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Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

March 13th, 2008

“Television offers neither rest nor stimulation. Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that’s as far as television goes. The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What’s worse, it is filled with someone else’s obsessive thoughts and images. Why do you think they call it programming?”

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

A total departure from previous writing about television, this book is the first ever to advocate that the medium is not reformable. Its problems are inherent in the technology itself and are so dangerous – to personal health and sanity, to the environment, and to democratic processes – that TV ought to be eliminated forever.

15 Responses to “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”

  1. I’m so glad people are finally beginning to acknowledge this fact. Growing up with a parent who was a television addict, I know first-hand that it can be as damaging and destructive as any other addiction, and as difficult (if not more so) to confront and overcome. Frankly, I’m still not sure what’s so appealing about TV in the first place. I can’t watch more than half an hour without getting a massive headache and feeling the need for a long walk outside to detox!

  2. Hey Philip, this is funny as I was just thinking about this book this morning! Far from being a recent work, this book was written around 1980, at least that was about when I first read it.

    I’m different from Ali who also commented in that I am self-confessed telly addict, that is I recognise the danger for myself. I am quite capable of sitting in front of a television all evening every evening, so I do know the dangers. But it’s trying to convince the rest of the family that is the problem! We are talking about getting a newer telly, but my option of just getting rid of the damned thing altogether simply falls on deaf ears…

  3. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe abandoning the TV is necessary a good thing. TV is a communication tool – like the pen, the telephone or the mobile phone. There are no arguments that the pen should be banned because people read “pulp magazines” or pulp books.

    The issue is that the majority of the viewing public (with many hundreds of channels to choose from) focus on those items that seem, in the main, to be simplistic; ignoring the many programmes which are educational, stimulating and interesting – like a very good book.
    The knack is about selecting those programmes – not just blaming the messenger.

  4. Interesting comments. I am ambivalent about TV – on the one hand I agree with Magpieschest – and when a programmes like ‘Extreme Pilgrim’ or ‘Earth Pilgrim’ (that I’ve mentioned on this blog) are shown it is a delight and informative. And yet…and yet….. like Plato’s cave-people who never look out of the cave but watch flickering lights on the wall, I wonder how much we have lost. When the choice is the garden or the TV, which do we choose?

    On another point – Paul mentions thinking about this book and then seeing it mentioned here. Maria and Alison have mentioned similar phenomena. I wonder to what extent the net ‘wires’ us up – fostering connections that are subtle or psychic.

  5. Philip, in response to this blog I have nipped round to the University of Edinburgh Library and checked out a copy of the book to reread! Ha ha, there are some perks to working in academia….

    It reminds me that the thesis of Mander (the author) was that the technology was inherently irredeemable because of the way it operates … unlike the pen and reading which we absorb through a different technological process, television beams images and words into our head, in Mander’s words “colonising” our experience.

    But like you, I was thinking exactly of those same tv programmes you mentioned, wondering how they fit into the “evil TV” model … like most things, it takes some thinking to work it out.

    You have to put up the overall harm factor against the overall good factor and try to work out which has the greater influence. Tricky!

  6. Just to help inform response, Manders’ four arguments for the elimination of television:

    1) The mediation of experience: “As humans have moved into totally artificial environments, our direct contact with and knowledge of the planet has been snapped. Disconnected, like astronauts floating in space, we cannot know up from down or truth from fiction. Conditions are appropriate for the implantation of arbitrary realities. Television is one recent example of this, a serious one, since it greatly accelerates the problem.”

    2) The Colonization of Experience: “It is no accident that television has been dominated by a handful of corporate powers. Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A conspiracy of technological and economic factors made this inevitable and continue to.”

    3) Effects of Television on the Human Being: “Television technology produces neuro-physiological responses in the people who watch it. It may create illness, it certainly produces confusion and submission to external imagery. Taken together, the effects amount to conditioning for autocratic control.

    4) The Inherent Biases of Television: “Along with the venality of its controllers, the technology of television predetermines the boundaries of its content. Some information can be conveyed completely, some partially, some not at all. The most effective telecommunications are the gross, simplified linear messages and programs which conveniently fit the purposes of the medium’s commercial controllers. Television’s highest potential is advertising. This cannot be changed. The bias is inherent in the technology.”

  7. The last one also brings the Italian TV situation in mind where a number of the channels are owned by a one time and perhaps sonn to be again muliti billionaire prime minister. 🙁

    At times I too have thought of abandoning the tv in a local disposal centre, and would have perhaps done it if I were alone. However, not being satisified by the national media here, one reason being my lack of refined Italian language skills, I daily tune into the BBC world news channel.

    I wonder what the author would ‘view’ the internet situation today? Would she see it as something of a lesser problem, or a greater one?

  8. Last night I spent a happy hour watching my fave vicar talking about The Lost Gospels and tonight I’ll be watching Monty Don in some beautiful gardens.

    But this kind of programming is the exception, not the norm.

    If there is a TV Free Day, I’ll gladly sign up for 24 hours free of the monster.

    As long as I don’t miss Gardeners World, of course.


  9. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to follow along with these comments the last few days, but I wanted to say a bit more about that experience of psychic pollution that I mentioned before.

    Oddly enough, I’m all right watching television shows on DVD, one or two episodes at a time, without feeling that need to wash my brain out with spring water. So I suspect that what causes this reaction in me is not the actual shows themselves, usually, but the way they are presented; i.e. interrupted every few minutes by intentionally chaotic, loud, flashy commercials. Watching television news creates a similar sensation, except in some ways worse, since my desire to actually think about the information I’m receiving is not only disrupted by constant commercial breaks, but the format of TV news itself is jarring and designed to give frustratingly brief and disconnected sound bytes robbed of significant or enlightening context.

    While dramas and even sit-coms can aspire to a particular kind of aesthetic form that can be appreciated the same way a film can, I just don’t see any way possible for TV news–or other supposedly educational/informative programs–to accomplish what they claim (that is, presenting serious information in any kind of relevant or meaningful context). And even if TV shows can be aesthetic, I think what you find more and more are shows that are designed around the fact that people are only paying half attention. Even potentially good shows are becoming little more than loud, flashy product-placement-filled commercials disguised by simplistic (or, on the other extreme, overly complicated and obscure) plot.

    As a medium, I don’t see how television can circumvent this tendency easily. Like any form of entertainment, I suppose it can be fun in moderation–but I think that television as a medium lends itself to addiction far more easily than other things due to certain psychological attributes. You can put a book down, pause to think about it; you can study a painting from multiple angles and at different points in time; you can listen to music in different atmospheres and situations to highlight the emotional, imaginative, intellectual or social aspects… But television is designed to dominate (fans would say “capture”) all aspects of the multi-sensory experience, and once the viewer submits to that situation (usually alone, or at least not talking with those around them; plopped on the couch or perhaps bustling about with the television as practically subconscious, constant background noise) they have very little control over the circumstances of that process. It’s like you’ve strapped yourself into a roller-coaster car; except you do it every night for hours on end and you never give your body or mind a chance to recover and process the experience…

    Anyway, sorry to go on and on about this. It’s just a hugely important (and obviously emotional) thing for me. I don’t know a single person who’s given up television who isn’t happier, more energetic and better centered (and sometimes they’re even better informed and able to think more clearly about all those issues they’re supposedly missing out on by giving up on TV news!).

    Okay, I’m off my soapbox now. Sorry again for taking up space in your blog to rant, Phillip. :-/

  10. Actually, I’m quite the opposite. I know tv can be damaging, but frankly, I think that all depends on the time you spend on it, what you watch and so on.
    Nature can be just as damaging. If you stay outside in the pouring rain for hours every day, that can’t be very healthy either.

    So for example, if it’s a choice between the garden or the tv, for me, that would depend on certain conditions. If the sun is shining and I feel like getting some fresh air, it will be the garden. If it’s raining cats and dogs and something I like is on tv, it will be the tv.

    Besides, I love movies, the art of filmmaking, I think it’s a wonderful contribution to our society. It inspires me to listen to some new music when I hear a soundtrack or look up a poet when someone is quoted or read a new author when one is mentioned that sounds interesting or just simply think about the topic the program is about. T.v has brought many new wonderful things to my life and frankly, I can’t think of a negative one for a very good reason….

    It comes with a switch-off button!

  11. Yes, it does come with an off-switch. And alcoholics could just order one or two beers. But they don’t. People are aware that alcohol inhibits certain motor and mental functions, and used in moderation with that knowledge, someone who isn’t an addict can have a pleasant social evening with a few beers or a glass of wine. If we don’t acknowledge that television has certain negative effects on the human psyche and physiology (even when those effects are themselves part of why television can be enjoyable in moderation), we deny ourselves the ability to distinguish between use and abuse. If you’re out too long in the rain or sun, your body starts to feel it and send you signals. Any kind of activity can become damaging if its prolonged unreasonably. The difference, I think, is how capable we are of recognizing when that point of too-much hits us; in my experience, television inhibits our ability to recognize when our body and mind have had enough. People can waste hours in front of the “boob-tube” without realizing it. Plus, I’ve seen my parent go through withdrawal symptoms as severe as any addict’s.

    So yes, television can be enjoyable in moderation, and film is a legitimate aesthetic form. I still think in general, though, it has more negatives than positives.

  12. Hi Ali,

    I must admit that an addiction to television is probably more difficult to recognize.
    I do know people who have the black-box on all the time (most of them watch the discovery channel), even if they’re doing something else, like reading a book or sitting behind the computer.

    I never understood this. When I watch tv, I watch tv. I’m “in” the story, just like I’m in the book when I’m reading. Someone can talk to me for fifteen minutes and get no response for a simple reason, I don’t hear them.

    And everything should be used with moderation, tv is no execption to that I think. I’m sorry you’ve had such a negative experience with tv, but in all honesty and with respect, for me, television has more positives than negatives.



  13. This is a fascinating thread – I guess it’s like most everything else in life – good in moderation – HOWEVER I can see the damaging side to it as well – it is helping to breed a nation (perhaps a world) to think the same – to think things are cool or uncool – and that is worrying – look no further than the scary ‘reality’ programmes – if that’s reality – I’ll take the first available moon flight! That’s what worries me – the fascination with the odd and uncomfortable situations. Then on the other side of the argument you have wonderful programmes that inspire, teach or make you laugh. TV can be a powerful tool to inspire creativity – you see things that perhaps you would never be lucky enough to see in reality (i.e. that beautiful russian village etc in that architecture programme last week) or the fascinating tribal traditions in Bruce Parry’s programmes – I think it is up to us all as responsible people to know when enough is enough – I also do think that TV is a big comfort for the lonely or poorly – it can be a way to stimulate the mind and imagination – so its not all bad! But as a nation I agree we watch too much of it!

    Just for the record doesn’t the internet pose exactly the same problem?

    PS I have to agree with Alison Cross – gardeners world is proper lovely cosy tv! Shame CB isn’t in it any more though 😉

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