Friday, December 28, 2012

How Do You Hug an E-Friend? (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

How Do You Hug an Electronic Friend?

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids aged eight to eighteen devote 1,600 minutes per week to watching TV, while the amount of time per week that a child spends in meaningful conversation with his parents is 3 ½ minutes.
            When I first read these statistics, I was speechless. It took some time to comprehend that if a child sleeps for eight hours, goes to school for about eight hours, then does “entertainment media” for the rest, his day is over, finished, gone. The frightening question came to mind, that if for half of his waking hours our child is told what to do and think by teachers, and for the remaining half, is told what to do and think by TV “personalities” and video gamesters, then when does the love of our life have time to be him or herself? When does our child have time to be creative or inventive, loving and caring, active and wild—in short: when does our child have time to be a child? And since it is mostly these characteristics that distinguish us from turnips, the question arises, when does our child have time to be truly human?
            Once we grow older, and our work and commute take up ten hours a day, another two hours we spend doing our chores of shopping, feeding, and cleaning—what SamuelBeckett called, “keeping up premises and appearances,”—five we spend staring brain-dead at the tube, and for the remaining eight we try to get some sleep, then when do we have time—or do we ever—to be ourselves? When do we manage to reflect on our lives, to discuss our dreams and worries with our friends, to exchange ideas, a joke or just a recipe? When do we have time to raise our children, love our dear ones, or just lend a helping hand?
            For while it may be true, as so many of us claim, that TV and video games are really “not so bad,” their true subtle insidiousness lies in what they replace, what they rob us of: real life.

Unleashing television on humanity was like crop-dusting our brains with Valium daily. No aspect of life went untouched: families, friendships, politics, religion, how we worked, what we ate, what we thought, were all permanently altered.
            Families that once shared interests and concerns, played some simple card game, or board game together, during which they talked, laughed, expressed their own ideas, now at best share the same TV. At worst they flee separately to their rooms to dissolve in front of their own TV set. Friendships and companionships have been watered down or abandoned. Instead of real flesh-and-blood Eddy next door or the kid down the hall, our pals have become little flashing lights.
            Politicians, who heaven knows were bad enough before, have mutated into TV personalities, whose appearance and joviality far outweigh their minds and hearts.
            Religion has been changing from quiet contemplation and prayer in humble churches into loud and belligerent ranting on the Tube.
            Television turned the natural world on its head. It was not just the misleading advertising based on the proven notion that you can fool most of the people most of the time, but the programs themselves taught us how much better it is to open a package and slam it into the microwave, or go out and buy a ready-made junk-burger, than to actually use our wits and imagination and create a meal on our own. TV made the natural world in which we once spent our lives seem inconsequential and dull.
            It also changed the way we think about our work. It glorifies and idolizes every single-brain-cell occupation from meaty men who kicked, hit, dribbled or drooled, to skinny women with incomprehensible expressions and identically retooled boobs and faces. Thus, if only by sheer exclusion, those doing work of true value to others—the farmer, the craftsman, the fisherman, or the artist who lived a productive, thoughtful life, were relegated to a quaint history.
            TV invented a new reality and, without a trace of irony, called it that. And we ate it with a spoon. We actually believed that a handful of people stuck on an island with a TV crew of fifty, and a thousand pounds of food were real Survivors. Up to that point it could be termed a stupid farce, but even worse was the barbarian premise that instead of pulling together as a group, as members of a society whose aim should be the well being of all, the “winner” would be the last one who “survived.”
            The slew of reality shows that followed were perhaps less vicious but equally unreal and even more embarrassing. People thrown together in resorts or on beaches, where the goal was to destroy an existing relationship, or to form an artificial new one under spotlights with cameras rolling, precluded any genuine human relationship and most emotions except for the occasional outburst of hysteria.
            And believing this to be reality, we began to adopt not only their mode of dress, but their emotional responses, moral values and even their thoughtless speech. When kids spend 1,600 minutes a week watching TV and less than 4 minutes talking to their parents, who can blame them for thinking and sounding less and less like live people and more and more like “reality” characters. Good thing it wasn’t the All-Lassie channel or by now they would be barking.

Most important of all, television told us that our families and friends are dull, and that our true joy and knowledge come from far away and only from the anointed few. Simple thousand-year-old traditions like storytelling, singing, and even gossiping, that had brought people together and allowed them to learn from each other, to entertain each other, to criticize and discuss, to form friendships and societies, fell by the wayside, replaced by the solitary, numbing, antisocial act of watching TV. As Mr. Davis, a college educated, amicable New Hampshire farmer, put so well, “Neighbors used to visit every night and talk. But those days are gone. The Tube killed people.”
            The New York-based Roper Organization’s study showed the frightening results. The single activity that most people look forward to daily is not human contact but watching television. Even during dinner, one half of population watches television instead of conversing with family they haven’t seen all day. And in times of trouble, we rely on TV to cure us; 35 percent of men said they deal with depression not by talking out or trying to think through their problems, but by watching television. Most heartbreaking of all, when a group of 4 to 6 year olds were given the chance to spend time with their fathers, 54 percent chose to watch TV instead.
            Some insist that watching television with others is a social act; compared to watching television by yourself, perhaps. But compared to talking and sharing feelings and ideas, compared to live unrehearsed human companionship, sitting in adjoining chairs watching television is about as socially interactive as squatting in adjoining stalls and dumping into the same sewer. I remember on various occasions having a great time talking and laughing at friends’ houses when someone came up with the idea of catching a favorite show. The conversation died, the sharing died, the faces all turned numb. You might as well have dropped a bomb in the room and blown us to the winds, our emotional distance had become so great.
            Still others insist that television actually gives us a social foundation; something common to talk about. This is true, but frightening. The bad part is not only that talking about Paris Hilton numbs the brain, but when we talk about these inanities, when we spend our time, thoughts and emotions on distant clowns, we are stealing precious attention and care from our loved ones, or our should-be loved ones—our family and our friends. It is probably safe to say that the average TV watcher knows more about the love life of his favorite TV bimbo than he knows about his children’s, and sadly enough, maybe even thinks about it more.
            And while our friends and loved ones suffer, we too often stand by idly, but are crushed with heartbreak when we lose Lady Di.

The sad proof of TV’s effect came from an expatriate friend at dinner not long ago. He is in his thirties, witty, pleasant-looking, impeccable education, speaks excellent Italian, yet he lamented about the loneliness of the Tuscan countryside, or more particularly about the difficulty of finding himself a wife. He had been living there for years, fell in with the social circles, both local and expatriate, was always invited to dinners, always circulating, but had remained alone. He told us about how depressed and tired he used to be, until he bought himself a television set. He now no longer feels so “compelled to look,” for he can “stay home alone and yet not feel lonely.”
            This sums up the insidiousness of television: it acts as every other drug or opiate; it makes us feel less lonely by making us believe that the face made out of flickering dots is somehow our friend. Well, it isn’t. It’s worse than an enemy. If the need really arose, if you really needed someone to make a bowl of soup or wipe a fevered brow, to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to lie beside you and hold you in her arms, the enemy may—overcome by human compassion—turn into a friend or even a lover. But the flickering dots will flicker on uncaring, whether you live or die.

Perhaps the greatest damage is that without interaction, discussion, or feedback, only the power of presentation, we grow to distrust our own opinion, subjugate our instincts and convictions and actually fool ourselves into believing the most outrageous, self-serving media ravers.
            This willingness to accept what we are told, to endow with importance the inane and fake, and most crucial, our willingness to become inactive bystander, watchers, does not end when we turn off the beast. It lingers. We accept that we are helpless, so we become helpless. We lose our natural ability to entertain others and ourselves—a feat most seals and monkeys do with ease—and turn to the Tube. When enough of us are convinced that we are too dull for company, the vast entertainment industry is born. And when, through a lack of human contact, enough of us feel too inadequate to deal with each other, to settle problems face to face, then the vast legal industry is born, and when we don’t know how to spend and save, the financial behemoth is born that takes over the world.
            And when enough of us convince ourselves that someone else knows better about how the world should work, what is right or wrong, what is to be done, then we will be ready for another a Hitler to lead us. 
            Yet, we throw our children—at the earliest of ages—to this electronic wolf. What happens then is well described in The Washington Post: “Television is the dominant force conveying attitudes and values for the whole of society. Anyone who has ever watched television with a child knows firsthand how frighteningly influential the small screen can be in suggesting not only what to buy but also how to behave and speak and, indeed, what to think.”
            How TV can affect children’s minds was also reported recently in Business Week. “Researchers found that the branding of food product packaging with characters such as Dora the Explorer drives preschoolers to choose higher-calorie, less healthful foods over more nutritious options. The findings, reported online in Pediatrics, reflect on the food preferences of 4- to 6-year-old boys and girls who found foods tastier when the packaging bore the likenesses of beloved TV and movie characters.”

If I was mean-spirited, I would call that brainwashing.

So what to do?  Turn it off. It’s possible.

When Candace did her master’s program at The School of Visual Arts in New York, we lived in a tiny studio in Chelsea. I wrote part of the day, the rest of the day I was bored. I went and bought a Sony Trinitron. We hid it in a corner so it would not be too intrusive. Then we turned it on. It felt like an invasion. It felt as if a thousand salesmen had marched in through the door. The TV lasted one night. The next day, I sold the thing and began hanging out in art galleries, museums and bars.
            Last year, my long-time writing cohort moved with her boyfriend from Brooklyn to Manhattan and decided to skip cable TV. I asked her a few weeks later how life was without TV. “We look at each other more now. We go out more often to see friends and new places,” she said. “And we really listen to each other.”
            So turn it off.
            After a few days of barely controllable panic, you will not believe how much free time you’ll have, what far-ranging thoughts—some utterly antisocial, but very enjoyable—what interests, what great conversations, what calm, and sense of control you will feel. You will have reclaimed your life. You will be free. Free to lead a vibrant, passionate existence, not one broken into tight half-hour segments, three minute advertising breaks, and weekly time slots but your own life of wonderfully varied days, new weeks, real seasons, and unforeseeable, ever-changing, surprising lengths of time.

* * *

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

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