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Video Ergo Sum

Jeremy Murray-Brown 
(A paper given at a conference sponsored by The Department of Religion and the Humanities Foundation at Boston University, December 3-4, 1987 on "Video Icons and Values".) 

A person born in the year that Constantinople fell to the Turks, if he lived to be fifty, would have seen more books produced in his life-time -- some 8 million -- than had been written in the previous thousand years of Constantinople's existence.1 This is how Elizabeth Eisenstein dramatizes in quantitative terms the revolution in communication brought about by the printing press; and the print revolution, as she goes on to argue convincingly, worked a radical transformation in Christendom which led, among other things, to the rise of western science, the Protestant Reformation, the voyages of discovery which gave Europe mastery of the globe, the introduction of assembly line production, and the idealization of Italian Renaissance art. In short, a revolution in the technology of communication was responsible for our civilization in matters of science, religion, art and politics.  

Some fifty years have now passed since the first public transmission of a commercial television program. And in these fifty years, what an extraordinary advance television has made across the cultural landscape! In the United States no major city is without competing television stations, very few homes are without a television set, many have several, three quarters of them can choose between more than ten channels, almost half are linked by cable. We are now in the same position in relation to this new medium of communication as was our fifty year old person, born in 1453. There has been an advance in the technology of communication, who can doubt it? But can we discern the full consequences of this advance?  

It seems to me that television has indeed turned out to be the agent of a radical change in human consciousness, comparable to the revolutions in communication that occurred with the invention of alphabetic writing and print. I use the term human consciousness in the manner defined by Walter Ong as "the individual's own sense of presence in and to himself and in and to the world around him."2 And I acknowledge that I have been much helped by the work of Ong and others on the dynamics of change in human consciousness brought about by earlier changes in the technology of communication. It is significant that studies in these earlier revolutions in communication history are of recent appearance, prompted in fact by the momentous nature of the television revolution. It's only because of what's happened with television that we've begun to understand the specific cultural and psychological ramifications of oral expression, writing and print.3  

In the case of television, I shall not spend time discussing the question of evolution versus revolution, interesting though this question is. The influence of photography, film and radio, the tradition of the circus, the vaudeville, the theater, a general surge of technological inventiveness, and many other factors have gone into making television what it is. But what it is, it is sui generis.  

Much criticism can no doubt be leveled at the commercial nature of American television, at the pressure of advertising which spurs networks to seek the biggest possible audience in order to increase ratings and maximize profits. But it is these commercial incentives that have enabled television to exploit the costly technology that has made it a truly popular mass medium. A fundamental psychological characteristic of television viewers is the desire to watch of their own free choice what everyone else is also watching. It is only through the free market process that this desire can be met, though the British 1986 report on the financing of the BBC, the Peacock Report, takes a somewhat different line on this subject.4 Ninety-five percent of Americans, however, choose to watch commercial television5 and many would argue that television in America is television in its most natural state.6 I believe myself that the American model is destined to be followed, eventually, everywhere in the world.  

Let us then first look at this cultural phenomenon we call television. I come at once to a startling figure: in the western world today (I include Japan) people are spending between a third and a fifth of their waking lives watching television. The statistics, of course, are imprecise and open to debate, but the main point is clear enough. In Japan, in North America, in northern Europe, what is significant about television is not the vast audience for this or that program, impressive though these audience sizes are, especially if it's a Royal Wedding or a World Cup Final. No, what is significant is the total amount of viewing that most people subject themselves to, day in and day out, morning, noon and night, for most of their lives. In the average American home, the television set will be switched on for more than six hours a day; in Japan, for more than eight hours;7 in Britain, for at least five. In the United States, first graders will spend the equivalent of one entire 24-hour day per week watching television, more time than they spend in the classroom. For most people in the United States, viewing television has become the third most common activity after sleep and work.8  

This quantitative appraisal of the television revolution must be set alongside the facts about illiteracy, though these facts, too, are hotly debated -- namely, that something in excess of sixty million Americans are wholly or functionally illiterate.9 That is to say, something like forty percent of the voting population of the United States is unable to participate in any form of communication that depends on literary convention. And then there is aliteracy -- the capacity to read but disinclination to do so, estimated by the outgoing Librarian of Congress to be about 44% of the adult population.10  

Many of us are shocked by these figures. But they are overwhelming in their reality. Because of them and what they imply, there is, in my view, little point in discussing external controls. The world wants television, and the world is going to get it. Our culture is changed, changed utterly.  

For television is much more than an optional activity; rather, it has become a necessary component of all of life's activities, public and private, and its influence is evident in a thousand different ways. Instead of suicide notes we have public figures blowing their heads off in front of the cameras, and instead of a letter to the newspaper we have a man barging into the television studio with a handgun demanding that his statement be delivered live over the air. Television has invaded territory far from the living room, witness its increasing use in courtrooms, or as evidence of authentic personality, as in the Bernard Goetz trial. We now hear of videotapes for use on VHS machines which enable pet lovers to keep an electronic dog or cat at home without the bother of having to feed, walk or clean up after it. Likewise an electronic wood fire with no wood to stack and no ash to dispose of. I heard recently that the latest thing in zoos is to install television cameras in the wild and invite visitors to observe the animals on television screens in rooms in a central building. And having children see themselves on television at birthday parties is a more effective trick than producing a live magician; visiting by means of a videotape is a more effective boost to the morale of hospital patients than coming to the bedside in person.  

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