobs, housing, integration make for better television, because they are objective desires, than the conveyance of black culture itself, which is subjective, multifaceted, and sensory.

[27] The business relationship to natural landscapes as resources is easier to present than the Indian relationship to nature as the true source of all being.

[28] The advertising relationship to life as consumption is easier to get across on television than the spiritualist relationship to life as expression.

[29] A rocket scientist's understanding of the space and cosmos can be filtered through the medium; a mystic's understanding of space and cosmos as creature, or power, cannot be.

[30] Quantity is easier than quality.

[31] Calisthenics are easier than yoga since they can be visually copied in movement; yoga needs to be felt.

[32] The finite is easier than the infinite.

[33] Death is easier than life. It is specific, focused, highlighted, fixed, resolved and has meaning aside from context. Life, on the other hand, is fluid, ambiguous, process oriented, complex, multileveled, sensory, intuitive. Cutting down redwood trees is better television than trying to convey their aura and power. Body counts of dead Vietnamese work better on television than appreciations of Vietnamese life or the complexities of the Vietnamese political struggle.

Information Is Lost

During February of 1977, public television carried a National Geographic special, "The New Indians," which was billed as exploring the emerging attitudes among Indian people who, while recovering their civil and political rights, also wish to rediscover and reaffirm the old Indian ways. Robert Bedford narrated.

The first five minutes of the program attempted to convey a sense of the beauty of traditional Indian life-style and perception. The camera panned to mountains, rivers, fields of grass dotted by circles of teepees. Redford spoke of the Indian conception of the "oneness of things," the equality of all creatures, the desire to keep in harmony with the Great Spirit. We heard Indian chanting and drumbeats.

Sitting in my living room, I kept track of the technical events. No single shot lasted longer than ten seconds. Keeping the images jumping was a very wise decision on the part of the producers, because the mountains were too far away to be seen in anything beyond outline, the rivers were only a blur, and the fields of grass became a background haze in which the teepees were the only visible highlight. If we had been left to gaze at these images for more than ten seconds, an awareness of boredom would have developed. It was impossible to get a sense of the mountains, rivers, and fields which, so the narrator said, were the central forces in Indian awareness.

Neither did the chanting and drumming have much effect. If you have ever heard real Indian chanting and drumming, you know that they create their effect only after many hours of sitting within their rhythms as the repetition and the beat slowly seep into your bones. On television, they were only thematic, and used for that purpose, artifact.

The story cuts to Chicago. A group of bright-looking young people are loading their car. These are city-raised Indian kids, packing up for a cross-country drive to British Columbia, where there's to be a gathering of young Indian people and traditional Indians. The idea is to merge the activist energy of the young with the traditional knowledge of the old. The enthusiasm of the young people comes through. They laugh. They joke. They tease. They remind me of the kind of jovial, good-hearted people you see on Sesame Street: All-American, although not exactly white.

At the meeting in Canada, the city kids struggle to learn how to build a teepee, how to start a fire with sticks. We watch an old medicine man explain to the Chicagoans how a field of flowers reveals natural cycles. We hear him speak of natural balances; we watch the kids listening intently. His words are clear, the beauty of his face is moving, but the flower he is holding in his hands, and its seeds, the subject of his example, are impossible to see.

Later in the program we see some rare footage of the Potlatch ceremonies of the Kwakiutl people, which were suppressed by the Canadian government until recently. We see Indian dances; people dressed as animals; Indians in canoes led by an eagle-man, his arms flapping in a mock attempt to move the boats forward. We watch totems being carved. The goal is to immerse us, the viewers, in the Indian experience, to convey the beauty and mystery of their art and its organic, naturalistic meaning. But on television, cut at an average of ten technical events per minute, the ceremonials are practically impossible to follow. They are as fuzzy as the natural surroundings from which they have emerged. We get no sense of the dance. It passes in and out of the frame of the camera. We see only this piece of it or that one. The fine details of the costumes blur like the tiny seeds of the flower. We cannot smell the burning fire or the sweat of the dancers' bodies or the dirt of the floor. We cannot feel the coldness of the air.

Our exposure comes in ten-second pieces, at most. Whatever understanding we develop comes from Redford's words, which describe what we cannot actually see or intuit.

As I sit at home in my living room, watching these scenes with my family, the program takes on the quality of carnival or Mardi Gras or a gigantic costume party. A reenactment. It looks like a production staged by the local museum auxiliary. Its reality is impossible to get. The whole ceremony enters the realm of artifact.

The information loss is virtually total. Aura is utterly destroyed. Time is fractured. The sensory information is lost. The context is deleted. The gestalt of intuitional experience is cracked. The details are gone. The mood is impossible to convey. The process is invisible, as is the source. No magic. Not enough is conveyed to develop any feeling of caring about what might happen to these people because the heart of their belief remains invisible, despite the attempt to convey it to me. This is not to say I don't care what happens. But I cared before I saw these scenes. If these scenes had been my total exposure to these cultures, they would only have confirmed the uselessness of trying to sustain cultures that obviously don't fit the world today.

The program shifts. We go to a Navajo reservation in the American Southwest. A group of young Indian lawyers are struggling to prevent the expansion of power plants in the Four Corners area. The traditional way of life of Navajo sheepherders, suddenly disrupted by roads, noise, soot and ash from the power plants, would be sacrificed to the expansion. The camera follows an old woman, a shepherd, whose land is threatened. The narration says, "She and the land move as one . . . she wants to keep her life as it is . . . she came from the land and she is part of the land." We hear the woman say, "We live in harmony with the Great Spirit."

What Great Spirit could she possibly be talking about? I couldn't see any great spirit there. Could she mean that fuzzy-looking desert, or the scrawny sheep? Could she mean that little mud house with no wiring? Really? What does she expect? It's nice to preserve cultures, but how can a few highways bother that?

We go to the government hearings. We see the young Indian lawyers arguing in behalf of this old woman. The lawyers decry the outrage. They cite the brutality wrought on Indian ways. We hear them charge the commissioners with failure to understand the Indians; failure to appreciate their way of life or that a way of mind is being threatened. We see the government commissioners, fat white men wearing suits and ties and looking bored. We learn that the only compensation this woman has had for the loss of her land was a $369 payment years before.

Okay. Now we get it. Conflict. Rules. Arguments. Laws. Right and wrong. Ripoff. Rights. Entrenched interests. Brutality. Lack of due process. Oppressors. Oppressed. Heroes. Downtrodden. It all comes flooding through.

Why didn't they get to this part earlier and drop all this "way of life," "way of mind," Great Spirit junk? It's only muddying things up. It's a civil rights issue. It's about economic rip-off. Let's hear it for those lawyers!

The program that followed immediately after "The New Indians" was called In Search of America, hosted by Ben Wattenberg. A six-part series, the show was intended to look at the bright side of America. "How can a nation that believes it hasn't done anything right or bold or creative in the recent past, do anything right or bold or creative in the immediate future? . . . All we hear today is that big business rips us off, the blacks are losing ground, work is meaningless, we're feeding a bloated military-industrial complex and that we oppress developing countries and rape their resources. All that is mostly inaccurate," Wattenberg said.

The program concentrated on the virtues of big business. "For all its flaws, big business has provided more people with more needs and more luxuries."

Compared with what preceded it, this was quite a simple show; narrow in conception, direct, featuring very simple, straightforward imagery: Wallenberg talking, interviews with corporate economists, and, amazingly, actual footage from advertising commercials, showing how much research corporations undertake in order to improve their products on behalf of all of us. No sweeping (incomprehensible) vistas, no attempts at conveying ways of mind, no talk about Great Spirits. This show was about "needs" (products; easy to photograph); research for a better America (we saw Gillette engineers working night and day to improve our shaving); freedom of choice (twenty-one "shaving systems"); and the satisfaction of the American "taste." The show, of course, was about life-style, but it was a life-style that couldn't have been simpler to convey. And it was conveyed simply, clearly, boldly; the way it is in commercials. No information loss. It was a highly efficient program. Whereas the life-style of Indian people was delivered via muddy images, vague and incomprehensible references to alien realities—subjective, sensory, requiring an acquaintance with natural cycles—this lifestyle was objective, economic,. product oriented.

There was conflict. Wallenberg told us we could choose either the life-style the corporations provided, and the economic benefits they spread out through the whole population, or we could choose central economic planning. We know, he said, that central economic planning doesn't work. It hasn't worked in Sweden or England, for example. (Russia and China, though not named, were included by implication.) Here in America if corporations fail to provide what "we want," then they die. He toured with us through a graveyard of headstones, carved with the names of the corporations that had not kept up with Americans' changing needs. This was proof that we the people control the corporations, not vice versa. Corporate manipulation was a fiction.

The show only took a half hour. A nice, tight package. Within the terms of its definition, it worked. When I turned off the set and closed my eyes, laying my head back against the pillows of the sofa, the images that came to mind were of this Wattenberg person, his graveyard of dead corporations, the Gillette research labs . . . and I heard an internal recording of his voice: "Planners say it would be nice if we all lived in apartments, but most people prefer to live in their own single-family houses. And American business, sparked by the profit motive, is providing them. The same with mass transit. People prefer their own cars, manufactured by big business, providing what people want."

I also saw some images of that eagle man, flapping his huge, furry wings as the canoeists rowed some Pacific bay. I saw some pictures in my head of the Southwest desert and a lonely Navajo woman on horseback, herding sheep. Cars, razors, Navajo deserts and Ben Wattenberg whirled in my mind.

I had wanted the Indian show to dominate, but I already knew that it couldn't and it didn't. A stupider, grosser, more simplistic but cleaner and clearer (more highlighted) presentation—better suited to the medium by several orders of magnitude—had achieved an equality, actually a superiority, even in my own biased mind. I reminded myself for the fiftieth time that if there are polar opposites in what television can communicate and what it cannot, then at the pole of noncommunication would be cultural forms such as the American Indians'. At the pole of total communication would be cultural forms such as American business's.

Naturally, television has been used more successfully for the latter cultural forms than the former. Also naturally, the American population develops more of a feeling for products and a life-style suitable to business than it does for a sensitive, subtle, and beautiful way of mind that theoretically offers an alternative. The more people sit inside their television experience, the more fixed they become in the hard-edged reality that the medium can convey.

A Narrow Mode of Thinking Prevails

In 1973 I helped organize an all-day press conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Ralph Nader on behalf of Indigena, an organization devoted to creating a pan-Indian movement in the Western Hemisphere. Indigena gives particular attention to the struggle of South American Indians, who are presently suffering a fate previously visited upon the tribes of our own Great Plains and elsewhere. They are being slaughtered and driven off their land or, in the more "enlightened" countries, driven onto reservations and forced to assimilate. Speaking in cultural terms, it's death either way. All of this is done to make way for mineral exploration and development.

Before the press conference Nader advised the Indians and sympathetic anthropologists to be specific: to give the names of the corporations doing the dirty work, name the government officials, offer details of actual events. Understanding the bias of the media, Nader advised (correctly) that the information should be short, specific and punchy.

However, the people from Indigena believed, also correctly, that the only way the members of the press could possibly care enough about Indian people to attempt to give a viewing audience a real sense of Indian-ness, and therefore what was being lost, was to attempt to convey some Indian-ness at the press conference itself.

So, ignoring Nader's advice, the Indians devoted the first hour or so of the conference to ceremonies, prayers, songs, stories, testimonies to the Great Spirit. About 90 percent of the press left during these goings-on.

Next, the anthropologists got up and told rambling stories about the impact on an Amazon tribe when helicopters start flying overhead speaking to the Indians via loudspeakers, or when machinery is brought in. They described how a culture that has been functioning well for two thousand years can be destroyed in only one generation of technological assault.

A little before the lunch break Nader spoke, rattling off the facts and figures, the corporate names, the government policies, the American collaborations and so on. It was too late, most of the press had left.

By the time the lunch break was over, the audience was composed mainly of Indigena supporters and friends. Four hours' worth of new information on the conditions of Indian people in Paraguay, Colombia, and Venezuela was shared among these friends, but as far as the press was concerned it never happened. There was no press there at all.

The net result of the press conference, which had taken months to organize and had cost several thousand dollars in travel, telephone and printing, was that not one story appeared on radio or television. Only two media outlets — the New York Times and The Washington Post — carried any mention of it at all. Both these stories were carried in the back pages of the paper, were about six inches long, and quoted entirely from Nader. In the case of the Times story, an equally long report ran alongside, quoting Brazilian government officials denying the truth of every single point Nader had made. The Great Spirit was not mentioned at all.

When I tell this story to political-activist friends, their answer, more often than not, is that the Indians have got to be trained in how better to get their stories through the media. In other words, they must drop one cultural mindset and function in another. Only then can they preserve the former. And yet, in learning the linear model, the technological communication patterns, the objectified forms that modern media honor and disseminate, the Indian herself or himself undergoes internal change to fit the form.

The question is this: Is it possible to adopt the hard-edged, fact-fascinated, aggressive, gross form in order to preserve a way of thinking that is completely alien to this model and cannot be conveyed through it?

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.

The struggle of Indian people today is as much a consciousness struggle as it is a civil rights battle. To the extent that it is framed exclusively as a civil rights issue, the Indians lose, at least in cultural terms. Individual Indians may win a job, or a right, or a small payment for previous injustice, but their children and Indians of the future will not be Indians anymore; they will have been moved inside nationwide artificial reality with the rest of us. Since television itself is an outgrowth of the prevailing consciousness, it is logical that the outcome of an issue argued within it would be a predetermined one.

But imagine for a moment that television did not exist. Let's say that only print media existed.

It so happens that print media, while not perfect, can convey a lot more about Indian ways of mind than electronic media can because print can express much greater depth, complexity, change of mood, subtlety, detail, and so on. Books, especially, can be written in much slower rhythms, encouraging a perception that builds, stage by stage, over the length of a long reading process that may take many hours, or days. Of course publishers these days, also riding the rapids of modern life and responsive to the commodity-mind, discourage books that move at deliberate speed, preferring those that are punchy, fast-reading, highlighted, riding the tops of the waves like television sitcoms or advertising.

Yet many books do exist that are solely devoted to states of feeling or expressions of intuition, or that deal in the realm of subjective reaction. There are books which are exclusively ritualistic or which have a mythic quality. And so such works as Book of the Hopi, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, Black Elk Speaks, Seven Arrows, Indian Tales, and others are able to convey more on an imagery level, a sensory level, and an evocational level than all the TV specials combined.

This is not to say that these books are sufficient. Only direct experience is. But if the battle were fought in books, Indians might win. If print were the only media in the world, the natural advantage of today's dominant forms — corporate, military, technological, scientific — over concrete ways of thinking would be vastly diminished. In a wider information field, the Indian mind would have greater validity. So people who are interested in celebrating and saving Indian cultures, like people interested in the arts or ecology or any nonhierarchical political forms, might be well advised to cease all efforts to transmit these intentions through television and devote greater effort to undermining television itself and accelerating the struggle within other information fields.


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