In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that information-transmitting media are never value-neutral vehicles of content. Rather, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. In other words, you can’t communicate the content of a book on television. The nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.
Postman further argues that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered. This shift is driven by the fact that television, as a medium, is best suited to entertainment. As a result, everything else is transformed into entertainment so that it looks good on television.
I was born after Postman’s book was published, so it’s hard for me to judge how much society has truly changed. To some extent, it seems that people have probably always trivialized serious, complex matters and/or spent large amounts of leisure time engaged in frivolous pursuits. What has definitely changed is the immediate availability of entertainment at any time and any place, as well as its explicitly addictive design. Perhaps because of this, entertainment is often seen not as an accompaniment to life, but as a serious life pursuit in itself.
Witness how TV is the center of most homes. Other furniture is acquired and arranged in deference to the television. In living rooms, the chairs and couches face the TV instead of each other–implying that the living room’s purpose is not conversation, but watching. The TV holds privileged status over any other activities that try to exist in the same room. If you’re reading a book, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument, none of that matters as soon as someone else wants to watch TV. The TV takes over the space with its noise and flashing images, which often leak even into other rooms.
TV shapes interactions even when people aren’t in front of the screen. At any given social gathering, one of the most common topics of conversation is television. No other activity is as universal or unquestioned. People say they “have to” catch up on episodes. They force themselves to try TV shows that are popular, even if they don’t like the show at first. Many people say they don’t have time for x meaningful activity (exercise, writing, learning a new hobby), and then in the very next sentence bring up the latest episode in a popular TV show.
I don’t have a TV. I dislike to the extent to which the internet and social media already distract me from things that matter, and having a TV would only exacerbate this phenomenon. It seems more and more that we’re defined by what we choose to pay attention to–and while it’s not possible to completely ignore it, I aspire to pay as little attention to entertainment as possible.