The Tyranny of Television

Published on August 25, 2012   ·   No Comments

Jerry Mather

In the United States 99.5% of homes have television sets and, on average, the TV is on for eight hours per day.

Electronically, the entire country is wired together as a single entity. When I started to write Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, I never thought of that book as being a “holistic” analysis of technology. Such a concept did not yet exist. Neither did I expect to advocate that we get rid of TV, or even that society would be better off without it. The project really began with observing my children.

The time was the 1960s. I was the president of a successful commercial advertising agency. It was in those days that I first realized the power of television: that it was possible to speak directly through media into people’s brains – 250 million people at the same time – and to implant powerful imagery that remained in all those brains permanently, causing people to do things they might otherwise not have done. This is the special expertise of advertisers. They know how to place images into people’s heads to cause behaviors useful to the advertisers.

At first, I was merely amused, and then later dazzled by this power.

I became alarmed while observing my children watching television, and seeing that blank empty stare on their faces, as the blue light played against them. They seemed like zombies. But an even more frightening realization came to me one day when our whole family was out on a mountainside, picnicking. My kids were across a meadow playing as I lay on the blanket. I saw them leaping around energetically among the rocks shouting to each other. This looked quite pleasant until I realized that the entire game they were playing was a re-enactment of a television series: Star Trek. One child was Captain Kirk, the other was Mr. Spock, and their lines were right from the TV show. Here we were on this magnificent mountainside, with the sun shining, the flowers blooming, the breezes wafting, but the kids were lost in their TV images. They seemed to be here on the mountain but their brains were occupied with images of something else. We might as well have been in a subway, or our living-room.

At the time, I didn’t realize that this process of implanting imagery that then becomes dominant in one’s experience was a kind of training for alienation, but I surely do now. But I was uncomfortable at the thought that these implanted images could separate one from nature, and that I had a direct role in it.

Then in 1970 came the first set of statistics about television viewing in the US. I am going to repeat them here despite the fact that they’re twenty-five years old. In fact, the numbers are little different today.


By 1970, 99.5% of the homes in the United States had television sets. Electronically speaking, we had been wired together as a single entity. 250,000,000 people across 3,000,000 square miles could all be spoken to from the same central source in the powerful, language of imagery. The autocratic potential of this had been appreciated only by such writers as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, as well as several dozen transnational corporations.

By 1970 – as it also is today – 95% of Americans were watching at least some television every day. Rarely would they go a full day without a fix, which should give you some confirmation of the level of engagement, or addiction, to this machine. The average home in the United States had the TV going for about eight hours per day. The average adult was watching nearly four and-a-half hours per day, and the average child (under twelve) about three hours per day. These figures have not changed appreciably in the last twenty-five years.

When I first read these numbers in 1970, I was astounded, realizing for the first time what a profound change had taken place in the way people were living their lives, and also the mechanisms that were now controlling people’s lives. Just consider the statistic that the average adult watched more than four hours per day. This means that roughly half of the adult population of the United States watches even more than four hours. One wonders how it could even be possible, until we think about how many people watch from dinner till midnight or beyond, and how many watch sports all weekend. These figures mean that other than going to work or to school, or sleeping, the main thing that Americans have been doing for the past twenty years is watching television. TV has replaced community life, family life, the outdoors. It has literally replaced the environment.


Americans now live inside television. Nothing like this has ever happened before. No society has ever before essentially moved inside media, or had media move inside them!

When I say that TV has replaced the environment with itself, it’s important to add that TV has become the physical universe that people now relate to, and the mental universe as well. And it is a far more aggressive environment than the physical world that preceded it. Television images literally enter the brain and spread themselves out, remaining permanently in there. (I have only to ask that you recall Mr. Clinton, or Mr. Yeltsin, or Princess Di to make the point; those pictures in your head surely came from television, and you probably did not know they live in there now with all the dramatic and commercial imagery that has also ridden into your brain as if on an electronic freeway. The images we ingest from TV literally occupy our minds and become what we think we know, what we imagine, what we refer to and even talk about. They replace the other experiences of life, while entering us and turning us into them. It does this to hundreds of millions of people at the same time.

This is not to say that some of the programs Chat people watch are not worthwhile. It is only to point out the changeover in experience, in how people live and what they think about. It is also to point out the degree to which the control of mass media becomes the dominant factor in how people view the world and their own lives, and that in the United States – and increasingly everywhere in the world – these are corporate interests that do this. Let’s not think of television as a democratic medium, as it is sometimes described, simply because everyone can watch it. Very few people produce television, and still fewer control it. A small number speak, the rest absorb.

So, you see, we have a very bizarre situation…a nearly science-fiction reality. If you were on a team of Martian scientists circling the globe to study Western society, and you were hovering above St. Louis or London, your report back to Martian Mission Control might go something like this: “We are scanning the Earthlings now. Night after night, the whole population is sitting in darkened rooms, usually separate from each other, not speaking, or reading, not relating to the world outside. They are staring at a light! Their eyes are not moving (and our research shows that there’s a direct association between eye movement and thought – eye movement indicates conscious seeking of information – and there is less eye movement while watching TV than in any other experience of life, including dreaming).”

The report to Mars continues: “Their brains are in a brain-wave state called alpha – at least the heavy viewers are in that state – which is a non-cognitive condition. This alpha state is also associated with meditation, but in meditation the mind is cleared so that new emotional and sensory data can emerge as well as fresh images and thoughts. When watching television, however, someone else is putting images in. There are many technical reasons why people go into this alpha state while watching TV – the uncontrolled rapid speed of the images; the inability to stop the flow of images and repeat them, or stop them to consciously think about them; as well as the on-off flicker of the screen – but they all conspire to passivate the viewer, and make conscious thinking difficult. Nonetheless, the images go into the brains in a mnemonic manner, without thought, remaining there permanently. A perfect situation for advertisers.

“All the people are watching the same images at the same time. They are even watching in schools,” says the Martian report. “This may be some kind of instrument of mass brainwashing, or mind control. It seems to be homogenizing values and culture. And the people start behaving like the images they see. This process is going on worldwide. Perhaps we’d best not try to communicate with this planet. They seem to have lost control of their minds.”

If that was the situation in 1970, it is little different today, though there are two very important statistics that have increased in recent years. The first of these is that, in the United States, the average person now watches about 22,000 commercials per year. That’s 22,000 times the average TV viewer is being told, in the powerful language of implanted TV imagery, to do an identical thing. One commercial may sell Ford cars, and another may sell toothpaste, but all of the commercials are saying, “Consume, consume, consume,” and suggesting that life will get better if they buy something. Meanwhile, there are no messages telling people to consume less, or to turn off the TV and go outside.

Finally, there’s the melancholy fact that broadcast television can now reach about 70% of the population of the world, with most of the programming coming from the United States. People living in grass houses in Borneo, or on the frozen tundras of the far north, or in the mountains of Ladakh are watching Dallas or Edge of Night or some other reruns of US television programs, with accompanying commercials, ingesting foreign imagery and being trained to relate to materialist cultures that have nothing whatever to do with the place where they live. In this context, the proper way to think about television is as an instrument of cultural cloning and homogenization; television is the mechanism that commodity culture is using to spread itself worldwide in its constant quest for new markets and new workers with the commensurate homogenized values. Of all instruments to spread the market ideology into every tiny corner of the globe, and to get everyone vibrating with the same rhythm, television is the best.

So while we all tend to view television in personal terms (i.e. in terms of its entertainment or news value, its apparent content), its effects are far more profound, socially, politically, culturally and ecologically. Marshall McLuhan told us back in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” but people were befuddled by that. What he meant was that the fact of the existence of television and its variety of social and cultural impacts, are at least as important as the content of the programs.

Allow me to give you one more example of this, based on a recent trip of mine to the far north of Canada, just at the time that television was first introduced to a culture that had been entirely free of it. The place is the remote Mackenzie River valley of the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is a region extending 1,500 miles from the Arctic Sea southward to the Great Bear Lake. If you have heard of this place, it is probably because of that Russian nuclear satellite in 1978 which began falling out of orbit to Earth. People feared it might land on Paris or New York, so everyone was pleased when it finally crashed in hundreds of pieces along a 300 mile swathe in what the press called “an unpopulated icy wasteland”, the Mackenzie Valley. Actually the satellite flew directly over twenty-six communities of Dene Indians and Inuit (Eskimo), whose people have lived there for some 20,000 years. To call the region “unpopulated” reveals only the degree to which native people remain invisible today. It’s not as if the radioactive stuff was falling on Canadians.

I was asked to come up to that region by the Native Women’s Association of the Northwest Territories, which was running a series of workshops about television. The women were worried. The Canadian government had been pushing the native communities to accept free satellite dishes, and free television sets. Fifteen of the twenty-six villages had consented. The women had noticed rapid and harsh changes in those places.

Now keep in mind that this is a place where people still live in a mostly subsistence economy: ice-fishing, hunting, trapping. Some cash is earned from pelts and leatherwork (incredible beaded mukluks). And a few men have gone north to the oil rigs to work for wages. But except in the one large town, Yellowknife (population 8,000), people live more or less as they have for millennia, in log houses with smoke-sheds attached, all the generations together. Although this is nominally Canada, the Northwest has remained isolated from Canadian society until very recently, when oil was discovered. English is a second language here; twenty-two native languages are spoken and about 40% of the people speak no English at all.

It was forty degrees below zero when I arrived there in October. I was met by a delegation of women who told me how at first they were very enthusiastic about television, since many of the communities are hundreds of miles from each other, with no roads connecting them. The only communication was by dog-sled, radio or small plane. “Until recently it didn’t matter,” one woman told me, “because the villages have been self-sufficient for thousands of years. But now the government is showing up in the communities, trying to hire workers for the oil pipelines, and telling people they need to move into the cities and modernize their lives.”

“That’s why they wanted to bring TV. They wanted the people off the land so they can drill and mine without some Indians in the way. We figured TV might help us communicate with each other. But we were wrong.”

So far, the people are seeing mainly programs from the United States, including Dallas, The Six Million Dollar Man and many soap operas. What’s not from the United States is from Toronto and Ottawa, 5,000 miles away from these villages.

The Communications Director for the Dene people told me: “We’re not getting any chance to deal with our own problems on TV. There are no native faces on there, even though native people are the majority population here. Instead, all the Indian people are sitting in their log houses, alongside frozen lakes, with the dog teams tied up outside, and the dried fish hanging on the lines, and they’re watching a bunch of white people in Dallas drinking martinis while standing around their swimming pools and plotting how to steal from each other.”

The women felt that TV was glamorizing behaviors and values that are poisonous to life in the north. “Cooperation and sharing and non-materialism are the only ways people can live here. TV presents values opposite to those.”

I was told that since the arrival of TV in some of the communities, there has been sudden change. The families don’t visit each other as much, or work together. The kids have lost interest in the native languages; they want to learn only English. They refuse to learn the traditional native hunting practices. And they are pressuring for commodities, especially cars, even though there are no roads. But the worst effect has been on the traditional native storytelling. That used to be the main activity every night. All the kids would gather around the old people to hear ancient stories about ancestors and animals and how to live in that harsh, amazing land. These stories were teaching systems, actually, by which the culture was passed on, generation to generation. But beyond that, they created a bond of love and respect between the young and the old that was critical to the survival of native culture. The old people were windows to the past and to a sense of “Indianness”. It was the way the young learned what it meant to be Indian and to be proud of that. With the arrival of TV, however, the storytelling stopped cold.

The women I met believed that this interruption of the storytelling could prove the death of their culture, leaving an absence of knowledge of native ways and a loss of a sense of pride and selfworth that the old people formerly brought to the young. It has been replaced by a new world of machine – brought foreign images. Images that stay in the minds of the young, making them feel less proud of their own culture and desirous of being something else. For me, observing this and hearing these complaints and visiting the villages where it was happening, I realized that I was observing before my eyes what had already happened long before in the United States and other technology-obsessed societies.

Our children are also being made over by the machine into a new kind of person better able to participate in commodity life, with nervous systems accelerated to the speed of computers, high-speed travel, assembly-line work, freeways. Television is making these Indians, as it already did us, into a new form which is “compatible” (to use the computer term) with the rest of the sped-up reality which surrounds us. Television has become the instrument for re-shaping our internal environments – our feelings, our thoughts, our ideas and our nervous systems – to match the re-created artificial environment that increasingly surrounds us: commodity life, technological passivity, acceleration, homogenization. The role of satellites, therefore, is to provide a delivery system for this process to hard-to-reach places. And the net effect on the Indians of northern Canada, is to remake them into parts of the technomachine, further the interests of northern development, and accelerate the cloning and homogenizing of cultures.

So then, given all these impacts I have described as being caused by television, the question emerges: is society as a whole better off with it or without it?


As I mentioned earlier I had never set out to write a book that would advocate the elimination of television. But after working on that book for more than five years and collecting hundreds of negative points about television – points that went far beyond just the effects on my children, which is where it all started – effects on how we think, how we learn, how families communicate, on the breakdown of communities, on the shortening of attention spans, on the concentration of corporate power, on the narrowing of the field of knowledge, on the corruption of the political process, on the increase of violence and drug addiction, how it clones and homogenizes cultures, I began to think our society would be better off without it, and thought of saying so in the title of the book. So I sent a researcher to the library to find out what other authors had made of that case, and we found that not one author among the 7,000 books that had by then been published about TV had suggested we would be better off without it, that we should have no TV. Here we have a technology that causes immense and profound change, worldwide, in a multiplicity of ways, and not one author had thought to say, or had the courage to say, we might be better off without it.

What we have here is an unthinkable thought. The current paradigms about technology simply do not permit of the possibility of saying “no” to a technology, and anyone who suggests that is thought somehow odd or off the point. For me, this is the essence of passivity. If in a democratic society the full spectrum of possibilities for a technology cannot be argued, and all the effects developed and exposed in a holistic manner, with the possibility of then rejecting the technology as too harmful, for whatever reason, then we cannot say that there’s a democracy at all.

Because of that realization, I decided to go ahead and name my book as I did, so that the spectrum of debate about media and television would be broadened sufficiently to include the notion that society must have the power to control technology. Decisions about technology are at least as important as who is elected to office, but we don’t get to debate on them, or even hear the full spectrum of possibilities about them.

This must change before it’s too late. We must have the power to assess technology, publicly and in a systemic manner (for all of its effects) before it envelopes us and it becomes nearly impossible to reverse.

It’s extremely important that we develop these skills sooner rather than later, because technological evolution is now at the brink of “popping” into a new, all-pervasive, global dimension that I have begun to call “megatechnology”, with even more profound implications than anything that preceded it. And the same people who brought us to the present ecological and social crisis are telling us that future technologies will fix these problems.

If the World’s Fair visions and the mass advertising campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s were the mental training ground for the present crisis, then the corporate and government imagery of the present is telling us how to view the future.

Billions of dollars are being spent to advocate the glories of high technology, space development, high-speed computation, interactive media, genetic engineering (the redesign of human and plant life for commercial purposes poses) and nanotechnology (the redesign of the molecular structure of the planet) and robotics and artificial intelligence (the doorways to the new “post-biological age”).

These things are being described in the same kind of best-case utopian visions of technology that we have heard from the time of the 1940s World’s Fair. The “information super highway”, for example, is getting a sales pitch and a one-sided description these days in the United States that makes it seem like a panacea to solve all problems. But is it? Have we developed the right questions to ask about it? Have we figured out its consequences on family life, work life, our minds, our culture, our politics? Have we learned who gains and who loses from this? Have we discerned what kind of world we will have from it? Do we have the information we need? Are we in control? Because ultimately it is we who must decide on whether we want it or not, and if we don’t, find means to stop it in its tracks.

Have we yet begun to perceive how all these technologies inter lock with one another to create this new megatechnological sphere that surrounds our lives and puts power outside our control? Television is the instrument that trains us to accept these things and homogenizes our values. Computers are the nervous system which can bind all these technical marvels together, and make further ones possible. Genetics redesigns humans. Nanotechnology redesigns nature. Robotics eliminates the need for people in most activity. Corporate trade agreements smooth out all resistance and put the whole world on the same pathway, toward a future we have not grasped, and if we did, would probably vote against.

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