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Why I Don’t Own a Television

A brief non-trash-talky reflection on the bizarre nature of modern media consumption

I feel rather awkward at times telling people that I don’t own a television. Sometimes I feel like people think I am bragging, or implying how counter-cultural I am for not having a television.

I did a book study recently on Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I realized when I mentioned not having a television in that context, I must have sounded annoyingly self-righteous. Perhaps the accusation is justified. There is some degree to which I believe that my choice to not have a television in my home is a better choice than having one…otherwise I would have a television. The choice to have or not to have a television always comes with a value judgement.

Our friends’ young daughter that came to visit recently had a hard time wrapping her head around the concept of not having a television. I remember growing up (my parents/my wife’s family never had television, which is mostly why we don’t either, I suppose), the horrified looks that people would make when they heard that we didn’t have a television: “What on earth do you do?” And I would tell them, “We read a lot of books,” which generally elicited great sympathy and expressions of pity.

And I don’t want to give the wrong impression: just because we don’t own a television doesn’t mean we don’t watch it. The internet has an abundance of movies and shows that can be accessed for free, so just because we don’t have a monthly cable bill doesn’t mean that we never watch television programs. We have a few shows that we watch with regularity, and our two boys are big fans of Thomas the Tank Engine. We aren’t completely disconnected from the world of television, but we generally only interact with it through the context of the internet–which is, I would argue, a fundamentally different experience than watching television directly. I don’t normally think this, but when I do actually sit down at someone’s house or in a restaurant that has televisions running, I realize how different the two mediums actually are. I am accustomed to the internet, but unaccustomed to cable television, and exposure to the latter makes me realize just how immersed I am in the former.

When I watch television, the first thing that always strikes me is how bizarre it is. The commercials endlessly bombarding, one after another, with potent images that transmit a variety of emotional states, the disturbing previews for upcoming shows and movies that deal in content so twisted that I am concerned that my children are even in the room, the nonstop cycle of text, sound, music and speech that, honestly, sucks me in like a moth to a flame. My wife insists that I sit with my back to the televisions in bars, otherwise she is constantly fighting for my attention. How can I resist, when such a powerful flow of images is being paraded before my eyes everywhere I turn? But the overarching impression that my encounters with television leave me with is this: how is it that everyone can think this is normal? How is it that people can’t see how utterly strange this whole television thing really is? It is something like being the little boy in the story “The King’s New Clothes.”

Postman says this:

“There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed. Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.”

We face the same danger as the frog thrown into the pot of lukewarm water that slowly begins to boil: we are so accustomed to our technological surroundings that we cease to be properly alarmed at the potential danger we are in. My distance from cable television allows me to experience just a sliver of its bizarre, disconnected nature, but my intimacy with television’s younger brother–the internet–makes it very difficult to see just how I have been conditioned by this now unquestioned technology.

My point is not to trash-talk television, the internet, or technology in general, but simply to raise some of the disturbing questions that I have been wrestling with: what are the ways in which the medium of the internet has conditioned us to feel, think, and act differently? What if the ‘content’ of the internet is far less impactful than its very ‘form?’ What does it mean for me that the internet seems like the most natural, normal thing in the world?

And, what am I to do about it?

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