Television has ruined our ... you know... um ... whatever

How can TV be so moronic? I said HOW CAN TV ... Look, would you please turn that thing off? Thank you. I'm serious. And no, I'm not seeking suggestions for new reality shows. Television has been subject to colourful abuse from almost its earliest appearance. In Rex Stout's 1953 The Golden Spiders, Archie Goodwin tells us the genius detective Nero Wolfe "was in the office looking at television, which gives him a lot of pleasure. I have seen him turn it on as many as eight times in one evening, glance at it from one to three minutes, turn it off, and go back to his book." By now, TV's mind-numbing properties are so familiar it can be a bit difficult to see the mystery. (Other than why we stare for hours at what we openly call the "boob tube.") I hope the government will let us watch Fox News because I believe in freedom. But I can hardly suppose that adding one more channel will transform the experience from vegetative to energizing. Such a belief is no longer credible.

It once was. Whatever they think of individual programs, no one ever called radio the "idiot box.'' Why should TV be so qualitatively different? The other day I was reading one of those book things, Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, and, as he often is, he was most thought-provoking when most wrong. For instance, noting that by age 20 the average American has seen 600,000 TV commercials, he asks, "Would it not have been possible to foresee in 1947 the negative consequences of television for our politics and our children? And ... through social policy, political action, or education, to prepare for them and to reduce their severity?" No. No it would not.

At least, I don't think anyone did foresee it. I give a "so close and yet" award to the New York Times reporter who, after seeing a prototype in 1939, wrote: "The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn't time for it." He beat the guy who in 1926 said "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility..." But imagine it's June 13, 1948. We're enjoying a gripping radio broadcast of the pseudo-Sherlock Holmes mystery The Case of the Bleeding Chandelier and I mention that I've just seen one of those new-fangled "televisors" that receive pictures as well as sound. Do you reply, "Good Lord, we'll all turn into zombies"? Or "How marvellous; you could have a performance of Shakespeare right in your home, or a conversation between scholars, or a presentation of the day's events by an informed journalist, should it prove possible to find such a person?" If I claimed Orson Wells's notorious 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds would, if seen as well as heard, have induced not panic but virtual narcolepsy, would you have hailed me as a prophet or written me off as a loss?

Well, I invite you to stake your reputation on another prediction. Fairly soon, holographic home entertainment will displace the flatscreen visualizations characteristic of primitive 20th-century technology. Mankind will have "theatre in the round" on their living room carpets; NFL touchdowns thrown from beside the couch to a receiver near the stereo, driving the dog insane; adult films in which ... well, you get the idea. So tell me: Will three-dimensional entertainment also tend to produce single-digit IQs among its audience? Will it be stimulating like Dickens, riveting like The Shadow or banal like Gilligan's Island?

One day it will be obvious. But it isn't now, is it? So when researchers tell us television suppresses melatonin, or social commentators from Marshall McLuhan to Neil Postman claim the way we absorb information tells us more about what the world is fundamentally like than the specific information we absorb, I do not doubt that there is truth, and value, in their observations. But they have a bit of a post facto quality: Saying radio and print are "hot" media and television is "cool" seems to me to restate, not solve, the puzzle. Sometimes, in history and in life, we need to explain why something surprising really happened, not why whatever happened isn't really surprising.

Like why television is so dang moronic. Guess I'll sit me down to channel-surf for some program to explain it. After all, adding pictures to sound puts amazing information resources at the disposal of the average person. How could it not? Right, Friends?

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A reader informs me the half-Latin poem about buses mentioned in my last column was in fact written "early in the last century ... by Alfred Godley, an Oxford don" and kindly sent me its full text.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson