The Message of Television March 17, 2008Posted by Eyal Sivan in Defining the Connective.
Tags: broadcast, mcluhan, medium, message, television, top-down
Marshall McLuhan based much of his philosophy on the idea that all technology is media, and that all media is an extension of human faculties, as in: the shovel is an extension of the hand, and the car an extension of the foot. The more pervasive a medium is, the more it represents an extension of all of human culture. As media go, television is about as pervasive as it gets.
It is difficult to dispute that television is in its twilight years.
The exponential increase in Internet bandwidth, combined with the proliferation of on-demand content (both legitimate and otherwise) is leading to inevitable convergence. Soon, the Web will subsume television, and you will be picking your shows from lists of links rather than making sure you’re home at 8pm on Sunday for The Simpsons.
So, if McLuhan was right, and the medium is the message, then what was the message of television? What will be the legacy of the flickering box? What does it have to say to us about human culture?
To answer this question, one must consider television’s history. Its glorious past stretches back to the turn of the 20th century, with the first high-definition regular broadcast starting in Britain in 1936. That means it has been the undisputed dominant media in the world for 72 years. It is without a doubt a global icon of the Industrial Age, rivaled only by the atomic bomb.
For the majority of its history, television represented the megaphone through which a boiled-down summary of global culture was broadcast. The nature of the medium forced a one-to-many relationship between producers and viewers. Since the programming had to be decided by a precious few, it would invariably be tinged with homogoneous values (sometimes intentionally so). This homogeneity would continue to prevent television from fulfilling its promises of serving the public interest. As early as 1961, Newton N. Minow characterized television as a “vast wasteland”; the “boob tube”; a mindless occupation and time filler.
Nevertheless, regardless of the programming quality, there was always an invisible pressure to join the masses on the couch, shut off your brain, and watch the latest episode of Dick Van Dyke, Mash or the The X-Files.
If television can be said to have a message, I believe it would as follows:
Our cultural reality is an artificial construct, primarily focused on encouraging ubiquity and discouraging variation. The content of this construct is decided by the Producer, an invisible superior handling the controls. Viewers’ participation in this reality is decidedly passive, but socially obligatory.
Whether we like it not, McLuhan was right: our global media is an extension of our global culture. The message of television is not an encouraging one. However, it is grimly accurate.
Most of the institutions of the modern world share the characteristics described above. Governments, corporations, schools and even social circles of the past 200 years all encourage homogeneity and passive acceptance. Variation is almost always trumped by precedent.
The shape of these structures is eerily consistent: they are top-down, command-and-control bureaucracies. Failure to comply with the norm is often met with pressure not just from above, but from peers as well. It is not a matter of right-wing or left-wing, but a matter of global culture.
We must have the courage to look squarely at our own reflection floating on the glass of our televisions and admit what we see. Only then can we learn how to become something new. Something better.