Search online for phrases like ‘screen time’ and ‘screen addition’ and you’ll find a long list of news items and op-eds fretting about the impact of our viewing habits on our children, our culture and even our sleep patterns.
But what kind of screens are we talking about here? Smartphone screens, certainly; also laptops, tablets, workstations and game displays. Television screens, however, barely get a look in. They may be bigger and brighter than at any time in their history, but TV as a medium has shrunk to the margins of the debate over tech and society .
This has happened in a remarkably short period of time. In the late 20th century, TV wasn’t just the top target of tabloid outrage merchants, but also of serious sociological critiques like Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death. The book’s subtitle was Public discourse in the age of show business and its narrative was one of decline. Looking at the present incumbent of the White House, one can hardly accuse Postman of having overstated his case.
Fifteen years later, in Bowling alone, Robert Putnam identified television as a major factor in the post-war decline of American social capital. It was another landmark publication, but also the high watermark of telly-scepticism. In the 21st century, concern has shifted to the internet, computer games and social media. It’s particularly interesting to see the ‘fake news’ issue generalised across all media, rather than attaching mainly to TV.
It’s not as if we’re not watching TV anymore. On average, we still spend hours everyday doing so – most of it still through conventional TV sets (though other devices are taking an ever-bigger share).
Of course, the reason why we think about TV differently is because we watch it differently. This is how Adam Sternberg puts it in a piece for the Walrus:
“My daughter’s relationship with television is not just different from my own experience growing up—it is completely alien. This is part of the reason I’ve come to think that consuming television has changed more dramatically in the last forty years than any other kind of cultural consumption—more than movies, more than books, even more than post-Napster pop music.”
This is an excellent point. Print, film, recorded music and radio (once sets became cheap enough and portable enough to become personal) have long enabled individual choice over what content is consumed and when.
Television, however, has been a uniquely communal medium:
“Television, which was always the most democratic of forms, has fractured into thousands of insular audiences, and it’s likely that, in the coming years, this divergence will only increase. Even Neil Postman… assumed the shared experience of television was both part of its appeal and of its danger. Back then, when it came to TV audiences, there was still a collective ‘ourselves’ to talk about.”
No longer. While the digital revolution has brought change to every medium, it has had the biggest impact on TV. The great irony, though, is that digital is making television more like the older media that it replaced as the dominant cultural technology. Thanks to streaming services, it is now just one more grab-bag of content – from which each of us can assemble an epistemic bubble of our choice.
Many people see this as a societal catastrophe, but, in liberal democracies people were always able to choose which books they wanted to read, which newspapers to buy, which films to see and which music to listen to. The enhancement of choice that digital gives us today is one of degree not kind, because we’ve been sorting ourselves into sub-cultures defined by class, education, age, sex, ethnicity, religion and politics for a very long time.
The fraying of television as shared experience may well be something to regret, but if you want to return to a genuinely unified culture, you’d have to turn the clock back by centuries not decades.