Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stop Watching, Start Loving

Here is an excellent article by Mark Shiffman from Front Porch Republic on "Why We Do Not Own a Television." He tells the story of his own journey and quotes one of my favorite writers: Simone Weil. Here is a snippet in which Shiffman summarizes and applies Weil's insights:

"In my own effort to make sense of my intuitive reservations about the medium, however, it has helped me to turn to one of my favorite writers, Simone Weil. One important thing she points out is the vital connection between love and attention.

The quality of our life depends to a great extent on the quality of our love. The quality of our love depends on the attention we give to other human beings and to our natural surroundings. Attention is not only a sign or expression of love. In an important way, it is the very substance of love, a central part of the very practice of loving. By receptive attention, we make space in ourselves for the presence of something or someone else. If we do not do this, we do not love.

What does television do to our habits of attention? It habituates us to see less, to see it less completely, and to engage it less actively and imaginatively. Our attention is strung along moment by moment, from one thing to the next. What we pay attention to is managed, packaged, enclosed in a frame according to someone else’s priorities for what we should see. We are encouraged to be passive and impatient at the same time.

- snip -

By habituating us to follow along impatiently and passively, to filter and frame the world before we’ve had the chance to see anything, television damages our capacity to love well, to love others and the natural world for what they are rather than for what they can do for us. Television is, after all, one of the great tools and purveyors of consumer culture. The culture of consumption and exploitation has every interest in encouraging our self-centered and unreflective egoism and our oblivion to the loveliness of the natural world. Why should we be surprised if the medium that is its most powerful tool encourages the same vices?"

We have never had cable and we have never had a TV that worked very well all through our married life. But I have not watched anything but Hockey Night in Canada (maybe 20 times per year) for the past five years. There is always reading I don't have time to do - so why bother?. But the strongest argument against TV is undoubtedly the harm it does to our ability to love, as expressed above. This seems to me to be a classic case of technology making our lives worse.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't the same argument be made about the written word in general, and books in particular? After all, printing destroyed the relational oral storytelling culture. By focusing on reading (the scriptures, for example), aren't we forsaking paying attention to other human beings?

Craig Carter said...

No, the same argument cannot be made about books. If you can't see the difference between the effect of the printed word and the visual image on the mind, you need to think a little harder. A book that would help in that regard is Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

Anonymous said...

I don't dispute the difference between printed words and visual images. What I am pointing out is that the excerpt and your comments are focused on love and attention, not on the affect of television on the brain per se. I don't see how the lack of attention which television causes is any different from any other media. The problems caused by television (lack of attention to loved ones and surroundings, hindered imagination, passivity) are just a super-set of the same problems caused by reading (or any new media).

I actually agree with the sentiment about television. I also wonder if the same is true with regard to internet usage, so I have been trying to scale back on that front, especially when I am at home with family. :-)