Several other people have been sounding off on the Steven Johnson article I mentioned this afternoon, most of whom I found via this entry by Derek of Earth Wide Moth. Dana Stevens mentions a Salon interview with Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn in which he discusses TV-B-Gone, a remote control that can switch off most TV sets withing 20 to 50 feet, with the hope of “restoring calm to public places like airports, bars, or banks.” As Stevens notes, this kind of technology seems caught up in the logic of censorship, implying that all TV images are harmful, but Lasn’s comments essentialize the idea that television pollutes public space. Here, I’m far less pessimistic regarding TV’s role in public space, and TVs, often fixtures in bars in the 1950s, haven’t always been regarded as inhibiting conversation. I do think that Stevens’ comments about the role of advetising in underwriting television do raise some important questions, and I share her suspicions about narrative complexity necessarily translating into greater intelligence (but I find the question about whether or not we’re getting smarter to be a rather unproductive question in the first place).
Andy Cline mentions TV Turn-Off Week and the Steve Johnson article, commenting that TV’s major weakness when it comes to education value is that “TV lacks interactivity, and it moves relentlessly forward without pause for reflection.” Cline adds regarding interactivity: “We’re still just sitting there watching. No action is ever required of us.” TV’s temporal immediacy has always been the medium’s dream and nightmare. There’s a Twilight Zone episode from the original series where an obnoxious businessman learns how to stop time, with this ability clearly linked narratively to TV. But I’m not sure that TV’s relentless temporality necessarily prevents reflection. More crucially, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that TV necessarily entails utter passivity. In fact, because I have a lot of nervous energy, I rarely watch an entire TV show without getting up several times or flipping channels or fixing dinner (in fact, I usually “watch” TV while I’m waiting for something else). Feminist critics have commented that many homemakers “watch” TV while doing chores around the house, implicitly challenging the “couch potato” model as inherent to TV. While there are certainly couch potatoes out there, I don’t think the passivity thesis really holds up, and physical passivity certainly doesn’t require mental passivity (not that I’m endorsing a mind-body split or anything).
Jeff Rice favorably mentions the Johnson article and discusses the concept of the “media mind,” arguing that “In many ways, the media mind is a filmic mind or a remix mind. It constructs possibilities and narratives which resist sequential thought or linear reasoning,” an argument that makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, I’d imagine that’s why I initially found (and still find) time-travel films so appealing: they often, though not always, “represent” memory and thought in complicated ways. In fact, Jeff’s comments help me to see just how central form is to many of my arguments in my book, though I’d likely emphasize content a little more than he does.
Steven Krause also discusses the TV-B-Gone remote’s misguided notion of TV invading public space, using the example of crowds gathered in bars to watch sporting events, an example I considered mentioning, and I’d also agree with him that there are already plentt of TV-free public spaces such as coffee houses and public parks. I don’t have any conclusions yet, but it’s interesting that most of these arguments return to questions of TV as polluting (or not) public space and TV as model of a media mind (whether for good or ill). I’m certainly aware of the anti-commercial(s) critique of TV, but that doesn’t seem to be an inherent property of the medium as much as it is a specific economic formation that privileges large multinationals hellbent on accumulating as much capital as possible. In general, I think Jeff’s right to be suspicious of many of these anti-TV arguments even if I never really watch TV very often (in fact, I wonder if I would defend TV so energetically if I did).