Thursday, March 3, 2005

TV discombobulation

The Inquirer’s editorial two days ago dwelled on Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon ``Dinky’’ Soliman’s warning to parents that excess television viewing by children could stunt their creativity and skills.

Nakakabobo. (It dumbs.) It numbs. Too much TV affects reading skills and seriously inhibits left-brain functions needed for oral and verbal activities. The right brain becomes more dominant and thus makes zombies of TV addicts. That may sound like an exaggeration but try parking yourself in front of the TV the whole day for no urgent reason (urgent would be the stimulating 9/11 or the tsunami updates) and your brain just leaves you. The packs of junk food also vanishes in front of you.

Compare this with reading which makes your mind active and your imagination fly. Compare this with activities such as designing, problem-solving or writing. Writing may be a solitary activity but it does not bring on the loneliness of the long-distance runner. The writer is not really alone. There is a whole caboodle of characters that are alive, ideas and stories playing themselves out in the writer’s brain. And then the images in the landscape of the mind translates into words and these words go to one’s fingers and to the computer screen and finally to the printed page. Later, to be absorbed by other minds.

Of course, there is a time to turn it all off, to go to the garden and coax the plants to grow or eat good food and sip coffee with friends.

Television may look like it has everything. For many, it is their daily source of daily information. Indeed television contains a lot, but what kind of information and how much of it is truly information?

Some years ago I wrote about something I had read in a book(I didn’t get it from TV) which was about the information that we are missing out. I want to share this again.

When many people in this world thought we were having a surfeit of information, information gatherers, information providers, information managers and what-have-you, and we were up to here with the electronic media, one writer set out to find out what exactly was happening outside and inside of him in the context of all this information tsunami.

Bill MacKibben did this and the result of his extraordinary effort was the book ``The Age of Missing Information.’’ (He also wrote the celebrated ``The End of Nature’’.)

One day, McKibben sat in front of his TV to find an answer to the question, ``Does having access to more information than ever mean that we know more than ever?’’ McKibben watched a single day’s TV programs on all 93 cable stations in Fairfax, Virginia. He taped some 2,000 hours of shows and then watched them all.

MacKibben chose Fairfax because of the astounding size of the cable system there: five Christian channels, four for shopping, two for country music video, one for plane arrivals and departures. A cable magazine listed nearly 1,000 movies per month. There were two comedy channels, nine public access and government channels, two for weather, one for sports, name it.

``On a single day,’’ wrote McKibben, ``you can hear about virtually every topic on earth.’’ He watched ``endless newscasts and hyperactive game shows, bizarre sporting events, infomercials for devices with unknown uses, helpful hints for bass fishermen, cheetahs dispatching zebras, evangelists begging for dollars, and more episodes of `The Brady Bunch’ than a sane man could bear.’’

To discover what was missing in what he saw on TV, McKibben spent 24 hours—only 24—on top of an Adirondack mountain. He watched insects and vultures, climbed trees, even swam in an ice cold pond. And he listened.

There, on that mountaintop, McKibben discovered many things about himself and the world around him. He was able to gather information that was not offered by the boob tube.

McKibben’s expedition was not that of a dabbler or dilettante who had nothing better to do. In ``The Age of Missing Informtion’’ he seriously and with great humor, dissects the information in those 2,000 hours of videotape. His observations are both hilarious and sobering. And he also writes so very well.

But it is the mountaintop lessons that are timeless and precious. ``The idea of standing under the stars and feeling how small you are—that’s not a television idea. Everything on television tells you the opposite—you’re the most important person, that people are all that matter. ``We do it all for you’; `Have it your way’, the immortal `This Bud’s for you’. The endless parade of jesters to entertain you, the obsequious newscasts that bring the story to you want to see right to your living room. It’s what you want—`The consumer is our God’ (said) the chairman of the MTV Network.’’

Incidentally, some of these issues were discussed at the ``Media Nation 2: Owning Up’’ conference in Tagaytay last month.

It is not true, McKibben says, that we live in an age of information or that there is an information explosion/revolution. In many ways the opposite is true, he says.

``We live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach…An age of missing information.’’

The star culture and the hard-sell of excessive glamour and glitter that our local television networks promote have only added glaze to the eyes of starstruck TV junkies and to their dumbing, numbing and discombobulation. To prevent blood coagulation, don’t tune in to the early morning chatter on free TV.