31 May 2010

Television, Culture and Consumerism

Television encourages viewers to consume images that most people would otherwise not have access to in the course of a typical life. While this might sound like a benefit, television is not simply about seeing new and different things. It is also about selling. Television programming evolved hand-in-hand with consumerism, at first in its birthplace in America during the mid-20th century, but increasingly everywhere else in the world as well. In a way, television has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe. It has also spread voyeurism, a more insidious form of consumerism, in the way it reveals what used to be private aspects of human life to public view. Television has normalized consumerism and voyeurism, and in turn these cultural preferences, encouraged by television, exert an influence over the medium, so that there is a reciprocity between television and society. The TV industries monitor the flow of this give-and-take relationship by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programs to what they perceive as the interests of their consumer-viewers. Many viewers are unaware that their habits are carefully monitored and that the television industries have created various market segments, or what they call "audiences," to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any other commodity. Although viewers think that they are sitting at home watching the tube, the tube is also watching them, and their viewing habits are traded in a marketplace that is still primarily driven by advertising.

Television has also contributed to fostering what some have called "hyper-reality," a sense that the reality of television seems to be more real to viewers than actual reality. This intertwines with a second feature of the televised society: the appearance of what Baudrillard called the simulacrum, a copy without an original. Because the images seen on the television screen appear mostly real, the mind is tricked — unless viewers constantly remind themselves that the images are unreal, which spoils the viewing experience. Viewers are tricked into living mentally and emotionally in a world with no space and time limits. This is a world the origins of which are obscured and hidden, it is an almost real world in which long-dead people still make audiences laugh, but within which viewers are disappointed when they meet an aging actor who does not look like his or her televised image. In this world people sit transfixed by what is essentially an electronic box emanating colorful lights, at the expense of living in the reality around them. Television bolsters a consumerist hyper-real society.

The most commonly consumed images on television are those related to sex and death. This is for two reasons. First, sex and death as depicted on television are self-evident, they are not in need of much character development or explanation, or even language. Second, human beings are fascinated by sex and death, which in and of themselves are not necessarily bad, but when turned into spectacles and commodities they can create pathological relationships that result in a sort of television-induced numbness. Similarly, sexuality is the basis of a deeply intimate relationship between two people, yet television has turned that into a public spectacle as well. Many people have seen their first suggestions of sexuality on television. While many will see this primarily through a moral lens, there is much more at stake. Televised imagery intrudes upon reality, creating a reality larger than reality, a hyper-reality, thereby generating expectations that can never be met by mere reality, such as expectations of beauty, passion and success. Talking about sexuality was once something negotiated by people in the context of their culture, within families, communities, and societies. Television has forced these discussions to take place publicly and in a way that is for the most part framed by Western cultural norms and social mores.

In this sense TV is intrusive, but it also requires a new way to relate to these seemingly private issues, since, unless all the televisions, video-machines and personal computers are unplugged, these images are here for the time being, so they pose a challenge to traditional societies to find ways to deal with imagery with some degree of sophistication. This might begin with realizing that human intimacy has been turned into cheap imagery by the consumer oriented entertainment industries. Consumers can and do become obsessed with these images, to the detriment of their own relations with their communities.

The irony of consumption is that it is rarely overtly forced, and is almost always ostensibly voluntary, so it is misleading to imply a simple cause-and-effect relationship between television and society. Perhaps viewers wouldn't fixate on American entertainment so readily if they were not somehow already deficient or denatured in some basic components that enable healthy human relationships. This would suggest that the more important question is about what has happened to traditional cultures, to their forms of entertainment and other activities, the loss of which encourages people to consume entertainment from the market, from the Western culture industries. These culture industries are run by powerful interests that involve the highest levels of business and government, and there is little that most consumers can do to effect change on that level, except to stop watching and stop consuming, thereby depriving the market of its main commodity: themselves as viewers and consumers. To say this another way, if viewers can become producers of culture, it may lead to an eventual realization that consumers are mainly complicit in their own passivity and commodification.

Take China, India and the Islamic world as examples. These civilizations used to be highly productive; now they have become primarily consumptive; where they used to be active and creative, now they are passive and derivative. As consumerism has taken hold, it is not enough to prevent young people from watching American movies and television, because in most cases they feel as if they do not have anything else to do. Clearly another strategy is required to address this problem. One possibility is to encourage indigenous local cultures, especially those enlivening activities that involve direct face-to-face community interaction. But if people must be entertained electronically and technologically, then some standards can be raised and innovations made. Television, like cinema, is what Ashis Nandy has referred to as a soft export. The movie camera, although developed in America and Europe and exported abroad with colonialism, has taken on new dimensions in the hands of directors like Kurosawa in Japan and Satyajit Ray of India. They have made something quite unique of the medium of film and it is this embracing of soft exports that has the most potential for avoiding the reactions of censorship and instead providing an opportunity for constructive engagement.

Most parents know it is very difficult to completely shield children from something as pervasive and intrusive as television, and that is the problem of what amounts to a large-scale cultural incursion into Third World societies. Everyone should probably watch less television, first of all, not just on moral grounds, but in order to "roll back" consumerism, voyeurism and hyper-reality. But in terms of making children into consumers, even "clean" shows such as Barney and Sesame Street are complicit. In fact, despite what many parents think, "educational" American TV shows teach children two primary skills: how to watch television and how to become consumers. When they get older, their tastes may evolve to more "adult content," but the practice of consuming has already been instilled in early childhood. This can perhaps be taken as a warning against the usual parental strategy of limiting children to watching things like Barney and Sesame Street (and their recent Third World clones). These programs are as much a part of the problem as the immoral programming that viewers more readily lament.

Voluntarily decreasing dependency on television is another possibility. Despite its pervasiveness, millions of people in the media saturated societies are voluntarily turning off their sets. In fact, there is a growing resistance movement of sorts, which ironically began in North America and which involves family organizations, religious groups and schools participating in TV Turnoff Week annually during the last week of April. This has been going on since the 1990s, and provides an interesting and relatively painless way to reflect on the content of television, and especially on the absence of television, and what can be done with that absence. Consumers can begin with these kinds of activities, as a voluntary device to get the discussions going, especially about the role of television in their own families and societies, and what a post-television society might be like.

Beyond the question of consumerism, parents and teachers may lament the way that television has affected education. The media-induced phenomenon of "infotainment" has altered children’s expectations of learning and schooling. Many teachers have noticed, and some researchers have pointed out, that television has impacted children's attention-spans and may even have curtailed their ability to concentrate for prolonged periods. Shorter attention spans have rendered obsolescent methods like lectures and discussions in classrooms, which are being replaced by gimmicks and games. This is because television changes the terms of the relationships within which knowledge is produced and exchanged. Schools used to be like factories: dreary, gray places of regimentation, uniformity and conformity; but now they are becoming places of "fun" and entertainment, often with their walls emblazoned with the symbols of consumer culture and icons on American entertainment.

Perhaps parents need to reframe the entire discussion. The issue is not merely replacing gray schools with colorful ones; perhaps the entire prospectus of schooling should be rethought. Maybe the whole idea of keeping children institutionalized six hours a day, five days a week, ten months a year, for twelve to fifteen years of their lives needs rethinking. If television has created a consumer society entranced by "fun," at the same time the sense of what is "fun" and what is "boring" is also being defined by the same industries that provide the "fun" solutions to seemingly "boring" lives. It is a vicious cycle that ought to be broken. This can involve redefining the terms of the discussion and seeing the issues in a new way. Why have teachers and communities let the culture industries of the West, through the medium of television, define the meaning of "fun"? What did people do for "fun" before these industries intruded?

Some media scholars have pointed out that television has moved the West from a text-based to an image-based society, and that this has had a profound effect on cognition and understanding. However, the applicability of this thesis to other societies that have not followed the same trajectory as the West is questionable. Many societies remain orality-based, rather than text-based, and others involve a combination of orality and literacy. Muslim society is an interesting hybrid. One can think about, for example, the relationship between orality and literacy in Islamic history, with the orally-transmitted hadith "literature" as a case in point. Orality and literacy, text and imagery, can be part of any healthy society, but the question is to what degree these should be determined by local cultural participation rather than distant institutions. For example, television replaces a significant activity of most societies: the practice of storytelling. Before television, and with fewer books, people used to tell each other stories. How is it that most modern societies have turned over the primary role of storytelling to the entertainment industries? Instead of actively telling each other stories, something that human beings have done since time immemorial (with or without books), people sit passively and let Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood tell their mass market stories. And, because these industries are market-oriented, it is in their interest that everyone consumes the same few kinds of stories, so as to increase market shares and sizes. Globalizing a few habits makes industrial production all the more easier.

Another important aid to understanding the relationship between television, culture and consumerism is developing an awareness that technology is not value-free. Beyond being mere tools, technologies embody cultural assumptions and many have profound, and often unanticipated, cultural and social repercussions. With this in mind, the problem is not just the content of television; its form is a factor as well. The form involves technological debates, such as those regarding television versus the personal computer, but it also involves the formal methods of presentation, such as the conventions of storytelling in a particular medium. So there are three areas to consider: 1) the actual content of TV such as a movie or program, the stories that are being told; 2) the formalities of storytelling utilized in a particular medium, how the stories are told; and 3) the overarching messages from the form of technology used to tell the stories. All of these are culture-bound, and culture can intervene at all levels. Obviously, one way to intervene is to gain control of the stories being told, but as suggested above this needs to move beyond heavy handed censorship, which besides being difficult to enforce has its own negative political outcomes.

The formalities of storytelling also have space for intervention. To illustrate with a regional example, it may be instructive to compare two popular Arabic-language satellite-television channels. Both channels feature talk shows whose guests discuss and debate the issues of the day. One channel has adopted the American convention of holding such discussions as a competitive and often times rude argument, to the extent that guests are pre-coached by their hosts to interrupt each other and get emotional, and to even yell and scream. The other channel eschews this American convention, and allows each speaker to finish making a point in a more mutually respectful format. The first channel adopts the conventions of American programs such as "Firing Line" and "The Jerry Springer Show," which sacrifice content to ratings and style, while the second channel has constructed its own way of conducting discussions, which places understanding the issues and mutual respect between speakers and toward audiences above pandering to ratings and style. The argumentative American-style approach may be entertaining and exciting to watch, like a football game, but viewers are often left with impressions, not with any real knowledge or understanding of the issue that was "discussed."

The third area of inquiry, that of technology and how it embodies culture, involves a realization that is increasingly gaining credence, which states that modern technologies, from genetics to spaceships, and the sciences that spawned them, from biology to physics, are not neutral and value free but rather embody Western cultural assumptions about cosmology, humanity and methodology. For example, as has been pointed out by David F. Noble, many Western technologies embody the beliefs from a form of Western Christianity known as millenarianism, which sees the religion of technology in terms of its redemptive function. This is not redemption through prayer or living a pious life, as many of the great religions and wisdom traditions teach, but rather redemption through technology, with scientists and technicians becoming the new priesthood in what amounts to a secular religion, leading their helpless flocks toward utopia, a paradise on earth created by technology. Similarly, C. K. Raju has shown that mathematics, once thought to be the supreme value-free science, is in fact embedded with the theological assumptions of Christianity, in particular those involving notions of perfection and infinity. In short, Western technologies such as television and computers are non-neutral and non-value-free, and in their modern forms they embody the deepest cultural assumptions of Western civilization. To uncritically adopt these technologies, in their present form and content, is to adopt a particular cultural outlook that remains only one within the multitude.

[This article is by J. Progler and is extracted from a longer work in progress on media and education. Some of his book reviews on media and TV related topics are available on TV Multiversity hereherehere and here. Progler is currently teaching media, culture and society at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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