I grew up on television. Starting with Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, The Flintstones, and Mr. Rogers, by far my favourite childhood shows were Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Our television programming came into our home from an antenna mounted on a mast that ran up alongside the house, and came into a black and white television set. Eventually we did get a second television, a Zenith colour set, which I attribute to the peer pressure from our neighbours and friends. We never had Cable TV growing up, but as I grew up, my most favourite shows were Polka dot door, Gilligans Island, Happy Days, Threes Company, Laverne and Shirley, the Six Million Dollar Man, Dr. Who (in particular the Tom Baker years), The Twilight Zone, all of the Saturday Morning and after school cartoons ( GI Joe, Smurfs, Transformers, Thundercats, Voltron, The Mighty Hercules ), the Greatest American Hero, Knight Rider, and Family Ties to name but a few. Due to the nature of the antenna signal and the geography of our location, the American content was the weakest, though PBS put out a fairly strong signal. I tended to favour shows like Vision On, but shows that I really connected with and engaged my thinking were so rare and I never really understood why back then. Today, I understand completely.
I understood there were people who did not like the television. The idiot box, it’ll rot your brain, some would tell you. There were people who never wanted to own a television nor wanted one in their house. In the arrogance of my youth, I thought those people must have lead incredibly boring lives. Imagining a life without television felt empty and without meaning. I thought myself to be so fortunate to having been born in the day and age of television, and imagined that life before it must have been miserable. How else would I fill those empty hours of the day?
what crap is on TV?
Growing up on television informed my life path decision-making process early on. Although I really enjoyed trade-related shop classes in high school, I thought I should study Business Administration with a major in marketing and economics when I went to College, along the lines of Alex P. Keaton, since there were no tradespeople on TV. Halfway through my first year, I started to realize things were not adding up. Marketing seemed more like manipulation, and I did not like the idea of being manipulated nor of manipulating others. Economics clashed with my sensibilities of a natural world with finite, shared resources. What little exposure I had to the computers I loved so much was very siloed and regimented, leaving no opportunity for the exploration or experimentation I craved. I really didn’t fully comprehend my discontent at the time, I simply knew that I had to fully engage life on my own terms to sort through it all and figure out what was real. So I decided to drop out and move out.
I didn’t know what minimalism was at the time, but that was precisely what I practiced. With nothing more than my clothes and my computer, I moved out, got my own bachelor apartment, and earned my living as an overnight security guard which afforded me many hours alone with my thoughts and the opportunity to read books. I didn’t own a television, but not out of choice; I just couldn’t afford one. I also couldn’t afford to drive a car, so my transportation choices were to walk, take the bus, or ride my bicycle. The economic realities of my life forced me into a very simple, minimalistic lifestyle where even occasional fasting became part of my life. Throughout this time, I learned to let go of resentment and learned to fully appreciate my newfound freedom as well as my own potential, which set me on the path I am on today. I fondly remember those years and often return to them in my meditations.
Most of my entertainment came from books signed out from the Oshawa Public Library, where I completed the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in five parts, having been turned on to it by a clever text-only adventure game of the same name that I had played on the Commodore 64 back in high school. I became tired of playing video games on my Amiga, preferring to use the modem to connect to Bulletin Board Systems that were linked to FidoNet so I could communicate with others around the world, to learn more about computers, culture, and even some philosophy. My computer’s monitor could be connected to a VCR, so if I had extra money, I would rent a VCR and a critically acclaimed movie or two from the local video store to spend part of a day off. Any time I had an empty hour in my day, I relished that time to meditate on my thoughts, often dwelling on how to guide my life towards a path that would bring me greater satisfaction out of life. Never once did the idea of watching a television show enter my thoughts as something I was missing out on, as there was so much more to life, though when I did have access to cable TV upon returning to College, and after buying a used VCR with a built-in TV tuner to connect to my computer monitor, I did enjoy the comedy of Red Dwarf and Beavis and Butthead, limiting my television watching to these kinds of clever off-beat shows that questioned the status quo on my schedule by using my VCR for time shifting.
I remember going back home for a holiday for the first time in a while, and noticing that the television was on in the background all the time. A popular sitcom would come on, and everyone would gather to watch it. They laughed whenever the laugh track came on, even though there wasn’t anything particularly funny that had happened except for maybe some cheap shot low blow remark. Sometimes there wasn’t even that; people seemed to be laughing just because the laugh track was telling them to. I knew what real comedy was, thanks to the brilliant Douglas Adams, and this was not it. I thought about Pavlovs dog, and they would not dare miss the next episode of that show. I remember wondering if this was what being in a cult was like.
Some of my friends had cable TV, and I noticed something peculiar with that as well. Some would watch a channel for a few minutes, and then change the channel. They would watch something else for a few minutes, then change the channel again. It was like they were on this search for something, not knowing exactly what, but always looking for whatever that thing was. Just watching and changing channels, sometimes for hours on end. Sometimes they would land on something I thought might be really good, but after a few minutes, they would mindlessly change the channel again, in their endless search.
The problem with television became clear to me, and I didn’t need a study to tell me that television was rotting peoples brains. First, I came to understand why television studios existed, and that reason was money. They make their money selling advertisements. But it’s not the advertisements that’s the problem, but the actual shows or “Programming” that people are watching that are priming people to desire what they see when the advertisements come on. The advertisements alone weren’t doing much; most people would rather skip on past them and find them irritable and annoying. But we must ask a question; why is it that people are so irritated by this? I came to realize the show itself is carefully engineered to create a sense of desire, of need, of want, to prime the viewers into a state of wanting, needing, and desiring, but the product advertised interrupts this, causing momentary irritation. But all the advertisement needs to do is to impress a brand in the consciousness of the viewer while they’re in this euphoric state of desire, so the next time they are in a store to buy something they actually need, that brand will trigger a pleasant memory of having been in that state, and the consumer will select that brand.
Consider, for a moment, what we are doing when we watch a television program. We are seeing attractive, charismatic individuals who are actors by profession, portraying an idealized, unrealistic fiction. I will illustrate with a couple of examples. Hugh Laurie isn’t a doctor, he’s an actor. Jim Parsons isn’t really a theoretical particle physicist; he also is an actor. As actors, they are trained and skilled in the art of acting, helped along by mentors and directors following a script written by a team of writers, who together are masters of the art of persuasion. Most real life doctors and particle physicists don’t live lives as these actors portray. Most real life doctors and particle physicists probably live rather mundane lives and had to work hard to get to where they are today, needing to rely on delivering actual results as opposed to simply persuading others to believe. They might have hobbies that you would have no interest in, have relationships with people you might not like, and they might even be unattractive themselves. They might make mistakes more often than they care for, and have political ideals that conflict with your own. One might argue, “What’s wrong with escaping reality for a little while into a fantasy?” As a fan of fiction myself, I have no problems with fiction per se. However, what these shows are trying to do is to prime us into wanting more under the guise of “Harmless” entertainment. Good quality fantasy fiction often gives us something we can take with us back into real life, to help us better cope with the problems of daily life with a greater understanding, often exploring some of the issues of our humanity; our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our faults, and the protagonist often develops strategies to overcome or cope with hardship, and these stories can help us overcome our own. Good fiction can teach us how to think about things from a different perspective.
What these television shows do is they try to teach us what to think. They show us the protagonist using, for example, a MacBook computer, leading us to believe that buying a MacBook will make us more like the ideal of the character in our favourite show. So we buy the MacBook computer, but nothing is really resolved in our lives, and so we continue to watch in an attempt to learn more from these actors. There’s some running theme to help keep us coming back for more while offering nothing of real value, except an euphoric feeling of want and desire. This fantasy fiction of television also relies on the Fear of Missing Out to keep us wanting to come back for more. We wouldn’t want to miss the episode when something groundbreaking might happen, that might change the lives of the protagonists forever. We become emotionally invested in these programs; we believe we relate to these actors, and so these actors become our “Friends,” and we want to know what’s going on in their lives. This is by design, so it all feels natural and easy. But when we’re not around our television and in real life, we feel a longing for something, because we become used to the ease of being told what to think. So they fixed that. It’s called a smart phone, and now we can bring television with us anywhere we go and can even interact with it.
The television that is our smart phones and tablets are watching us, to learn how to better manipulate us. The Youtube algorithm is designed to favour those content creators who are successful at selling us things without being obvious they’re selling us things. Twitter will make you feel like you’re even closer to your favourite celebrity, reinforcing the manipulation at hand, while Facebook will make sure the posts that make others feel greater discontent and want to buy more will get seen more often, getting us more likes. It’s the holy trinity of marketing that steals your attention for as many of your waking hours as possible. We can take our favourite shows with us anywhere we go. And now the same formula that had made television so addictive has been improved upon in the form of a television we can put in our pocket and take with us anywhere.
The reason why I wish to highlight this problem is because our attention is too valuable of a commodity for us to give up. When I was raised on television, it was normalized in my life; I was not aware of how much of my attention was going to television. I was heading down a path of pursuing an unfulfilling “Career,” on a treadmill of perpetual financial and emotional debt, and never feeling satisfied nor really in control of my life. Attempting to live a lifestyle advertised to me by my favourite television programs, and, failing that, settling into a life of mediocrity saved only by endlessly turning my attention over to the television “Programming.” But once I stopped, it became easier to do things I once believed were too hard. Becoming an active participant in my life, thinking about my own mental and physical health. Learning how to do new things. Understanding what brings me value and what does not. Not being a slave to a brand or an image. To be able to choose freely. And, at the end, to be completely content with my life without a stream of television as I read a book, go for a walk with my wife, write a post, play a video game, or plan our next adventure, because the real fear of missing out is missing out on the potential of my own life.