Escape Your Television - Diary of an Addict

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Day 17

Still going well. I've experienced no TV since my last dose on Sunday. Missed my favourite programmes again but this time I completely forgot they were on anyway. I think I was out Christmas shopping anyway. Unfortunately I've not managed to bring myself to cancel my Sky subscription which is mad when it's costing me £20 a month. I've taken the card out of the machine so even if I do switch it on then it's a pain as most of the channels are missing so I'm not entirely sure why I'm having difficulty phoning them up. I'll try and do it tomorrow.

I didn't intend to write until Sunday but I've had some thoughts relating to my last post and discovered some interesting material today so it seems like a good idea to jot it down before I forget. I've got a terrible memory... not sure I can blame that on TV, or can I?
Anyway the jist of the end of my last post was that I was struggling to see the difference between reading a book, listening to the radio and watching television as they're similar in many ways. Why had TV been singled out?
(I posted this question to an internet message board, so maybe someone will comment on it. I'll cut and paste that message below)

With both books and radio I'm invariably sitting, alone, in a poorly lit room by myself, inactive with my eyes transfixed and either absorbing media messages through the radio or living out someone else's experiences in a book. These are some of the main complaints with television but I'm sure no-one is going to advocate burning books.

Perhaps the principal issue with television is the screen's frame frequency which obviously doesn't affect someone reading a book or listening to the radio. I've read of some experiments where TV viewers were wired to an EEG machine to monitor their brain activity. It suggests the screen flicker causes a hypnotic state where the analytical side of the brain virtually shuts down. Subsequently, the viewer is open to suggestion (as in hypnosis) and the visual bombardment of imagary from the screen is simply absorbed having bypassed any critical analysis of content. Higher levels of endorphines are also released into the body making the experience relaxing and therefore difficult to turn it off or if the TV is off then there's a desire to turn it on. The result is a pleasurable off-switch for the mind.

I'm wondering if the frames per second affects the level of the hypnotic state as TVs in America and Europe run at different frequencies and now there's new widescreen TVs available in the UK at higher "flicker free" 100hz.
Also, with the advent of LCD flat panel television which refreshes in a completely different manner, will there continue to be the induced hypnotic state and endorphine release?
Maybe this will be the beginning of the end of TV's grip on society.

There's an interesting article here


  • Hi Alan!

    You might be right about flicker frequencies etc; but you know that these numbers are different in different TV technologies, and I don't think that the difference in refresh rates explains differences in TV between one continent and another; if you watch US-style programming on a British set (assuming the video has been efficiently transfered from one to the other--suppose the source was digital anyway) I bet it affects you just the same as it would here on ourTVs. I am suggesting that the basic problem with TV is not technical but fundamental to the "activity" itself. If we had "perfect" TVs with no lines, no pixels, infinite resolution, and no refresh flicker whatsoever we'd have the same problems, I claim.

    How are reading and listening to the radio different? I suspect it has to do with the fact that both of these use the channel of _language_ to communicate everything, which is how we have _evolved_ to communicate.

    The human mind, I believe, evolved as a survival mechanism that attempts to model reality so as to predict events and to navigate toward safer, more enjoyable outcomes. Our hands enable us to do things, but language enables us to share information and thus develop more refined, accurate models of reality. _Imagination_ is the faculty that allows us to consider alternates to reality so as to develop a plan toward a better reality. The human mind must be able to recognize what is real and also consider what is _not_ real--what can be, and what cannot. And keep track of which is which! Fortunately we are well able to do this naturally, as the outcome of our evolution. Our brains enable us to consider contradictory things and to use language to communicate both fact and fiction, sometimes simultaneously (art is like that!)

    You have to actively listen to the radio; if you don't, the message slips right past you. The act of listening to language engages the brain to imagine what is being talked about; you must participate actively. However (this may seem ironic or paradoxical) at the same time you are free to do other things and think of other things. Because this is how we evolved to function; we naturally prioritize and also remember what is being said when we can't immediately listen in mental registers and naturally are able to review those registers and rejoin the (one-way) "conversation" after taking care of what more immediate, real thing commanded our attention.

    Reading is an artificial activity, but if anything it places even more demand on the mind to work for the reward of communication. You have to synthesize the voice you listen to. An extra payoff is that the text isn't going to evaporate, so you can set it aside with even more impunity than you can tune out speech, knowing you can go back and read again later. This also allows writers to rely on language that might not work if they had to say it spontaneously in a conversation.

    Television is different in that it presents video, which first of all cannot be taken in at all unless one devotes full attention to it. But more importantly, it subverts our evolved mechanism for monitoring the communications of others, which normally either come through language or are embedded semiotically in the material environment. Architecture for instance communicates other people's vision but is also a material thing. We must actively interpret the meaning of layout--but insofar as buildings keep us warm and dry they do that without interpretation! But with video, we appear to have a direct window onto real things. What we see does not have the character of a story; it has the character of reality that we tell stories about. So what we do, watching TV, is project ourselves into this other world as though it were real.

    The same is true of movies, of course--but there is a difference. The movies evolved as finite, defined stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. People flocked to the movies precisely to get away from reality and vicariously live this other life. But the structure of the experience, after drawing you in, puts you back into your life again--the storyteller takes your soul for a while but then sends you home.

    TV has a very different potential. With its ongoing, evolving episodes, TV programming creates _and maintains_ the reality of the other world indefinitely. The fact that you don't have to go to a TV theater in public but normally view it in your own home is relevant too; TV has come home into your life with you--and wherever you go, it is there, following you the way the moon does in the sky.

    TV creates a vicarious reality. One thinks one is safe there and in control (there are so many channels) but actually it is the programmers and advertisers who are in control. The price of TV is pledging allegiance to the views of those who program. Trying to watch TV against the grain is difficult and unrewarding; the point is to go with it. You can have a dialog with a book or radio speech that you cannot have with the TV experience, not without spoiling it.

    The imagination is not necessary in its natural role while watching TV, since everything needed is already there on the screen and the viewer knows everything is scripted, so there is no need to figure out what is really going on--everything important will just work out without trying to get inside things. But the imagination is still there; advertising is designed to get control of it and channel it toward the imperative of buying more stuff.

    By Blogger Mark H. Foxwell, at 23 December, 2004  

  • As I am now looking at a TV effectively - cathode ray tube anyway - does that mean that my brain function is impaired? Interesting idea. I thought that it was the porn that damaged the brain, not the screen itself.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 31 December, 2004  

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