Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's on TV Tonight?

A scene depicting an American heartland barn dance
by William Medcalf

I didn't intend to write a series on smart phones and social media. This is a blog about spirituality, religious harmony and related topics, after all. I try to keep on topic. However, given the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, many people have been rethinking how we use these new technologies. Does it serve our faith life? Does it improve our culture and society? Is this really the best way to evangelize? One thing led to another.

I stumbled upon some thoughts that have been sitting with me a long time. 

It's tragically ironic when older folks criticize young people for using smart phones and social media. It was precisely those older folks--the World War II generation and the baby boomers--who gave us the television.

I don't want to get into a battle between the generations, but I can't let this one go.

Absolutely nothing in human history has lulled more people into a lifestyle of blatant passivity than the television. Probably nothing else has eroded the foundational interactions of community itself more than the TV. Smart phones and social media are actually an attempt to re-discover community and reclaim an active role in our own lives. They come with their own problems, for certain, but they are an attempt to recover what our culture has lost. 

Compared with TV, when I surf Facebook I'm actually communicating with other human beings directly. I'm debating and interacting. This includes geographically distant family and friends. I have access to all sorts of independent news and opinion sources. Yes, the rise of "fake news" is a problem, and choosing social media instead of interacting with the people physically adjacent to us is problematic, but the Enquirer was in print and the TV embedded in every western home long before the internet came along.

I found parallel thoughts when reading How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot. To paraphrase one of my favorite contemporary authors: The last few generations have had more free time and recreational income than perhaps any other people in human history. Yet, we squander our lives passively watching others live their lives on a flashing box in our living rooms. 

I will challenge Monbiot by saying that watching other humans is nothing new. Humans have been acting out skits, performing theater and sharing story narratives since the tribal days. But at least in those older forms, presenters and audience members had more active roles compared with a TV viewers. The TV is categorically different than tribal kids acting out a skit they made, but it does feed a similar need to interpret and observe human drama as it unfolds.

If you ask people what did human beings do before the invention of the television, most will stare at you blankly. Few people have any idea. It should scare the living daylights out of us that we can't answer this question very easily. The fact that it doesn't scare us should alarm us even more. The rise of the TV is perhaps the most quiet revolution ever but perhaps the most destructive.

Yet, the human race has existed for thousands and thousands of years. The television has only been a mainstay in our culture for less than 75 years, and yet we have completely lost all ability to imagine life without it. We have also lost the ability to function with it, too, as it is a very passive activity that erodes our very functioning--the fact that we don't even know what people did before it is a testament to its destructive influence. 

People played sports. They talked. They make their own fun. They planned events, knew their neighbors and got invested in hobbies. Small towns would organize dances and shows. People sat on porches and chatted with neighbors as they walked by. Families sang together. They played parlor games. Kids probably got into all sorts of mischief. People knew how to be social in a way that we no longer do.

The TV doesn't have to get in the way of this. Families can use the TV as a focal point to gather together in one room and talk, read and play games while the glowing box is playing. But far too often, TV has been a replacement for human interaction rather than a stimulus for it. Like any technology, on the surface, it seems like it's neither good nor evil, it's more about how you use it. But I don't think it's completely innocent, either: The TV can help community, but more often than not, is makes it difficult for that to happen.

Just like smart phones and social media, the TV is not going away anytime soon. I'd love to issue a rallying cry of "blow up your TV!" but I'm far too cynical that this is a realistic scenario to hope for. The TV is probably not going away, so we best learn to live with it. But since this is indeed a blog about Christian hope, let me dig deep and say we must hope against hope, even for things that seem impossible. 

But let's not be so quick to attack the newer technologies that give users a more active role, because TV has probably been rock bottom when it comes to active community interaction. Maybe, just maybe, smart phones and social media represent some of our first steps out of the pit we've been in and not a step further down.

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