THE MOST ADDICTIVE DRUG
Today, the average American watches 4.5 hours of television a day.
This is an activity that our grandparents could not have even comprehended. To devote four and a half hours a day, every day, for an entire lifetime to a single activity is an extraordinary event for an individual. For an entire culture to devote four and a half hours a day, every day, to the same activity, in unison, for a lifetime is nothing short of… well, perhaps incomprehensible is the best adjective, but here we are doing it.
All of us, every one of us, watching a glowing screen for four and a half hours a day, every day, for our entire lives has an impact on a culture. By the time we die, we will, each of us, have spent more time watching television or video than we will have spent working, eating, playing sports, going to school, exercising or certainly reading. In fact, you will spend more time watching video than anything else in your life, except sleep – and for some insomniacs, not even that.
What happens to a culture that make watching images on a glowing screen its primary activity?
If we had, 60 years ago, decided that we would all devote 4.5 hours a day, every day to playing tennis; we would, undoubtedly be the best tennis-playing nation in the world.
We would all be in fantastic shape.
We would wear tennis whites to formal affairs.
We would wax endlessly about forehands and backhands.
The E! channel would be the T! channel.
We would follow the personal lives of tennis pros minute by minute on the news.
Boris Becker would be the Governor of California.
Had we, sixty years ago, decided that we would all spend 4.5 hours a day, every day, practicing the piano instead of watching TV, we would be a most musical country.
There would be flat-backed pianos hanging off the walls of the most expensive homes.
We would plunk our 5-year olds in front of the piano when they got up in the morning and they would plonk out a sonata or two before school.
Our hospitals would have pianos on hinges that hung over the beds and the ill and dying could spend their last days playing away to kill the time.
Sonata Tonight would be the biggest selling magazine in the country.
We would have ‘special olympics’ for those who were unfortunate enough to be tone-deaf.
And Arturo Rubenstein would be the Governor of California.
Had we all elected, 60 years ago, to spend 4.5 hours a day reading books instead of watching television, George W. Bush would not be in the White House.
But we didn’t do any of those things.
Instead, for whatever reason, we all collectively decided that for the next 60 years we would, as a group, devote the lion’s share of our freetime (and a portion of our work time as well) to staring at a glowing screen.
If playing tennis 4.5 hours a day, every day, for your whole life gives you great reaction times; and if playing the piano 4.5 hours a day makes you incredibly musical, what does watching video 4.5 hours a day ‘teach’ us.
Good television watching is about sitting silently.
People who talk back to television sets, we send to mental institutions.
Thus, for 60 years, we have unwittingly educated our population to essentially be quiet and ‘take it’.
Television is by definition (so far at any rate) non-participatory. You are not SUPPOSED to take part. Your job is to watch.
This is a heavy message, and reinforced over and over and over for 60 years for four and half hours a day, it begins to take on a certain concreteness in our day to day lives.
We are, so television tells us, supposed to be passive observers.
The world of TV is not for us. It is for the Meredith Vieras, the Matt Lauers. Not for us. Oh, every once in a while one of ‘us’ might get a few moments with ‘them’ – the contestant on Deal or No Deal screaming over the briefcase. The folks on American Idol who become overnight celebrities because they have ‘crossed the great divide”. But for the most part, 60 years of television watching have taught us one thing: Passivity.
We have been slowly yet rigorously educated that our role in the universe is to be passive.
To be watchers. Observers.
And it has worked.
When Bush tells us, against all reason and against all facts that we are invading Iraq to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction that clearly do not exist, and we sit and nod and say “OK”, that is a function of our passivity.
Real life and television begin to merge into one.
Who can any longer differentiate between the two.
We are taught that there is really nothing we can do about the real world, and so our best course of action – indeed our only course of action, is simply to accept it, but our Nike Sneakers or Play Station or Lexus and wait for the next day’s Survivor.
You can pick up a camera and create the content that the medium displays.