Addicted: 10 Hours and 39 Minutes a Day

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The second post in our series on the power of television programs and films to shape beliefs, culture and behavior takes us to the mid-1980’s. Here, we’ll gain an understanding of how television, the medium itself, changed the world. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death [1] may have been written in back in 1985, but his realizations couldn’t be more relevant to our lives today.

 Postman forecasts that the world imagined by Aldous Huxley in novel Brave New World [2] has been brought to life through the medium of television. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, we offer you the opening of Amusing Ourselves to Death, which begins with a comparison of Huxley’s predictions of a futuristic society versus those George Orwell discussed in his book 1984.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” [3]

When Amusing Ourselves to Death was written, television—meaning programming provided by networks and public broadcasting—had become the main medium for transmitting information into American homes. As we look at how technology has progressed, it’s clear that the internet has given viewers greater access to programming and greater control over what content they choose to consume. Choosing to watch the programs viewers enjoy the most, is exactly what Postman identified as television’s greatest flaw.

“Television is not well-suited to offering people what they need. It is user-friendly. It is too easy to turn off. It’s at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands.” [4]

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 Because the consumer can choose not to watch, those who design programming are forced to package information as entertainment, striving to make it as appealing as possible. The problem here is that entertaining content generally lacks depth and thoughtfulness. As Postman explains, what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, non-substantive, non-historical, and non-factual.

 As you read that paragraph, you may feel a bit defensive and try to think of counter-examples of deeply thoughtful and somewhat historical films like, for example, Schindler's List. Still, as you consider the programming consumed on a daily basis, it’s safe to say that those examples are exceptions to the sea of fantasy entertainment. Consider this list created by The Insider of the 20 most popular television shows of 2017:

 1. HBO’s Game of Thrones
2. AMC's The Walking Dead
3. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars
4. FOX’s Prison Break
5. History’s Vikings
6. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory
7. CW’s The Flash
8. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why
9. CW’s The Vampire Diaries
10. PBS’s Sherlock
11. HBO’s Westworld
12. USA’s Suits
13. ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy
14. CW’s Arrow
15. CW’s Supernatural
16. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
17. FOX’s Gotham
18. FOX’s Lucifer
19. CW’s The 100
20. Amazon’s The Grand Tour [5]

It’s not that the  Grand Rapid Film Festival (GRFF) team is trying to pick on your ‘show’, make you feel guilty for enjoying it, or even aims to inspire a change in consumption. It’s just that we can’t help but agree with Postman, entertainment is king.

 If we were only consuming this non-substantive media a few hours a week, the impact on society wouldn’t be alarming. But, according to the New York Times, in 2016, the average amount of time Americans spend consuming media—watching TV, surfing the web, using a phone app, listening to the radio—is up to 10 hours and 39 minutes a day. [6]

 As Postman put it, in America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves. Those who run television do everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. Postman argues that we live in a world where the mass majority will not turn off the television. Because of this, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America.

 As the GRFF team read through Postman’s work, we analyzed our own viewing habits. Whether we’re streaming a television series, film, or news clip at home on our  wall-mounted flatscreen television, on our laptop, or even our smartphone, we had to admit it’s difficult to turn it off and take a break. Even simple tasks, like cooking dinner, seem easier if we’re being entertained while doing it.

 The fact that media consumption is addictive is not a new revelation. The New York Times published an article about it back in 1990. [7] They state that for the most frequent viewers, watching television has many of the marks of a dependency like alcoholism or other addictions. When that article was written, the addicts referred to in the study watched on average 56 to 71 hours of television a week. What seemed excessive in 1990, has now become the norm for an average American. Clearly, we are addicted to media consumption.

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When was the last time you witnessed someone get their eyes gouged out in real life?

When was the last time you witnessed someone get their eyes gouged out in real life?

 Furthermore, we are addicted to non-substantive fantasies that transport us to places like Gotham, Braavos from Game of Thrones or Starling City from Arrow.  Places with vampires, dragons, zombies, superheroes, and vikings. They are violent, well beyond reality, with a fight scene and generally death in every episode. So, this is our Brave New World. The sea of irrelevance that Huxley feared would drown out truth is one swimming with vampires, dragons, and zombies. Oh my.

 

As Oscar Wilde put it in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." [8]

 

It’s this statement that brings us back to the filmmakers’ responsibility.

As you craft your stories, your fantasy worlds ripe for the consumption of the average media addict, consider the end—the impact if you will—that the myths you are making will have on the viewer and society as a whole. Your art will be imitated.
Is it just another irrelevant, non-substantive contribution to distract the viewer from the truth or the greater work of their lives? Or is it the exception?

Stay tuned.

 

[1] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin
[2] Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Brothers, 1932. Print.
[3] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin Pg. 121
[4] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin Pg.
[5] Nededog, Jethro. (2017) 20 Most Popular TV Shows of 2017 So Far. Insider. http://www.thisisinsider.com/most-watched-tv-shows-world-parrot-analytics-2017-7
[6] Koblin, John. (2016) How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways. New York Times. 
[7] Goleman, Daniel. (1990) How Viewers Grow Addicted to Television. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/16/science/how-viewers-grow-addicted-to-television.html?pagewanted=all
[8] "The Decay of Lying - The Victorian Web." 21 Apr. 2008, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/wilde/decay.html. Accessed 30 Oct. 2017.