Channel Surfing

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).


  1. Jennifer Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

    What about the issue of “how” to watch television? There’s no question of the passivity fostered by television–and a passivity that can be quite dangerous if we ascribe to Lasn’s argument regarding the overt and covert brand advertising that marks the medium. Ok, I’ll admit it–I enjoy reality tv in a love/hate kind of way, but it also gets me thinking about critical issues concerning representation, the aesthetics of what’s considered “real,” and so on–but I’ve taught myself to watch tv this way. I guess I wonder about the effect of being cognizant of thinking in a more complex manner.

  2. Scrivener Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 2:51 pm

    I haven’t read the links here or anything (this is supposed to be just a really quick break from grading hell), but I am sympathetic to the argument that tv is invading public spaces. Yeah there have been tvs in bars for decades, but now there are tvs in every public bus, at every terminal in the airport, over the pumps at the gas station. I’m not absolutely opposed to the television, or anything, even if I am participating in tv-turnoff week. Some tv is fine and good. But when I’m waiting for a plane, for example, I’d rather sit and read a book, which I find hard to do with 4 tvs blaring at me from every angle. It is seriously difficult to find a place to go in many airports where you can’t see the tv, and it’s impossible to find places where you can get away from the sound. Maybe I’m just deficient in some way, but I have a hard time tuning that noise and the motion of the screen out–it is very distracting. And the point is that these screens are more and more in places where I have no choice in avoiding them. Again, it’s one thing to expect a tv showing sporting events in a bar, but it’s another thing to have tvs in evey public space, which is the direction we’re heading.

    You don’t have to argue against tv to argue that tv doesn’t need to fill up every space in the world around us. Obviously, you’d have to be a real asshole to use that remote to turn off the tvs in a sports bar. But I would love to be able to turn off the tvs in the waiting room at my mechanics when I’m the only one there, and over the pumps at the gas station, and in airport terminals, and so on and so on.

  3. Chuck Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 3:01 pm

    Okay, I may have overstated my objections to the passivity thesis last night, but I have become increasingly dissatisfied with Adbusters-style anti-branding actions (re-editing corporate logos, etc). I’m certainly critical of TVs indebtedness to advertising support and of how four or five major corporations are able to use TV to promote their own interests (usually greater profits). In terms of watching TV critically, I do think (reality) TV presents us with a variety of problems (“what’s considered ‘real,'” for example), and I think you’re right that such readings have to be taught, and that they should be taught. I have to run to teach, but I still want to think about some of these ideas.

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 4:45 pm

    Scrivener, I missed your comment earlier, and I do realize that TVs are much more widespread in public spaces than before. You’re certainly right about airports having TVs almost everywhere. I’ve only been to one gas station with a TV, but that’s probably a matter of luck more than anything else, and even then, the sound and image quality was so bad, I didn’t know what I was watching. I think I’m fairly neutral about TVs in public space, but that may be because the background noise is comforting (I have a hard time concentrating in places that are relatively quiet).

    I’m trying to figure out why I reacted so strongly to Lasn’s comments (mentioned in the Stevens article). In some sense, I think it may be a form of self-critique, questioning some of my own assumptions about TVs in public space and habits of TV watching. Several student groups presented in my classes on Debrod’s spectacle this afternoon, and unless they were trying to flatter me by endorsing his positions, they did reintroduce several important critiques of televisual spectacle (in particular), so I am aware of the negative effects of TV’s having a captive audience (espeically in doctor’s waiting rooms, etc).

  5. Angela Said,

    October 29, 2005 @ 6:58 pm

    I am a 17-year-old girl who was raised without a TV for my entire life. And I’m so happy I was. I won’t go into all the clear pros of not having a TV since those can be found by googling on the internet. But I just wanted to add a little note about what I felt reading this artice. In the second paragraph, the author states that watching TV doesn’t entail utter passivity. He even says that, “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.” OK, so tell me how that is not a bad thing. Sure, maybe that shows that you’re not utterly passive when you watch TV. But doesn’t that show your inability to sit through an entire program? What is it about the TV that balloons your nervous energy to a level so great that you have to get up several times or flip channels. I don’t mean to be harsh. I can’t speculate much about having TV and I understand that there are some advantages to having TV. But I just wanted to let the author know what it sounded like when he said it’s so hard to sit through an entire TV show. It sounded like the point you were trying to make about how TV isn’t that bad sorta backfired without you even realizing it.

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