By Jerry Mander, 1978. ISBN 0-688-03274-5
I grew up without a television at home. Even at the time, I knew this was out of the ordinary. As my friends obsessed over MTV, video games, and movies, I spent time on the computer.
Why did my parents raise me this way? This book is a big part of the reason.
Here are some points that stuck out to me:
One argument for television is that it allows us to experience more than we could without it. A child in Nebraska can watch a performance of an orchestra in New York City. Yet watching the performance is a shadow of the experience of seeing it in person.
Technology is prone to upset the natural balance because its evolution is not constrained by physics.
Advertising, then, serves to further the movement of humans into artificial environments by narrowing the conception of diversity to fit the framework of commodities while unifying people within this conception. The result is a singularly channeled mentality, nicely open to receiving commercial messages, ready to confuse human need with the advertiser’s need to sell commodities. […] Advertising exists only to purvey what people don’t need.
I’ve always had an aversion to advertising, and this passage renewed that feeling. Advertising serves our wants, not our needs. You don’t see ads for fruit and vegetables or getting a good night’s sleep.
[…] television addiction might itself be symptomatic of an inability to produce one’s own mental imagery.
Think about a time you saw a movie after reading the book. Now compare it to a time when you read the book after watching the movie. When reading the book first, your mental images of the characters were of your own creation. When reading it second, your images were likely those from the movie.
When our mental images are not of our own making, our creative abilities suffer.
They argue that the images, created exclusively by men, formed the operative visual myths about women in America and that as the images spread and entered people’s minds, they became mirrors of reality. Men wanted their women to be that way; women, seeing only those images, attempt to and eventually did become like the images. […] Nonetheless, because the images were very where, they began to dominate the reality, making women wish to be like men’s images of women, encouraging men to perceive women in those terms, and helping institute a power arrangement between the sexes that is only now being challenged”
In many ways, redefining preconceived images is the root of modern social movements such as marriage equality and Black Lives Matter.
Before modern technology, if we saw or heard something, it was because it was in fact happening. Only recently has it been necessary to doubt what our senses perceive, as television can present false realities. This “sensory cynicism” would have been profoundly dangerous for most of human history, but is now practically a necessity for survival.
Whenever you engage with media, any media, you begin to take things on faith. With books you are at least able to stop and think about what you read, as you read. This gives you some chance to analyze. With television, the images just come.
As the need for sensory cynicism grows, the space for it shrinks. We need time to process what we’re perceiving, and television often doesn’t provide that time.
Mander highlights the cadence of “technical events,” such as cuts, pans, zooms, and other techniques as evidence of how much technique drives engagement in television.
In typical commercial television, there is a such an event every six seconds or so. In commercials, it’s every 1-2 seconds. The less appealing the subject, the more enticement is needed to drive interest.
Programs concerned with the arts, programs concerned with many religions and all programs concerned with non-Western cultures are similarly distorted by television’s inability to convey their sensual aspects.
As I consider my struggles with religious faith and emotional intelligence, I see a connection to how technology is incapable of conveying these aspects of life. By spending most of our conscious hours in front of a screen, we’re limiting our exposure to sensual experiences, limiting our ability to handle such situations.
One answer to this questions lies with the absolutely erroneous assumption that technologies are “neutral,” benign instruments that may be used well or badly depending on who controls them. Americans have not grasped the fact that many technologies determine their own use, their own effects, and even the kind of people who control them. We have not yet learned to think of having ideology built into its very form.
Technologists, including myself, often make the argument that technology is neutral, and that any biases or downsides are the doing of the people who use it.
Given the inability to reverse the progress of technology, there is a great need to exercise caution in its creation.
While this book is over 50 years old, it’s relevant today, more than ever. Mander’s arguments border on hyperbolic at times, but ultimately make a strong case.