October 20th 2005 How Much Television Will Your Children Watch?

I reread an essay over fall break by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson entitled In the Beginning…was the Command Line. Generally speaking, the essay is about graphical user interfaces (in computing), and the hindrances that GUI’s create; but to make his point, Stephenson employs Disney World as an example. This analogy really got me thinking about raising children in the age of ubiquitous electronic media.

Stephenson specifically uses the example of the Mahajarah Jungle Trek in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. The analogy Stephenson makes is really too elegant to paraphrase, but to sum it up, Stephenson notes that we live in an age in which the experiences of the world are summed up by others into a neat little package that is transmitted via coaxial cable into a medium we can easily digest in the privacy and comfort of our homes. Stephenson refers to this as the Sensorial Interface. (Computer-minded individuals should be able to see how Stephenson ties this into the concept of graphical user interfaces: the Sensorial Interface is to reality as the GUI is to the command line.)

Electronic media, especially television, as opposed to traditional written media, is meant to turn a profit. As such, it is not only designed to offend the least number of people, but also to be consumable by the most number; thus, it must be understood by the lowest common denominator of the population. Furthermore, being more a corporate product than a work of art or literature, the media is often devoid of true personality. (As Stephenson notes, Disney works based on literature, such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, are often sanitized for children, and Disney generally removes the quirkiness—and outright strangeness—of the original authors.)

Essentially, electronic media (notably television and, to some extent, the Internet, too) is a form of communication that does not require any analysis, or thought, by the viewer. Because it is so easily digestible, it is often consumed with little afterthought. Books, on the other hand, are usually written in such a way that thought is required by the reader. Indeed, electronic media is a simplified interface to the world, whereas written text is made up of the raw thoughts and emotions of worldly experiences, with no interfaces or filters.

In a way, such interfaces are both good and bad. Obviously, they are bad because they dumb down the world and, to a certain extent, the populace. On the other hand, they help bring information and experiences to people who might not otherwise encounter such information and experiences, even if the people are not required to really think. Stephenson’s specific commentary is about culture and diversity: the pervasiveness of electronic media, “Sensorial Interfaces”, has the effect of destroying cultural differences, which can be bad because groups lose cultural identity; but, as Stephenson reasons, if this loss results in fewer Holocausts and genocide, isn’t it a good thing, too? (This is a big tangent from the subject of this essay, but is, incidentally, the topic of another essay on which I am working.)

So is an ability to analyze the world, to not merely submit to TV, a good thing? Are less analytical individuals worse off than the intelligentsia? Is a person who laughs his ass off at Jackass while I read The Communist Manifesto less happy?

It’s a hard question to answer, but I believe it is better to analyze, to ask questions of the world around myself. And I do think TV, and corporate media (which can in many cases include not only electronic media, but also print journalism), limits this ability. I will use myself as an example. Aside from briefly having cable when I was a kid, my family didn’t have cable until I left for college. We didn’t have Internet access in our home until I was in tenth grade. And I didn’t get a computer until the end of fourth grade, or a video game system until the end of fifth. As a result, much of my childhood was spent reading. I read my share of novels, but most of my reading centered around non-fiction (as it still does), especially scientific texts (I think that, as a fourth grader, I knew more about the theory of relativity than most adults). However, I’ve noticed that, now that I am surrounded by on-demand electronic media, I don’t spend nearly as much time reading and learning on my own—I simply consume what is immediately at hand, rather than applying my critical-thinking skills. I have grown lazy and complacent in my analysis of the world around me.

As a result, I feel that I am not as much of a “thinking being” as I once was. I feel that, relative to age, I was smarter before my media immersion than after.

This is why I am of the opinion that TV has more of a negative impact on children (and adults) than positive. Therefore, I’ve started to believe that children’s television watching should be limited, as television is a passive medium that requires little viewer interaction. Instead, I feel that children’s attention should be focused on interactive media. If I ever have kids (which is a highly hypothetical concept right now), I think I will greatly limit how much they watch television, and encourage them in other areas, such as reading or, to a lesser extent, computer games (which at least require some critical thinking on the part of the player). I believe that, to function in society, one needs to develop analytical skills that are simply not nurtured by electronic media such as television or even the Internet. With all this technology, it’s surprising, and yet not surprising, that, to truly develop, one must go back to his roots: the written and spoken word.