Turn It All Off

This is an intervention. We are addicted to media. Our screen time crisis will not be solved by technology, but by will.

For my generation, there was no greater threat to a sound mind and body than television. At least, that is what our parents believed. We were given strict, precautionary limits aimed squarely at preventing the mutations and accelerated entropy that a single, small, flickering screen could inflict upon a growing body. In the 1980s, everyone knew that TV could rot your brain; some held it to even higher account, wracked with anxiety over its power to break the body and ruin the soul. Evidence was unnecessary. The story was plain enough: Television had been introduced to a maturing society — how could it do anything but reverse our progress by distracting us, appealing to our baser instincts, or corrupting whatever was good within us.

Decades later, hindsight changes the story. Not because thirty to forty years have given us more time and data with which to evaluate television — though they have — but because technological progress has come with new things and new moral panics. These new things have made television, such as it once was, quaint. “Television” today is not an object, but a form. It is a kind of media defined by the structure of its narrative, the way it is produced and consumed, and of least importance, the machine on which it is displayed. It would certainly confound the critiques of my childhood. However, one particular critique stands out still; its substance remains a matter of the nature of television as a temporal and chimeric phenomenon. Neil Postman, who wrote what remains one of the most important cultural critiques of the last century in Amusing Ourselves to Death, was not concerned about the television — the vessel — but about its agency. For Postman, television was a transmitter of cultural awareness too prone to closed loops. Here is a well-known passage:

“What George Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture … As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.”

Much has been said of the punking of twentieth century generations by twenty-first century technology. We were expecting Big Brother and, surprise, we got something worse: ourselves! The Orwell vs. Huxley comparison — the truly fundamental differences of the worlds of 1984 and Brave New World — is a fascinating one that feels now like a Twilight Zone narrative, like a fable playing out in real time. It’s a gotcha on the level of Time Enough At Last’s Henry Bemis, a bookworm, thinking he’d won the metaphysical lottery by surviving nuclear annihilation and being left alone with his books only to break his glasses and be confined to a future of blindness.

But the dichotomy between these two narratives doesn’t withstand more than a simple reading. Yes, 1984 expected a level of brutal control over the fabric of society that we simply don’t feel today, and yes, Brave New World imagined a future in which surveillance was obviated by a distributed narcissism. But the truth is that these futures are not mutually exclusive. We have both. Today, every person has the freedom to express themselves through media, to derive self-actualization through being seen and amassing the attention of others. And every person’s expressions are broadcast by and through a technological infrastructure that is controlled, monitored, analyzed, and monetized by “big brothers” of various kinds. Sousveillance doesn’t replace surveillance, it makes it much easier. (It’s also worth noting that Orwell imagined a future only thirty-five years ahead of his own, while Huxley pushed much further out, building the world of over six hundred years ahead. There’s a reading through which both worlds are in the same universe, one leading to the other. Perhaps we’ve simply fast-tracked that future.)

Postman, though, focuses on comparing two frames through which culture can be seen: captivity and triviality. These two frames, I think, are what make for the closed loop. We know now, better than ever, that triviality can be captivating. But when it’s triviality in, it’s triviality out. Elsewhere in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman concurs:

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. 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.”

Oh, how the last decade makes this painfully plain. A decade in which we have pushed meta to new heights; distancing text from text by way of metatext; creating stories about stories, programming about programming, discussing the discussions of the discussions, shrinking the interval between event and analysis to the point of such inversion that anticipation becomes the cause, not the effect; and yes, putting a fine point on our substance bankruptcy by electing an television-made attention glutton to the Presidency. We could not be more beholden to the distortions of our own overly-processed image as we are now. And so, another of Postman’s critiques stings most, especially when applied to all media of the twenty-first century, not just television:

“The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.”

We know we have reached that point. Assigning importance to the trivial is not just a measure of cultural weakness but a hastening of its decline. A tweet is not only the subject of the news — calling journalists to action — but a catalyst of national policy — calling the military to lock and load. But, I digress. Suffice it to say that the tweet — the hottest chaff of our chronically volcanic media — is a perfect exhibit of what Postman meant when he wrote that how media “stages the world becomes the model for how the world is…staged.” Or, as McLuhan popularized, “The medium is the message.”

The truth is, I’m not especially invigorated by this particular critique. Living it is wearisome enough; I’ve no energy to argue it further. Like the dangers of television were for my parents forty years ago, the rot of the post-TV years is, for me, self-evident.

And yet, as far as television — the media — is concerned, the counter-argument to Postman is well-established amongst even the most discerning 21st century intellectual. The pro-television position is that we have only now matured into the medium. What we call “TV” today is now reaching the levels of the great literature of the past. No doubt there is some merit to that argument. Is The Wire on the level of Bleak House? Sure. But the more provocative question is, how good was Bleak House, really?

In the days of “great literature,” novels to which today’s television are often compared were themselves the object of critique and even moral panic. The Victorian lovers of the printed word, fervent evangelists of literacy as they were, still worried over serialization of narratives — the distraction it caused, the way it maintained a heightened state of desire for resolution, the way it used its tantric plotting to ensnare vulnerable minds into endless, distracted dragon-chasing — much in the same way we could (but strangely don’t) today.

That is what surprises me most about the media in 2021. Not just the through-the-funhouse-mirror of it all that Postman predicted. Not just the absurdity of printed-tweets-in-congress. Not just the fortunes made by parents willing to exploit their children on YouTube. Not just the inescapability of it all. It’s the critical surrender. Where is the distaste for the ubiquity and unendingness of television?

In the 1980s, the notion of television’s toxicity was predicated on its quality. Though I can cite plenty of exceptions to Postman’s claim that “the best things on television are its junk” (gestures at Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Day the Universe Changed, Cosmos, Frontline, and even The Wire — many of the things in my cultural canon) television in the 1980s and 1990s was largely junk. Critics were right to treat it as culturally less-than — as the bottomless bag of brain-rotting Cheetos that it was. But what about now? It is a bigger, more bottomless (if that could even be possible) bag, certainly. But does the presence of more “nutritious” bites to be had change much in an infinite bag of Cheetos?

In Postman’s day, the amount of time the average American spent watching television was a retrospectively modest amount: 20 hours per week. Today, we are watching something nearly all the time. We no longer measure just television time; our collective screen time was measured in 2017 to be over 74 hours per week. This year, it’s looking even worse. Though Americans spend 3 hours and 22 minutes each day watching television (or around 23 hours a week), which represents little change to the metric from decades ago, we also spend an additional 3 hours and 54 minutes on mobile devices. Combined, that is an average of over 7 hours of total screen time every day. Early in this decade, there was a lot of public worry over screen time. Arguments played out in books. Data were cited to show this and that. We’ll likely see it again after blowing those averages out of the water during the pandemic. But what seems to be missing from the discussion is the point. It’s not really about the time spent in front of screens and what that may or may not do to a person. It’s about the time not spent having a screen-mediated experience. Even the time spent doing nothing. It’s not about screen time; it’s about offscreen time. That is not a problem to be solved by programming and technology — by better choices and filters, say — it’s a problem to be solved by will.

In the days of great literature, even the most enthusiastic literature teacher — the person who could have rightly celebrated living in a “golden age” of the written word — would not have recommended speed-reading novels in serial without a break between them. Time between was necessary. To be savored, even. It was the time between that allowed a story to do its work. To be compared with real life. To shape expectations and actions. To edify. Without that time, the details of one plot will be overwritten by another before they can mature into something more, before they can integrate into your mind not just a sequence but a suggestion. Mainlining stories does nothing for the person but occupy the mind and pacify the will.

We may be in the “golden age” of television. There are some truly great things to see on the screen, fiction and non, more than ever before. But there is also more of everything else. So much more that we now assign incredible value to meta-programming. Programs about programs, media about media. Beyond providing analysis, which can be valuable — I have enjoyed, for example, podcasts about TV shows — these things exist as either surrogates for the time and access-limited or pushers for the addicted. We’re enabled to consume derivatives of the media we have no time for or gorge on the its monetized echoes far past a reasonable appetite.

Where, then, is the moral panic? It’s not that it doesn’t exist, of course. Many feel, as I do, that the flood of “content” and the cultural stickiness of it all leave us with “no time for reflection, for careful thought, for serious study.” Many worry that a crowded media landscape not only allows lies and paranoia to thrive, but actually erodes our ability to distinguish between truth and fiction. Postman’s point about how media is a culture’s tool for self-understanding predicted this. If we are inundated with the flailing grot of an existence lived within a cyclone of flailing grot, then flailing grot is what our culture will be. And yet, what I see time and again is an appeal for media literacy. For a better understanding of the workings of media, by way of media. It is as if to say that the way through the cyclone of flailing grot is by grot literacy. No, it is to get out of the cyclone altogether. Media literacy has its merits, but in our loud and crowded world, it is little more than the vaping of chain screening. The cold-turkey is turning it all off.

Addiction is often understood as psychological suffering — as the shrinking of self that comes from a mind absorbed by the need for a fix. But addiction is at its most dangerous when a body becomes dependent upon a substance and when the absence of it causes suffering. That is what happens when a body has lost. So what, then, of the “self” of our culture? What would it be if it was not so addicted to signal that it is so willing to gorge on noise? What of its body? What would happen to it, if its words and its sounds and its pictures were turned off? What is a culture in media withdrawal?

In the quiet, who we really are is revealed. As a media-saturated culture, we may never know ourselves; it may not even be safe to try. But as individuals, we can withdraw. We should. If we are constantly seeking — channel surfing, subscribing, clicking, tapping, adding to lists, sharing, and swiping — when are we truly experiencing? When are we processing what we have experienced? I wonder, even, what is more true to the experience of media — whether it is in the moment it plays out before us, or if it is in the quiet afterward, the negative space of media, where it and we become something else together. But that only happens in the quiet. In the after. In the off. Give this a try. Turn it all off, and see what happens.

Written by Christopher Butler on July 2, 2021,   In Essays

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