First, I need to admit that this week's title is a bit melodramatic. I don't have cable, but I do have a TV, which I use occasionally, and I'm probably not going to kill it any time soon. That being said, if there was a sudden mass movement that sought the eradication of that creature known as the television (the Idiot Box, if you are British), I would probably shrug my shoulders and join in on the carnage.
Like all technologies, the television is a commendable achievement of human creativity.
Such things should never be condemned without good reason. The benefits of the new technology should be weighed against the costs. If the benefits are high enough and the costs negligible, then, and only then, should the technology be utilized.
This is why we don't power our cars with hydrogen, and why we don't power our houses with uranium. In the case of hydrogen, the clean emissions are not enough to offset the cost of getting blown sky-high just because you backed over your mailbox. Likewise, the benefits of uranium are not high enough to offset the cost of growing a third eyeball in the middle of your forehead due to radiation poisoning (some might contend that a third eyeball would actually fall in the benefit category).
Please be aware the cost/benefit comparison I have in mind is social and not economic — social costs come first and carry more weight. If a technology fails in the social analysis, there is no need to analyze it economically, it deserves rejection. If it does violence to humanity, then it doesn't matter if it makes money. In the case of the television, the social costs are becoming increasingly condemning in relation to the benefits.
During the 1970's, Americans began a process of social "cocooning." What this means is that we began focusing our leisure activities within the home rather than out in the community. It was a slow process, but it coincides conveniently with the proliferation of the television. For example, in 1950 barely 10 percent of American homes had a television set, but by 1959, 90 percent had one. By 1990, everyone had two.
It makes sense that people will tend to choose the cheapest and easiest means of entertainment when it comes to choosing how they spend their leisure time. The television is, by far, the cheapest and easiest entertainment option available. Until now, families were forced out into healthy community interaction because there was just not much else to do. The baseball park, the bowling alley, the skating rink, the theater, the community dance, and the picnic are all options that are both entertaining and relational — they build communities. Unfortunately, they also require planning and cost energy. TV requires none.
By 1995, the television was absorbing about 40 percent of American free-time, and by the year 2000, the average person watched about four hours daily. Increases in available leisure time only make it worse. Americans gained six hours a week in added leisure time between 1965 and 1995 — television ate up all of it. Because of this, the television has been called the "800 pound gorilla of leisure time." In this way, the most profound result of the "television revolution" has been that it pulls people into their homes and keeps them there.
Page 2 of 2 - That trend destroys community and civic engagement all by itself. Those people who list "television" as their primary form of entertainment are statistically less likely to give blood, volunteer, write letters, make long-distance calls to friends, or attend public meetings. Decreases in voter participation should not be a surprise within such populations.
The TV-dependent demographic also is statistically more likely to give fellow drivers the finger, illustrating nicely the fact too much social isolation tends to impoverish social communication in all its forms.
In the end, we are an increasingly "atomized" nation. We are isolated from our neighbors.
The social costs of television have been conspicuously high. Technology itself is not to blame as the cause of this isolation, but it can be condemned as having streamlined the process of civic destruction. Trying to put "the blame" on television itself would be just as foolish as blaming Marilyn Manson or Nintendo.
Our current crisis is not caused by guns, insanity, video games or hard rock music.
Abuse of firearms, rampant psychosis, and the perversion of art are all just symptoms of the real disease, which is the decay of community. It is even incorrect to say it is a "cultural problem," because culture is a manifestation of healthy community. If culture is unhealthy, it is because community already has disintegrated beneath its feet.
Further, it is not even a religious problem. I have not yet heard any convincing argument suggesting the rejection of God preceded the decay of community, and so I'd rather not hear any well-meaning Christians trying to say that our schools have shootings because we discarded public prayer. As Christians, that is simply a condescending effort by us to shift the blame elsewhere, and pretend that we are not equally responsible for our dying community atmosphere.
In order to reverse the trend and "reconstitute" our nation, we not only need to turn away from socially destructive technologies, but also turn toward each other. Abstaining from TV will get us nowhere if it isn't coupled with the re-engagement of neighbors.
This has been a "big picture" overview of the social decay associated with television.
I have described what happened when TV invaded the community. Next week we will focus on what happened when the TV invaded the family itself. The results there are much more alarming.
The opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the The McPherson Sentinel or GateHouse Media. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at email@example.com.