Monday 20 February 2023

Against TV

In a recent and now lost-forever interview with Dan, I was asked how it was that I manage to juggle having a 'proper job', a young family, reading lots of books, writing this blog, and producing RPG materials. Any answer would make me sound big-headed (as does me bringing it up now...), and I can't now recall what I actually said in response. The truth of the matter is that I actually feel spectacularly unproductive and constantly beat myself up about that. But I suppose that, in the round, objectively I probably do more with my time than the average person.

90% of the reason for this is that I don't really watch TV (including streaming televisual stuff online). It's not true that I watch no TV, but I more or less religiously limit it to around 20 minutes a day - just long enough to wach half an episode of NextGen or a full episode of Frasier or Seinfeld, or a whisky review, or something. Mindless unwinding does have its uses, and I recognise that, but 20 minutes is more than enough time spent indulging. 

Part of the reason why I don't watch TV is that I find most of it mind-numbingly stupid and crude, even the supposedly 'intelligent' stuff, and can't figure out why people who I know to be intelligent don't also notice this. Part of the reason is that there just isn't really much out there that particular interests me - I tend to find TV drama pretty cringeworthy, especially when it's in the fantasy/SF genre, and modern comedy is almost universally dreadful. But most of the reason is that I think TV is actually a rather poisonous influence on the modern world, that modern online streaming services have put that poisonous influence on steroids, and that I feel guilty for watching it in the same way that I would feel guilty for using social media - an equally baleful force in our lives.

Why, though, is TV so bad?

The first reason is probably the one which has the greatest chance of finding broad acceptance. It is that, even if TV isn't actively bad for you, every minute you spend watching it is a minute you're not spending actively doing something that would improve your life (studying Spanish, learning to play guitar, talking to your family members, knitting, practicing drawing, doing yoga, cooking a delicious and healthy meal, trying to get your head around Hegel, etc., etc.). TV watching is almost entirely dead time: the mental equivalent of just sitting on your sofa eating white bread and margarine. Sure, you can kid yourself that by watching documentaries or decent drama that you are learning things and developing yourself - pull the other one. One day you will get to the end of your life and look back and ask yourself if you have any regrets, and while I have no idea what the answer to your specific version of that question will be, I guarantee you it will not be 'I should have spent more time watching TV.'

The second reason is that TV is a literalising medium: it makes you stupider. Compare the experience, phenomenologically speaking, of watching TV versus reading a book. TV presents us with images and speech. Because it can't present us with internal monologue or indeed tell us anything about the thoughts, experiences, and knowledge of the people it depicts, it is required to make those things explicit in the form of actions and dialogue. As a consequence, it is almost as though it were designed to destroy our capacity to develop a fully-fledged theory of mind - with the final result being an approach to other human beings which understands them as the kind of crude, stick-figure representations which we are used to seeing on our screens. You may dispute this, or ask me to cite evidence; I can only respond - isn't the evidence all around us in our political and cultural landscape? People often fault social media for the awful goodies vs baddies tribalism that is increasingly dominant across the developed world; I think increased TV watching, especially thanks to the advent of streaming services that allow one to watch 'good' TV (I use the term loosely) 24/7 is just as much to blame.

The third reason is that excessive TV watching develops a habit of passivity. How many times have you said to yourself, over the course of your life, 'What shall I do now? I suppose I'll see what's on TV.' Next time you think that, pause for a moment and reflect. Why was that your first response? Because you default to TV watching when bored. Your initiative has been dulled. You have got out of the habit of actively engaging with the world and with people around you. You prefer the path of least resistance. TV watching has trained you to think like that. Make working out, or going for a walk, or baking, or reading a book, or learning a skill your default option instead.

The fourth reason is that the overwhelming aesthetic of the TV screen is fundamentally pornographic. Now, let's hold our horses for a moment. I don't mean that TV is necessarily hypersexualised or that there is too much sex - implicit and explicit - on TV and in our media landscape in general. (Though I do think those things too.) What I mean is that TV, as a visual medium, tends to be dominated by a style, a way of looking at the world, that is best summarised by the phrase, 'Phwoar, look at that.' Phwoar, look at her. Phwoar, look at him. Phwoar, look at that view. Phwoar, look at those colours. Phwoar, look at that cheetah. Phwoar, look at that explosion. Phwoar, look at that car. Phwoar, look at that slo-mo replay. Phwoar, look at that gunfight. And so on and so on. It is pornographic in the sense that it replicates the relationship between the viewer of pornography and the pornographic image: one is reduced to an empty vessel through which the image communicates itself directly the one's lizard brain. This is basically dehumanising. It bypasses the part of us that is above the animals, going in fact straight underneath. This may not always be so terrible, in the same way that sometimes eating chocolate cake isn't always so terrible. But it is terrible in large doses.

Our societies are increasingly secularised. Many of us are convinced that you have only one life and that's that - there is no afterlife. And yet more than ever before we fritter away our lives simply observing, and not, for the most part, even observing things that are real. Rather, we spend hours a day essentially just observing the fantasies of others. This is deeply strange and sad. Stop it.


  1. There are some of us who have also turned away from the tv. You are not alone in holding to these self truths. Your skill in articulating so many good reasons to ignore the vision box is evidence that you have not wasted your time in watching mindless passive eye candy.

    1. Oh, I wasted plenty of it as a younger man, trust me...

  2. It's curious that I, being a religious person, tend to think every time 'Am I really doing my best with my time?'. Not because I feel judged, but because I feel that everything is a present and I tend to waste it. My father died when I was a kid and my mother always told me that we need to enjoy life, not in a hedonistic way, but in a grateful way. And when I find myself wasting my time doing nothing watching some youtube videos I feel somewhat awful. Because I know that I can do better things with my time!

    It's a strange world that we live in, and I know that I don't understand a lot of things about it... But I think that, in a way, I totally understand you, but I also don't think that you are totally right... I'll think about it, thanks for the food for thought!

    BTW I'm 30, if someone thinks that an old man is talking here.

  3. True.
    Though knitting while watching TV is quite possible, as are some other examples given above. ;) As for goodies vs baddies - I think it's more of a result of the comics culture than TV per se. Though I may be mistaken, of course. And propaganda of comics culture went more through blockbusters than TV, I think. Though it IS possible that it was more TV based some 30-40 years ago. Not sure.

    1. Interesting notion. I tend to think the popularity of e.g. the Marvel Universe etc. is because people have become used to thinking of the world in terms of goodies vs baddies than vice versa?

    2. Yes. People also really enjoy 'fairy' stories: Star Wars, Wuxia, Westerns. These all have analogs from the past: The Icelandic tales, The Chinese tales of the Assassins trying to get the emperor. We love stories that are fantastical but also relatable and grounded. We humans also like many simple stories that are good for a laugh and a quick diversion. Good vrs. Evil is easy to entertain, away from the complexities of "real" life.

  4. I think I can only agree with about half of the points, but the main reason is probably because I am not entirely sure of what do you mean by "televisual stuff." Because, reading the article, I can't help but think "wait, is it just any kind of video or audio?"

    1. I think probably yes for anything visual, but audio (radio/podcasts) is its own kettle of fish, because you can genuinely do that while doing something else - like driving.

    2. Hm, yeah. I'm inclined to agree with the fact that video content is the one that is more prone to inordinate consumption. And the effects of this might indeed be worse than abusing other forms of media.

      But without wanting to look overly preoccupied with definitions, is theater televisual stuff? Or going to the circus? Maybe the main diference is that live events lack the immediacy and 24-hour availability?

    3. Yes, and the communal element of live performance is important. The fact that you are watching a real person doing something amazing right there in front of you makes it matter in a way that seeing it on a screen does not. I would have to spend time unpacking that, though.

  5. Yep.

    Karl Marx was wrong when he wrote, ""Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes." Rather, glowing rectangles are the opiate of the people. Clergy can only (and vainly) long for the day when people in general spend nearly as much time in religious pursuits as in staring at glowing rectangles.

    1. Stanley Kubrick tried to warn us.

    2. Last year someone made a documentary about my father-in-law (which is, btw, one of the very few bits of "good telly" 😁) and in it he makes exactly this point. I'm fact, that soundbite was the snippet of the film they used for the trailer:

  6. I think it's a good deal more complicated than you're making it out to be. I don't have strong opinions on the third or fourth listed reasons (the passivity and spectacle-focused aspects), although I suspect that a good part of that comes from the gap between "average" TV and actually-good TV (cf. Sturgeon's Law). And I agree with you on the first reason (that time spent on X can't be spent on Y).

    But the second reason doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny for me. First, seeing things happen visually without any sort of input from the minds of others is exactly how we experience the real world. Even if you're an inveterate bookworm, the majority of you life is spent in that mode. So in essence you're claiming that the vast majority of everyone's existence is actively making us all stupider and crueler, which simply doesn't hold water.

    This is not to cast aspersions on books; I do think they do a lot of good for the brain. But that's not because they provide the basic required materials for a "theory of mind" that is missing from audiovisual experience! It's because they provide something extra that exercises your brain: text is an amazingly efficient medium for the transmission of certain kinds of information, especially abstract information, so reading can vastly increase your knowledge base and available points of reference about the world. What's more, the abstracted nature of text means that that dense content takes more work to extract, which helps develop certain skills. I love books; it's just that something which is fundamentally extra should not be used as the baseline for comparing other media.

    Finally, I think you're not giving visual media enough credit. Yes, the vast majority of what is produced these days is shlock and dreck, and overly expositive TV can a boring waste of time... but let's not pretend that good acting and direction can't convey some immensely subtle information about stuff like people's thoughts and feelings. Even if most of it doesn't work for you, the fact remains that good TV and movies exist, which can move someone to tears or even fundamentally change their life in positive ways through what is conveyed.

    Let me emphasize that: evolutionarily, humans have been designed in such a way that we naturally produce a theory of mind simply by taking in audiovisual stimuli from our environments, generally within our first year or two of life. To claim that an audiovisual medium must necessarily damage our theory of mind seems nonsensical in that light.

    And finally, as "evidence" you point to the polarization, alienation, and anger on view in contemporary society. Even the casual student of history, though, will note that in many ways the world is at an unprecedented peak of openness and acceptance. The reactionary forces we see causing problems now are bad not because they're a new phenomenon caused by TV (although TV certainly is one of the mediums by which their memetic sickness spreads - but so is talk radio, notably lacking in visual images)... but because they're specifically reactionaries who desire to turn back the clock to the 1950s... or 1930s... or earlier. You know: times when even in the most liberal countries had racism built into their fundamental governing structures; when women were constrained by society to mostly function as servants to the men in their lives; when casual antisemitism was still largely acceptable to air in public; when xenophobia was utterly normal and bizarre prejudices and false beliefs about foreign cultures flourished unchallenged.

    You've validly pointed out a lot of problems with human society: self-absorption, ignorance, unfounded reflexive distrust and dislike... but these are not the fault of TV; they're flaws within humanity as a whole. They exist to some degree in all of us. And while a good book can help cure some of that, so can a good show... and a bad book (e.g. Mein Kampf, or Heinlein's more fascist works) can do just as much harm as a bad TV show (most reality shows; Fox "news," etc.).

    1. Do you really believe that "seeing things happen visually without any sort of input from the minds of others is exactly how we experience the real world"? Because that's not how I experience the real world. I interact with other people and build relationships with them. Neither books nor TV does that. Therefore the correct comparison is between those two media, not between either of them and real life.

      I agree that there is good TV and there are good films. But people always trot out Sturgeon's Law as though it is a fabulous knock-down argument. The relevant contribution of Sturgeon's Law to the debate seems to me that 90% of everything is shit, so 90% of what people watch on TV is, on average, shit. Not a great argument in favour of watching TV.

      As for your final two paragraphs, I have to speak frankly - you are parroting exactly the kind of 'two legs bad, four legs good' phenomenon I've been bemoaning. Casting politics and culture as a Manichean contest between the forces of good and evil is exactly what's wrong with the modern world. Read more books! ;)

    2. My apologies if my intent wasn't clear. I'm not here trying to convince you that you personally absolutely must watch and appreciate TV. I'm simply saying that a blanket condemnation of an entire medium without any actual evidence isn't convincing to me.

      My point was, and remains, that a medium is simply a tool. And the benefit or harm you derive from a tool depends on how it is used, more than on its fundamental nature. I might have been convinced otherwise if the post had any actual evidence in it, but vaguely gesturing at the ills of the world we live in is not actually very rigorous.

      For example: can it actually be demonstrated that 1. xenophobia (or any other social ill) is worse than before the invention of TV, and 2. that this decline has a causal relationship with the spread of TV consumption, or of a particular format or genre of TV?

      On the first point: Again, I can't help but think of how the world treated Jews in 1923 compared to now. Sure, it's not super great now, but there's definitely less overt blood libel and legally-permitted discriminatory business practices. The same goes for the queer community, for indigenous Americans, for women who desire personal autonomy, and many other communities and groups. I would need strong evidence before accepting the claim that the human race is more closed-minded and tribal than it was 100 years ago, or 200, or 500, or 1000, or in fact pretty much any other time in human history so far.

      And on the second point: Let's say it can be demonstrated that the world is more "Manichean" now than ever before. Can you show that this specifically arises from a causal relationship primarily with TV? Can you demonstrate that talk radio isn't a worse culprit, or social media, or anonymous message boards like 4chan, or Tamagochis?

      Given the lack of anything even remotely resembling actual evidence, I'm still inclined to believe that your dismissal of Sturgeon's Law actually supports my point: if 90% of everything is crap, then treating it as an argument against any TV having any value at all, must automatically also apply to literally everything else, including books. I mean, can anybody seriously claim that "90% of what people read in books is shit, and I think that's a great argument for reading more books"? And conversely, any argument used to pull books out of the gutter (e.g. "It's wise to find and focus on the ones that are actually good for you") must also apply to everything else, including TV. And... I mean, come on. A good documentary or thought-inspiring thriller, etc. etc., is definitely more exercise for the brain than a schlock novel.

      Your first paragraph in your response supports this point further: you explicitly say that books are the best comparison for TV, and that real life is not like either of them. Wouldn't this argument lead you to the conclusion that both books and TV are alienating and erode your theory of mind, because they both lack the sort of reciprocal interaction that characterizes real life? I mean, it's not like I can stop and ask Gandalf about the context of a claim he makes in a book, or have Hari Seldon show me his math, or even see the exact emotion in John McClane's eyes after he has killed a guy. (Incidentally, this is something that TV can give me....)

      Jumping ahead: the final paragraph of your reply is especially fascinating, because you call out "exactly the kind of... phenomenon I've been bemoaning" (as a sickness caused by TV)... while naming it with a term that came along about 1600 years before TV. Or am I supposed to believe that the Sasanian Empire was brought low by Blue's Clues? :p

      And let's not even get into the part where my editorial asides may have felt gratuitous, but I wouldn't say that they're any more "Manichean" than e.g. a claim that "TV INTRINSCIALLY BAD, BOOK INTRINSICALLY GOOD."

      Let me back up a bit and thank you for a thought-provoking post. It turns out that even when something is fatally flawed, it can still have value. :D

  7. Great post, and germane to a discussion I was having with a colleague only yesterday. I tend to agree with you; I think they would shoot back that if one is an impressively prolific academic scholar, host a weekly podcast and write frequently for newspapers of record, one needs to put the brain in neutral from time to time.


    1. I don't disagree with that, and actually there have been times when I have been dedicating 12 hours a day to working on a specific project and simply needed some time vegetating in front of the TV of an evening. I don't discount the value of that. But most people don't need it and the times when it is needed are pretty brief.

  8. Generally, I agree on all points. And when left to my own devices I generally watch less (or NO) television. For many years, I went without owning a TV.

    But, in my household, watching television IS a communal event. My family will watch a show together. Or my children will watch a show together. Or my wife and I will watch a show together. It provides common points of reference for discussion and interaction after the show is turned off.

    And it's easier and cheaper than getting out to a theater.

    Does theater enrich our lives? Does watching a scripted show provide more than life-numbing, mindless entertainment? It can. Sometimes it does.

    And, I think that even some of the WORST television (i.e. the "reality" television) is worth watching simply to explore the creativity of various humans, to see possibilities, and to be inspired. Certain cooking shows, for example.

    But IN, television watching is absolutely a detriment to productivity.

    1. Theatre is surely different to TV though in that theatre isn't literalising in the way TV is. You often have dramatic monologues in theatre, or musical numbers which give insights and depth to the characters.

      I do agree with your point about some reality TV, though. Masterchef is a good example.

  9. WITHOUT haste! without rest!
    Bind the motto to thy breast;
    Bear it with thee as a spell:
    Storm and sunshine guard it well!
    Heed not flowers that round thee bloom,
    Bear it onward to the tomb.

    Haste not! Let no thoughtless deed
    Mar for aye the spirit’s speed;
    Ponder well, and know the right;
    Onward, then, with all thy might.
    Haste not! Years can ne’er atone
    For one reckless action done.

    Rest not! Life is sweeping by;
    Go and dare before you die:
    Something mighty and sublime
    Leave behind to conquer time!
    Glorious ’t is to live for aye,
    When these forms have passed away.

    Haste not! Rest not! Calmly wait;
    Meekly bear the storms of fate!
    Duty be thy polar guide,—
    Do the right, whate’er betide!
    Haste not! Rest not! Conflicts past,
    God shall crown thy work at last."
    -Goethe, Ohne Hast, Ohne Rast

  10. I find not having a TV licence or TV has helped a lot. :)
    OTOH I still waste time on social media, & Youtube. But putting my bag of figure painting stuff in the kitchen has helped a lot - making "I'll just paint some minis" a useful default up there with eg working on Roll20 campaigns, when I'm avoiding marking student essays. >:)

  11. Great post. It reminds me of a film by Tarkovsky in which a young boy asks his grandfather about the meaning of “sin”. The old man pauses and responds that sin is “anything which is needless”. I have often came back to this scene when feeling that I was loosing my time.


  12. When depression threatens to take hold, I find myself wanting to watch television/play video games/partake in mindless tasks. Yes, video games are mindless (the story is usually already written, you're just following a pre-planned route to get there). Genuine productive tasks take lots of effort.

    That leads me to believe that if I want to be productive and "do things" I need to remove myself from mindless tasks. The firewood doesn't split itself, after all.

    1. I do think that the rapid increase in depression in our societies is real (not just better diagnoses) and I strongly believe that it has some sort of mutually reinforcing relationship with the number of mindless/meaningless activities we do, at work and in our leisure time.

  13. "Television" is an extremely wide category, and I would argue that the best TV is substantially elevated above the rest, and more enriching. For example, I thought 'Mad Men' was extremely thought provoking, and gave me the feeling of a window into the long-gone world that my parents and grandparents lived in. I feel that I got just as much out of an hour of that show as I get out of an hour reading a novel, and arguably more.

    I probably only watch a couple of hours of TV a week. But, I don't take any particular pride in that, because the time I don't spend watching TV instead gets spent reading blogs, forum posts, and other stuff on the internet. And I am not at all convinced that it's an improvement.
    My attention span has taken a huge hit since the rise of the internet. When I think about how many books I used to read when younger, compared to now, I feel embarassed. It's just hard to sit down and do it now. Before the internet, watching TV did not seem to affect my attention span in the same way. In some ways I feel like I have replaced one addition with a worse one.

    1. Yeah, I think we all feel that. You have to be really disciplined about it. My capacity for that goes up and down.

  14. Lame! It's not always great, but television is part of our culture. Watching TV is participation in that culture. Also, without it, there'd be no D&D... and no RPG hobby.

    1. Part of your culture, maybe. Exactly how TV contributed to the birth and spread of D&D? As far as I know, it got pretty big on zines, conventions and pulp novels alone.

  15. Bragging, disdain, anger, misanthropy, scolding... but virtuous!

    1. Ah. I meant that to be a comment on the blog post, not a response to a comment... but it applies to the other guy, too. ;)

    2. I know what you meant. I was agreeing with your characterisation of my post!

  16. In the spirit of the simplifying medium you denounce, your advice bears the mark of a man who has a dog.

    While I'm inclined to award Social Media the status of greater evil (or simply think of TV as "the devil we know"), agreement with you is still near to absolute.

    1. No dog but I have two small kids and that's basically pretty much like having two very intelligent dogs.

  17. The lost 3rd Hitchens brother has been discovered..

  18. Probably comes as no surprise that I agree pretty much entirely. Particularly WRT the pornographic element, which is why I really struggle with pretty much everything made in the last decade or so, however highbrow: the production and writing have been so finely honed to hit all the buttons that I find it really repellent.

    I do feel differently about YouTube videos, and I think that at least in part this is because of the low/no production values. When I worked in TV, it amazed me that so many of my colleagues were almost allergic to watching anything in less that 1080p, whereas for me a bit of crunchiness can be a good thing. Plus it's lovely to vibe on other people's obsessions - over the years I have done this with the worlds of terrarium makers, bonsai growers, jewellers, wood carvers and various other hobbies. Of course, there are plenty of TV programmes about these sort of obsessions nowadays, but again they are pornified to the max.

    There's also the fact that YouTube has some damned good ancient TV programmes on it... which does make me question slightly how much of my objection to TV is just that I'm getting old. Alec Guinness's Smiley is a guilty pleasure that I return to for comfort.

    The occasional need to just veg out is definitely there, but I've observed more and more that I can get my entire year's fix just by spending a few days over Christmas glued to the TV.

    Slightly infuriatingly, my wife watches a hell of a lot of TV and is productive with it. The crafts that she does can mostly be done with TV as an accompaniment - she seems to be turning out a rag rug (or "proggy mat" as they call them in our region) every couple of evenings. She doesn't half watch some crap though!

    1. Yeah, the first paragraph is on the money. It's too slick. I don't know if you saw the new Top Gun film? I watched it on a plane journey having not watched a new film release in almost 10 years and I was actually almost repelled - your word - by quite how carefully optimised every single element of it was to maximise the spectacle. Every shot is manicured to the point of hyperrealism. It's vaguely nauseating.

      Totally with you on the vibing on other people's obsessions but in my case it's 99% whisky reviews or videos of great drummers. I don't play the drums but I love good drumming. I do drink quite a bit of whisky.

      My wife also watches loads of TV, the more mindless the better - and almost all Japanese TV is mindless. (But much more charming than the British equivalents.)

    2. "I don't know if you saw the new Top Gun film?" HELLO. HELLO. WHO ON EARTH DO YOU THINK THIS IS YOU ARE TALKING TO? ;-)

      (no, I didn't, and I hope not to)

      The visual hyperrealism is the most extreme and obvious aspect of the medium's pornification, but what almost annoys me more is the knowingness of the writing - it knows that it's clever, and it knows that you know that its clever, but do you *really* know just how clever it is? Hey, look, here's something clever that you weren't expecting!

      I mean, don't get me wrong, a love a bit of postmodernism but it's all got, in the word of Graham Chapman, silly.

      I need to dive down the whisky rabbit hole because I've never been there, but OH MAN, DRUMS! Just after I commented last night, there was a recommended video for me from when I'd been on YouTube to grab the link to my father-in-law's video. And I couldn't not watch it. This: - I've heard this song a gazillion times, but seeing it from the drummer's perspective puts a whole new slant on it. Dunno whether you know of Cardiacs, they're The band of my life. Kinda progressive jazz for the punk generation :-P

      I guess you must have come across Nandi Bushell? I stumbled on this video a year or two back and could watch it over and over and over and over again: (I thought I'd got over being a closet Rush fan, turns out not). The whole "kids playing impossible riffs" thing can get really nauseous, but in this case... the sheer joy! It makes me smile bigger than my face every time I see it.

      Really trying not to hijack this comments section and turn it into a drum-wankathon. But failing. Dunno whether you know of Han Bennink? Free jazz drummer (I used to have one of his drumsticks, it landed on my lap during a gig... long story). Anyway, the Dutch cheese board paid him to promote their products, and...

  19. This strikes me as an argument from faith more than a reasoned argument. If you say "isn't the evidence all around us in our political and cultural landscape?" then you need to actually cite evidence for your point - our political and cultural landscape is comprised of so many different things it is difficult to trace cause and effect. Something like "Television came into broad use in the 1950's and we've become dumber since" and then citing examples that can be traced back to TV would help. Major points if you can show with high probability that it is a cause of social and moral decay rather than say... wage stagnation, failure of public education, or some other social ill. Without the evidence, this comes across as not much more than another moral panic about a medium - Victorian era fears about children reading penny dreadfuls and becoming criminals springs to mind.

    The statement "We are wasting our lives" has always struck me as a peculiar one, because it implies some special knowledge of the way to properly spend a life. I can tell when I am wasting time in my life, rather than spending it productively - but I know many people would value the activities in their life differently. The time I have wasted hasn't been on TV or TV-like mediums for the most part - it's been on things I've actively pursued and been worse for.