How did we end up so addicted?
My mother and father can lay claim to having performed a most brilliant act of parenting. The first four years of my life passed by without access to a screen. Of any sort.
Since we’re talking about the 1970s here, by ‘screen’, I am of course referring to televisions. My first computer, a Commodore 64, did not enter the picture until 1985. From that moment onwards, screens of a different kind have rather dominated my life, more than I’d care to admit.
But no matter how computer obsessed I might become in the future, nothing will soften the blow of those pivotal early years. An infancy largely free of screens has had some seriously major repercussions down the track. If I can identify one thing that separates me from the bulk of humanity, it’s my general apathy towards a television screen.
And ‘apathy’ is being kind. Sometimes I feel the urge to throw every television set into the sea, desperately wanting to spend time with people but being unable to bear the thought of spending that time slumped gormlessly in front of the idiot box, my brain slowly dissolving into the sort of sloshy puddle that appears after a snowstorm. Give me a good old-fashioned board game, puzzle, philosophical discussion, pool table or Running Mutty post any day.
In case you’re thinking that my parents were radicals or hippies or into alternative lifestyles, I’m afraid to say that the screen-free upbringing was due to a more conventional reason: money. There just wasn’t that much of it available in those early days. Having a television in the house simply wasn’t a priority. My parents have never cared for ‘appearance’ or keeping up with the Joneses. My father, for instance, was recycling well before it became fashionable. (Perhaps they were more radical than I realise.)
As for my late introduction to television, my mother is fond of telling the story of how my sister and I first reacted when a TV became part of the household. At the time of this auspicious event, I was four and my sister was three. But despite our impressionable age, neither of us were particularly enamoured with this talky box, tending to only rush into the lounge room to watch the exciting and brash ‘commercials’. As soon as the normal programming resumed, it was back to the floor and the serious business of play-time.
This more or less correlates with my first memories of life. For many years, out of all the hazy memories that I carried about from early childhood, I only had one distinct image that could be said to have come directly from a television screen. Four people stood in a circle and stared up towards the sky, singing and looking rather forlorn. Only many years later did I realise that this was the ground-breaking music video of ‘SOS’, released by ABBA in 1975.
Little has changed forty or so years later. As I type these words, I’m staying in a guesthouse and reaching the end of a five week work stint. Although there happens to be a television in the room, I haven’t switched it on once during the entire five week stay. In fact, I haven’t even thought about switching it on. It’s like a coffee machine or a hair curler or some other foreign object, something that just doesn’t relate at all to my way of life.
So what’s it like then to feel alienated from most other people, a social pariah cut off from the effect of the world’s most popular drug?
A. A Global Addiction
Even though I have no great interest in television screens myself, I can do little to avoid them altogether. As much as it might seem from reading this blog, I’m not completely anti-social, opting to stay with friends and family whenever I get the chance. It’s almost inevitable that a television will be switched on at some point, even if the stay is only for a single evening. Out of politeness more than anything, I will sit in the lounge and share the viewing experience with my friends. It can be fun and relaxing, especially because I don’t do it so often.
In addition to lounge rooms, televisions are a mainstay of many public spaces: pubs, airports, waiting rooms, and even some restaurants. One would have to live in a cave to avoid televisions entirely. In fact, an anthropologist could argue that to identify a particular culture as ‘civilised’, one of the defining factors is whether the society has any concept of ‘television’. (Are there any societies today who would fail such a test?)
John Logie Baird, the Scottish inventor of television, can take great pride in television’s ability to bring people together, helping to instil a sense of community without having to resort to spears, bullets, barbed wire fences, and the other usual tools of pacification. Few other modern inventions can boast of such an achievement, usually preferring to drive us apart with gadget envy. While gathering in large numbers to watch a royal wedding or a World Cup final is one thing, television’s influence however comes not from the special events, but from the pervasive, inescapable impact it has on everyday life.
No broadcaster needs to encourage us to ‘stay tuned’. We remain transfixed on our backsides for entire evenings, night after night, year after year. Bizarrely enough, this is even the case when we fully accept and acknowledge the poor quality of the programming on offer. One man interviewed about his viewing habits estimated that out of the four hours of television he watched every day, only 5% of the content he would rate as ‘valuable’ or ‘worthwhile’. That equates to 12 minutes of programming out of a four hour total.
It would seem the professional hypnotist no longer has to rely upon a famous pocket-watch – swinging back-and-forth – in order to place the subject into a trance. Plonking her or him in front of the television does the same thing. Even when we fully comprehend that a lot of television is pointless garbage, we can’t force ourselves to detach. We are lifelong addicts.
Television has also made an unparalleled impact on modern culture in general. One of the most biting portrayals of modern life – The Simpsons – depicts the family sprinting into the lounge room and jumping onto the couch, all for the purpose of satisfying their daily cravings for the box. The stereotype of the unemployed person includes more couches, bags of crisps, and day-time television. Another stereotype is that of the nine-to-five worker, returning home after a tiresome day in the office, slumping in front of the TV with a glass of wine in her hand.
Personally, I find it quite odd that having endured an entire day of screens, people can then tolerate an entire evening with them as well. But as I said, I’m probably not the right person to be commenting about this state of affairs. I find many things to do with television (and modern life for that matter) rather odd. Perhaps you’d be better off consulting with an expert, such as the dedicated viewer previously mentioned. Nobody would see his four hours of television per day as anything out of the ordinary. He is completely normal.
Studies indicate that the average global viewer does indeed watch between three to five hours of television per day, depending on which country the viewer is from. The USA, for instance, is at the high end of the scale with almost five hours of television watched per day.
This suggests that watching television is the most popular pastime on the planet. It’s the natural – and perhaps only – fall-back option for the chronically bored, the tired and those who simply don’t know what else to do. Babies have pacifiers, everyone else has television.
B. Watching the Watchers
The best place to observe the global addiction at large is when travelling on a long-haul flight. Whenever I stand and walk about the cabin, I’m always curious to observe people’s intimate and very personal relationship with the screen. The customisation of that screen to suit personal tastes gives the passenger a small sense of homeliness and control.
Apart from the fact that reading on flights is almost non-existent these days – if you’re not going to read on a plane, when else are you going to find the time? – what interests me in particular is how jittery passengers can get when faced with a console of vast potential. Excitable fingers push buttons and scroll through pages, skipping or fast-forwarding bits of the programme not up to the requisite levels of excitement. I once watched in amusement as a woman spent two minutes forwarding and rewinding her screen just so she could skip the opening credits… which only went for about thirty seconds in the first place.
I’m left to wonder: is this sort of behaviour peculiar to flights or do people carry out their daily television ritual in a similar state of anxiety, perhaps worried that they are missing something ‘not to be missed’ on one of two hundred stations? Do they regularly check each of the stations one-by-one, like nervous parents glancing around the playground to see what their kids are up to? Are attention spans so woeful that any piece of programming where ‘nothing’ happens for five seconds automatically assumed to be a waste of time?
The flight itself might be the primary cause of the restless behaviour. Flying can be an uncomfortable and nerve-wrecking experience. But I suspect for others, it’s just a normal way of interacting with the everyday world. Life resembles that of an experimental lab mouse, perpetually worried that an electric shock will be duly delivered whenever you fail to act in the culturally stipulated manner. The only response is to just continue doing, keeping oneself busy without actually doing anything at all.
C. A Personal Addiction
I confess: I’ve had phases of life where television has won the battle. And I’m not talking about those random occasions when I happen to be sitting in a pub, unable to resist a crucial question in a quiz show, or Judge Judy haranguing some unfortunate defendant. Rather, these are television shows that I’ve invested some serious viewing time towards.
Science-fiction is a particular favourite of mine, perhaps the only favourite of mine. Initially I toyed with the idea of doing a ‘Top 10’ list of my favourite television programmes of all time, but then I realised I would probably struggle to come up with a list of ten. If such a list did exist, I am certain that seven or eight spots would be filled by SF alone.
The peak of my dedicated viewership took place during the early to mid-1990s. Although classic ‘Doctor Who’ had just ended its long run in 1989, I had a couple of decent alternatives to keep me entertained: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘Babylon 5’. Another popular option – and possibly the only programme beyond SF that I’ve ever really liked – was ‘The Simpsons’ (at least for the first dozen seasons).
Other notable shows that have grabbed me over the years are ‘The Prisoner’, the reboot of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Blakes 7’. Again, a heavy bias towards fantasy and SF. In case you’re wondering about everyone’s favourite fantasy show, I have occasionally watched ‘Game of Thrones’. While GoT is astonishing from a production point-of-view, I find it’s not the sort of show I can ‘warm’ to. It’s almost too perfect, lacking those cheap and crappy episodes that made ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Star Trek’ so real and compelling.
Even so, when I look back at the peak of my own relationship with television, at no stage did I ever do two things commonly associated with the dedicated fan. Firstly, my addiction never reached such a point that I absolutely had to watch the television at certain times of the day. Fortunately, the VCR (video cassette recorder) had already been invented by the late eighties, so if there was something else I fancied doing, it never bothered me to record the programme and watch it later. The eventual viewing would often take place weeks or months later. Internet spoilers weren’t such a problem in those days.
The second form of behaviour I’ve never come to grips with is binge watching. The thought of slumping on the couch for hours on end stuffing my face with further addictive substances sounds like a perverted form of torture. In any case, a fine show deserves to be savoured over time, not consumed in one messy gulp. It’s very rare that I spend more than one hour in front of the set.
D. A Word from our Sponsors
The television set is a brilliant invention, capable of disseminating useful information across the population at large. Even today, it still beats Twitter and Facebook for getting a message out quickly and efficiently. In addition, if you have a favourite programme (or two) that really helps you to wind down and relax in the evenings, then go ahead and watch your shows. It will improve your mood no end.
But I will never understand how people can devote years and years of a lifetime to what is essentially an electronic box with a glass screen, endlessly camped in front of that screen, endlessly flicking through channels to search for the Holy Grail of programmes. And people accuse science-fiction fans of lacking a sense of the real world.
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