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. MOTHER EARTH NEWS has serialized it in its entirety. This is the last installment in the series, and is reprinted with permission of the author and William Morrow and Company.
Arguments Four: The Inherent Biases of Television (Concluded)
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. The bias is inherent in the technology.
Am I actually saying that television is utterly useless? There are the old examples of the destruction of Joseph McCarthy, the exposure of the Vietnam War, the undoing of Richard Nixon, the civil rights movement. We cannot deny that television has occasionally served what appears, even to me, as a progressive purpose.
And yet what ties all of these together is the extent to which they were framed in the sort of objective terms that television can handle.
McCarthy, Vietnam, and Nixon were exposed because the issues were lies, deceits, corruption–objective matters. These are all “good television.”
But, finally, I want to get back to the civil rights movement because it is the exception that proves the larger point about the medium.
At the time of the early civil rights demonstrations, led at first by anonymous and brave black people, within incredibly hostile environments, and then by Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and others, television had only recently come into its own. The wiring-in of everyone was nearing completion. As a result, what happened in obscure Southern towns was visited upon millions of living rooms. People could see redneck sheriffs beating people. Everyone had to face the hard reality of racism. Its appearance on television ignited the movement beyond the South. A new national attitude developed. The obvious rightness of the struggle could not be avoided.
In turning the television telescope upon this movement, the powers that be in television were not acting out of any deep moral or political enlightenment; they were following the inexorable dictates of the medium itself.
The luckiest, or if it was conscious and deliberate, the smartest aspect of the civil rights movement was that it was confrontational. From the time of the early sit-ins, it expressed conflict.
There was a good deal of violence. The issues were framed in objective terms: rights, opportunities, schools, housing, jobs. There were good guys and bad guys. It was simple to tell which was which because they even came in different colors. There were inspired leaders who stood bravely against dazzling odds. There were mass demonstrations.
All of these were the ingredients of “good television.” They had action, they had highlight, they were highly visible, they were people-centered, they did not deal with sensory or subjective information, they did not require contextual understanding, they were “issues.” No aura!
The civil rights struggle was about power and rights. And now we find black children in schools with white children, black people living in white neighborhoods, black people in high public office, black people on boards of big corporations. There are even black people reporting television news.
But there is something odd in the quality of this success. I’m sure it has not escaped you that the black television news commentators and the Asian ones, as well as the women, are inseparable in tone of voice, phrasing, attitudes, style of clothes, overall behavior patterns and apparent political perspective from the hundreds of white men who preceded them in those roles. The color and sex are more varied now, but the message is the same. Is it nit-picking to point this out? I don’t think so.
The average black person, three or four generations removed from Africa, raised in a transplanted culture in the Deep South, kept isolated until very recently from the dominant white culture and its forms, is likely to have retained something of a way of feeling and being different from the Judeo-Christian European.
But this average black person — the one who retains a rich cultural perspective that is not yet fully Americanized — is not the one who is chosen for the network television show or the corporate vice-presidency. He or she would not be chosen because, in so many ways, this person would be ill-suited for the objective, mental, aggressive, unfeeling styles that are rewarded in corporate life. Instead, the corporations pick the rare black person (or Chicano or woman or Indian) who is more like the white males who already occupy the center stage.
What is true for television commentators and corporation executives is also true for government officials. As the personnel within the institutions change, the institutions maintain their inflexible form. The balance of power among races and sexes begins to alter, but the power arrangements themselves — some people on top, other people on the bottom, other people totally excluded — are not threatened. As more diverse people occupy the central control systems, the systems do not become more diverse. The people lose their diversity and start to be transformed by the systems. The systems remain the same. The perceptual patterns that have been excluded remain excluded. If alternatives to the life-style of the systems exist, they are not represented.
None of this is to argue that black people, Indians, women, or any other group which has been denied access should not seek the successes they are presently beginning to achieve in the objective world of money and power. In their shoes I would certainly do the same. It is only to remark that the subtle pressures of technological and corporate form create an archetypal Faustian bargain. In winning rights or money or power, the diverse elements in American culture lose their unique identity, their cultural roots. They become what they oppose.
And so the real power is revealed as existing in the institutions and the technology itself. For proof, you have only to watch the occasional black cultural program on Sunday morning television. It might as well be Happy Days or Mr. T. As with Roots, a way of mind is reduced to the exigencies of soap opera and sitcoms. As for white “culture,” presumed to be the oppressor, it does not exist either. It is itself subordinate to corporate culture, or corporate consciousness, commodity life and the channelization of all behavior and thought into a nice package that suits a machine.
Conversation With a TV Producer
January 1977. It’s 8:15 a.m. The phone rings.
VOICE: My name is Fred Jones [name changed] and I’m the producer of the Yesterday Show [name changed]. We’ve heard about your book and we’re very excited about it.
JERRY: You are?
PRODUCER: Yeah, you know we love controversial material. We wonder if you’d like to come on? You’ve got a great idea there, getting rid of television. (He laughs.) Listen, I think we could do a really good job for you, and it’d sure sell copies of the book. I know you might have a few misgivings about coming on television. (He laughs again.)….
JERRY: Yes, you’re right about that. Listen, how much do you know about what I’m doing?
PRODUCER: Well, a number of people around here have been talking about it. But I’d love to know more. Can you tell me in a few words why you want to eliminate television?
JERRY: Well, actually I really can’t tell you in a few words. It looks like it takes me about a hundred thousand words to tell it.
PRODUCER: Well, I know, but what are the main points?
JERRY: One of the main points is that television can only deal with main points so only certain kinds of things can get through. I think my arguments are probably among those which couldn’t be conveyed . . . especially not in a talk show format.
PRODUCER: Why do you say that? We really like controversy. We’ll give you lots of time to string it out.
JERRY: Look, I’m not trying to be difficult, but I made myself a promise that I would never go on television. To get this material requires a really slow process, argument by argument. I’m not good television, neither is this book. Well, parts of it are good television. The fact that I want to get rid of it is pretty hot . . . but then, you know, commercials would come on, you’d have to tell jokes to liven things up.
PRODUCER: We’ll take care of the jokes.
JERRY: I know, but it all starts to fit inside the form itself; it will get seen a certain way; it all washes out. I saw that happen to Marie Winn. Nothing will change. It’ll have no meaning. Anyway I want people to stop watching television. Somebody has to keep information outside that system.
PRODUCER: Well, for Christ sake, how are you going to sell your book? Do you know how many people watch our show? Aren’t those your market? How are you going to sell it otherwise? I’m asking if you want to talk to ten million people.
JERRY: It’s tempting, but I know what would happen. I’ve been on television before. First of all, going on television makes me nervous as hell. Talking into cameras is totally weird . . . but aside from that, I know what would happen to the material. It would all be about research. You’d have two psychologists and two media experts on there and we’d have a lively discussion back and forth and in the end the people watching the show wouldn’t have learned a goddam thing. It would all reduce to who’s the better arguer, when the point is really about experience. There’s no way I can do it on television; if I could, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write the book. If this information gets sifted through that form of yours, it will be ruined. I don’t know, maybe I’ll run an ad. Ads for me are sort of like publishing. I control the context, and there are no commercial interruptions.
PRODUCER: I can’t believe this conversation. I’m talking about free time and you’re buying ads.
JERRY: Well, I’ll let you know. I’ll think about it. I realize it would be an interesting shot for you, but for me, I’m not so sure.
Postscript: Impossible Thoughts — Television Taboo
According to librarians I have asked, approximately six thousand books have been written on the subject of television. Of these, I have been able to locate only one — a slim and superficial novel, The Day Television Died by Don McGuire — which even contemplates the idea that television could or ought to be eliminated. What makes this such a difficult notion?
In the three years this book was in preparation, at least one hundred people must have come up to me at parties or in cafes, and after expressing their support for a book which deals harshly with television would ask, “Are you really going to advocate its elimination? “
“Yes,” I would say, “once you really pay attention to it, you see that it’s a totally horrible technology, irredeemable; we’d all be much better off without it.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” would be the invariable response, “but you don’t really expect to succeed . . . do you? “
This last question always filled me with the most uncomfortable feeling. The people who asked it had just admitted to hating television and yet I was left with the impression that they also hated the idea that I might actually believe it possible to get rid of television. It made me seem weird to them in some way.
Well, it’s a point, I suppose. How can I expect to succeed when even those people who loathe television find the idea of eliminating it so utterly impossible? But why is it so unthinkable that we might eliminate a whole technology?
If the arguments of the preceding pages are even partially correct, then television produces such a diverse collection of dangerous effects — mental, physiological, ecological, economic, political; effects that are dangerous to the person and also to society and the planet — that it seems to me only logical to propose that such a medium should never have been introduced, or once introduced, be permitted to continue.
It is not as though Americans have no precedent for action against things that are proven dangerous. We have seen various levels of legal control put upon tobacco, saccharin, some food dyes, certain uses of polychlorinated biphenyls, aerosols, fluoroscopes and X rays to name a few. These have all been thought too dangerous to allow and yet their only negative effect is personal, they seem to cause cancer. It is at least possible, judging by some of the material in part one of Argument Three on the potential effects of the narrow spectra of television light, that television also causes cancer. But is it only on the basis of cancer that we are able to think of banning something? Consider a few of television’s other effects:
Television seems to be addictive. Because of the way the visual signal is processed in the mind, it inhibits cognitive processes. Television qualifies more as an instrument of brainwashing, sleep induction, and/or hypnosis than anything that stimulates our conscious learning processes.]
Television is a form of sense deprivation, causing disorientation and confusion. It leaves viewers less able to tell the real from the not real, the internal from the external, the personally experienced from the externally implanted. It disorients a sense of time, place, history and nature.
Television suppresses and replaces creative human imagery, it encourages mass passivity, and it trains people to accept authority. It is an instrument of transmutation, turning people into their TV images.
By stimulating action while simultaneously suppressing it, television contributes to hyperactivity.
Television limits and confines human knowledge. It changes the way humans receive information from the world. In place of natural multidimensional information reception, it offers a very narrow-gauged sense experience … diminishing the amount and kind of information people receive. Television keeps awareness contained within its own rigid channels, a tiny fraction of the natural information field. Because of television we believe we know more, but we actually know less.
By unifying everyone within its framework and by centralizing experience within itself, television virtually replaces environment. It accelerates our alienation from nature and therefore accelerates the destruction of nature. It moves us farther inside an already pervasive artificial reality. It furthers the loss of personal knowledge and the gathering of all information in the hands of a techno-scientific-industrial elite.
Television technology is inherently antidemocratic. Because of its cost, the limited kind of information it can disseminate, the way it transforms the people who use it, and the fact that a few speak while millions absorb, television is suitable for use only by the most powerful corporate interests in the country. They inevitably use it to redesign human minds into a channeled, artificial, commercial form, that nicely fits the artificial environment. Television freewayizes, suburbanizes and commoditizes human beings, who are then easier to control. Meanwhile, those who control television consolidate their power.
Television aids the creation of societal conditions which produce autocracy; it also creates the appropriate mental patterns for it and simultaneously dulls all awareness that this is happening.
Taking into account all these effects and the dozens of others described in the body of this book, is it really necessary to show that television causes cancer in order to get rid of it? Is it not possible to outlaw a technology based on its political or economic or psychological effects? For if even a small portion of these arguments are valid, then in the long run they are surely more important than the fact that a percentage of people get sick. Why does banning such a technology seem bizarre?
One answer to this question lies with the absolutely erroneous assumption that technologies are “neutral,” benign instruments that may be used well or badly depending upon who controls them. Americans have not grasped the fact that many technologies determine their own use, their own effects, and even the kind of people who control them. We have not yet learned to think of technology as having ideology incorporated into its very form.
A second explanation is that once any technology of a certain scale is introduced, it effectively becomes the environment of our awareness. While we may imagine life without x-rays or aerosols, we cannot imagine life without concrete or cars or electricity. These are so ubiquitous that they literally spread themselves around our awareness. We are contained within them, and as McLuhan puts it, “the fish is the last creature which is capable of understanding the water.” So it is the most pervasive of the technologies that become invisible to us. Television is an extreme example of this pervasiveness and confinement. It becomes not only the external environment for an entire population, it also projects itself inside us. Television has so enveloped and entered us, it is hard for most of us to remember that it was scarcely more than a generation ago that there was no such thing as television, or that four million years of human evolution somehow took place without it.
A third reason we don’t believe it possible to control technological evolution is that, in fact, for most of us it is not possible to do so. The great majority of us have no say at all in choosing or controlling technologies. These choices, as I’ve described, are now solely within the hands of this same technical-scientific-industrial-corporate elite whose power is enhanced by the technology they create. From our point of view the machines and processes they invent and disseminate just seem to appear on the scene from nowhere. Yet all life adjusts accordingly, including human systems of organization and understanding. We don’t get to vote on these things as they are introduced. All we get to do is pay for them, use them, and then live within their effects.
On the very rare occasions when we do perceive a technology’s negative effects, we find it takes a herculean organizing effort to do anything about it. I have given the example of the SST. Though that is a technology which is surely among the most absurd, wasteful, useless, and elitist ever invented, it took thousands of people years of effort to ban its production in this country. Despite this, foreign-made SSTs are being permitted to land in American airports.
I have also used the nuclear power example. This technology is so dangerous, not only for our own generation but for the next several thousand, that it should not be its banning that is unthinkable but its existence. Yet, just as I was completing work on this book in mid1977, Dr. James Schlesinger of the National Energy Administration was saying, “If Californians wish to eliminate nuclear power, then we’ll have to find a way around this desire of theirs, our need for that energy is too great.”
Similar stories could be told about genetic engineering, satellite communication systems, microwave technology, neutron bombs, laser technology, centralized computer banks, and a thousand other processes … including many about which we may not even have heard.
Television Undermines Democracy
We believe ourselves to be living in a democracy because from time to time we get to vote on candidates for public office. Yet our vote for congressperson or president means very little in the light of our lack of power over technological inventions that affect the nature of our existence more than any individual leader has ever done. Without our gaining control over technology, all notions of a democracy are a farce. If we cannot even think of abandoning a technology, or thinking of it, affect the ban, then we are trapped in a state of passivity and impotence hardly to be distinguished from living under a dictatorship. What is confusing is that our dictator is not a person. Though a handful of people most certainly benefit from and harness to their purposes these pervasive technologies, the true dictators are the technologies themselves.
David Brower, president of Friends of the Earth, has argued that unlike human beings accused of crimes, all technologies should be assumed guilty of dangerous effects until proven innocent. No new technology should ever be introduced, he has said, until its ultimate effects are known and explained to the population. This is necessary, he feels, because once it has been introduced, getting rid of any technology is practically impossible — so much of life gets reorganized around it and so much power and vested interest attaches to its continuance.
Of course what Brower envisions is itself practically impossible. Many technologies are too technically complex for the average person, like myself, not technically trained, to understand them. Also, in many instances it is impossible to identify all effects of a technology in advance of its introduction, especially those which do not lend themselves to scientific proofs and evidences. But where does this leave us? Since it is impossible fully to grasp or explain many technologies, do we then go ahead with them? Do we trust industrial leaders?
Do we merely let them shoot craps with our existence? And if we do foresee undesirable effects from a technology, what means exist for then getting rid of that technology? Are there any? And what does all of this mean to the ultimate control of our lives?
In Argument One I raised the possibility of an alternative way of thinking about the problem. If we believe in democratic processes, then we must also believe in resisting whatever subverts democracy. In the case of technology, we might wish to seek a line beyond which democratic control is not possible and then say that any technology which goes beyond this line is taboo. Although it might be difficult to define this line precisely, it might not be so difficult to know when some technologies are clearly over it. Any technology which by its nature encourages autocracy would surely be over such a line. Any technology that benefits only a small number of people to the physical, emotional, political, and psychological detriment of large numbers of other people would also certainly be over that line. In fact, one could make the argument that any technology whose operations and results are too complex for the majority of people to understand would also be beyond this line of democratic control.
Can we really say any longer that a reason to go ahead with a technology is that it is too complex for people to grasp, or too clumsy or difficult to dismantle? Either we believe in democratic control or we do not. If we do, then anything which is beyond such control is certainly anathema to democracy.
At the moment our only choices are personal ones. Though we may not be able to do anything whatever about genetic engineering or neutron bombs, individually we can say “no” to television. We can throw our sets in the garbage pail where they belong. But while this is an act that may be very satisfying and beneficial, in making this act we must never forget that, like choosing not to drive a car, it is no expression of democratic freedom. In democratic terms, this individual act is meaningless, as it has no effect at all upon the wider society, which continues as before. In fact, this act disconnects us from the system and leaves us less able to participate in and affect it than before. Like Huxley’s “savage,” or like today’s young people who drop out to rural farms, we find ourselves even further removed from participation in the central processes that direct our society, our culture, our politics, and our economic organization. We are struggling in a classic double bind.
Television Can’t Be Reformed
Because eliminating television seems impossible, and personal withdrawal is in some ways not enough, at least at a systematic level, most of us naturally attempt to reform matters. In the case of television we have worked to improve and democratize its output.
But a central argument of this book is that television, for the most part, cannot possibly yield to reform. Its problems are inherent in the technology itself to the same extent that violence is inherent in guns.
No new age of well-meaning television executives can change what the medium does to people who watch it. Its effects on body and mind are inseparable from the viewing experience.
As for the political effects, if we switched from the commercial control of television to, say, governmental control, as in Sweden or Argentina or Russia, this would not change the essential political relationships: the unification of experience, the one speaking to the many, the inevitable training in autocracy that these conditions engender.
Similarly, no change in programming format from the present violent, antisocial tendencies to the more “prosocial” visions of educators and psychologists will mean much compared with the training in passivity, the destruction of creativity, the dulling of communicative abilities that any extended exposure to television inevitably produces. This is even assuming that the programming could be substantially changed which, as we have seen, is highly doubtful.
No influx of talented directors or writers can offset the technical limits of the medium itself. No matter who is in control, the medium remains confined to its cold, narrow culverts of hyperactive information. Nothing and no one can change this, nor can anyone change how the technical limits of television confine awareness. As the person who gazes at streams becomes stream like, so as we watch television we inexorably evolve into creatures whose bodies and minds become television-like.
True, if we banned all advertising, that would allay many negative effects of the medium and diminish the power of the huge corporations that are re-creating life in their image.
True, if we banned all broadcast television, leaving only cable systems, that would reduce the effect of the centralization of control. More kinds of people might have access to the medium, but they would still have to submit to the dictates of the technology. As they used the machine, they would find their material and their own consciousness changing to suit the technological form. The people who use television become more like each other, the Indian who learns television is an Indian no longer.
If we reduced the number of broadcast hours per day, or the number of days per week that television is permitted to broadcast, as many countries have, that would surely be an improvement.
If we eliminated all crime shows and other sensational entertainment, it would reveal what an inherently boring medium this is, producing awareness of artificial fixation despite boredom.
If we banned all nature shows or news broadcasts from television, due to the unavoidable and very dangerous distortions and aberrations which are inherent in televising these subjects, then this would leave other, better-qualified media to report them to us. The result would be an increased awareness of more complex, complete, and subtle information.
If we outlawed networks, there would be a new emphasis on local events, bringing us nearer to issues upon which we might have some direct personal effect.
All of these changes in television would be to the good, in my opinion, and worthy of support, but do you believe that they’d be any easier to achieve than the outright elimination of the whole technology? I don’t think so. Considering how difficult it has been merely to reduce the volume or the kind of advertising that is directed at our children, and considering the overwhelming power of the interests who control communications in this country, we might just as well put our efforts toward trying for the hole in one. It will take no greater amount of organization and it does not suffer the inhibitions of ambiguity.
The World Without Television
Imagining a world free of television, I can envision only beneficial effects.
What is lost because we can no longer flip a switch for instant “entertainment” will be more than offset by human contact, enlivened minds and resurgence of personal investigation and activation.
What is lost because we can no longer see fuzzy and reduced versions of drama or forests will be more than offset by the actual experience of life and environment directly lived, and the resurgence of the human feeling that will accompany this.
What is lost by the unavailability of escape from what may be the painful conditions of many people’s lives, might be more than offset by the concrete realization that life has been made painful, more to some than to others, and the desire to do something about this, to attack whatever forces have conspired to make this so.
Once rid of television, our information field would instantly widen to include aspects of life which have been discarded and forgotten. Human beings would rediscover facets of experience that we have permitted to lie dormant.
The nature of political process would surely change, making possible not only more subtle perspectives, but also the possibility of content over style. Political and economic power, now more concentrated than ever before in American history, would surely shift somewhat in the direction of more decentralized, non-capitalistic, community-based structures.
Learning would doubtless reemerge to substitute for brainwashing. Individual knowledge and the collective knowledge of communities of friends and peers would again flower as monolithic, institutional, surrogate knowledge declined.
Overall, chances are excellent that human. beings, once outside the cloud of television images, would be happier than they have been of late, once again living in a reality which is less artificial, less imposed, and more responsive to personal action.
How to achieve the elimination of television? I certainly cannot answer that question. It is obvious, however, that the first step is for all of us to purge from our minds the idea that just because television exists, we cannot get rid of it.
July 3, 1977