July 30, 2011

Self-Government's Intrusion on Fantasy Life

Justin Katz

The argument over the value or harmfulness of television is an old one, but Ben Berger brings it to an important insight. He notes that the medium itself has downsides, and that it tends toward content that compounds them:

... Postman and his fellow media guru Marshall McLuhan both insisted that "the medium is the message," that it matters less what we watch than that we watch — watch rather than listen, read, or think in silence. Content is not irrelevant, of course: Watching violent programs in high doses correlates with reduced sociability and increased volatility, especially in youngsters. Watching crime shows and even news in high doses correlates with the excessive cynicism that the late media scholar George Gerbner called "mean-world syndrome," which impedes social trust and public-spiritedness. And a number of economists have found that TV's commercialism makes viewers more materialistic and less satisfied.

And as a medium, it taps into human — and American — tendencies that were already a risk factor to our freedom and democracy:

... Tocqueville captures our present dilemma. TV, like democracy, is a technology of freedom. It provides a window onto many worlds and offers vast amounts of information. It also caters ever more perfectly to the very proclivities — materialism and privatism — that in Tocqueville's view produce dissatisfaction and disengagement, tending "to isolate men from each other."

Therein enters the insight (emphasis added):

... Tocqueville, who would have appreciated the political dimension of our attention-deficit democracy: For those who immerse themselves too completely in their private worlds, self-government can seem an annoying intrusion. Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom and unable to stop it in any case. In the end, democracy as a technology of freedom may actually make citizens more dependent: dependent on an overweening administration and on the petty pleasures for which they sacrificed self-government.

This immersion has a further problem that Berger does not note: As the technologies that facilitate immersion advance, they become more dependent upon resources. A book once borrowed or purchased for relatively little expense can entertain for many hours. A movie lasts about two hours and requires a television and often a player or receiver of some kind, perhaps even a service.

So, not only does the private-world of insular and inactive television viewing make the call of town meetings and the voting booth an intrusion, but it creates a lifestyle that political forces can promise to help maintain — or threaten to eliminate.