Only nobody knows what the number of remaining days is, or even if it is very high (say, we still have 100,000 days of commercial, open television left -that would be 274 years, far longer than the time it’s already been around, since the first emissions in the 50’s of the last century). That’s the problem with prognostication in the social realm, nobody has really much of a clue about how technology will evolve (as Popper famously quipped in The poverty of historicism, if we knew exactly what would be invented in the future, we could as well invent it right away!) and even less how such technologies will interact with the underlying social forces to shape the development of the collectives which embrace them.
In a certain sense, then, the title of today’s post is a bit misleading (no surprise, I didn’t exactly invent clickbait, and as author of one of the world’s less read blogs I wouldn’t readily confess to indulging much in the practice), but as usual, in a torturous and circuitous way I still believe it may help illuminate some tendencies in our world that are worth paying attention to.
What put me in the track of this line of thought this time was a comment by my elder son, to the effect that neither him nor any of his friends or acquaintances watched live TV any more (they just downloaded or streamed those shows they were interested in… admittedly, my son’s friends are the nerdy type that don’t have much use for sports broadcasts, where there is indeed a premium for immediacy). It made me remember an internal report, back in my consultant days, stating the imminent demise of TV as we knew it because of the arrival of a gadget that would revolutionize the way people consumed audiovisual entertainment: the TiVo box (for those who are not familiar with the contraption: essentially a digital VCR with a more friendly user interface that basically any moron could use, which would allow people to decouple the viewing experience from the time when the originating network chose to broadcast it and, more importantly, would allow the viewers to skip the advertising, thus depriving the content producers from revenue in the long run… guess what? Sending the users bundles of just ads, no annoying programs interrupting them, ended up being a very popular feature of the service).
That was in the second half of the 90’s, so with 20 years of hindsight we may agree that the announcement of the imminent demise was a tad premature. The same may be said, in another 20 years time, of my son impression, but now as then it got me thinking about the money flux that keeps TV going and how such flux may be diverted or weakened, with potentially huge social implications. Because the conventional wisdom states that TV is the most powerful instrument of social control ever devised. In my own terms, the great conveyor belt for infusing each society’s dominant reason in the unsuspecting brains of its citizens. We could have twenty philosophers as brilliant as Kant plus Aristotle plus Stuart Mill (to reflect each major moral tradition’s sensibility) publishing their most persuasive works tomorrow and, frankly, nobody would as much as yawn if they couldn’t advertise it on the telly (not by themselves, mind you, unless they were outrageously good-looking and able to spice their communication with some raunchy personal stories, that is the nature and servitudes of the medium). Indeed, statistically, it is almost certain we have striding the Earth between us, at this very moment, some thinkers of comparable stature (if only because the number of people pursuing speculative thoughts full time in the countless faculties of the modern world is much, much bigger than the total sum of people that have been able to pursuit such endeavors during the whole history of our species), without anybody noticing, or being able to take any advantage from it (the only explanation for such glaring loss is that such geniuses are most likely either old, ugly, boring or all of the above, so no way they could draw an audience primed to value more flashy attributes).
Notice that I said “the conventional wisdom”, so it is appropriate to consider if, in this case as in so many others, such wisdom may indeed be woefully wrong. Before we can answer that question, let us get back for a moment to how such a powerful institution, supposedly in charge of shaping much of the public sensibility, of their conception of what is ugly and what is nice, what is right and what is wrong, the moral educator of the masses, could sustain itself. Which takes us right into the murky realm of advertising: it is commonly said that TV “sold” entertainment to the audience, a cheap, easy way to pass their time that proved to be almost unbeatable (want proof? The average human being spends almost two hours a day watching TV, which means that once you subtract the time for earning a living, commuting, doing the household chores and sleeping, that’s essentially all they do apart from work). Bollocks, as until relatively recently almost nobody “paid” for being entertained (we’ll get to how that is changing in a moment). TV spread like a wildfire because it actually sold something much more valuable: their audience’s attention to manufacturers that could use that attention to convince them that their products were superior to those of their competition (didn’t matter at all if such claim was true or false).
Seen from outside, it is a pretty silly proposition: pay me to insert whatever flashy message you want (whose production you have to fund separately, of course) between my regular programming, so you can use such message to convince “my” audience of the superiority of your product. If such scheme works, you will be able to sell more units, and ask for a higher price, that would supposedly more than cover the costs of producing the message and paying me for showing it to as many people as possible. But what if your competitors adopt the same strategy? The whole market may end up at a higher price level, with consumers funding both the Coca Cola company and Pepsi Co through paying more for their sodas so they can “enjoy” having their favorite shows interrupted by a barrage of ads from both extolling the supposedly greater virtues of their wares over those of the other. Which is a decidedly inferior equilibrium than the one in which there is no advertising, the sodas are cheaper, and nobody’s show is interrupted with flashy ads that are known to have only the most tenuous relationship with truth.
When you add the fact that a significant portion of the advertising that has historically kept broadcasting afloat is not just a zero-sum game, but has actively promoted deleterious products and practices (just to name a few: tobacco, alcohol, and sugary drinks that collectively account for a staggering amount of premature deaths in the advanced economies in the last decades) you really have to wonder how is it possible that we collectively allowed for such insanity to proceed gingerly apace, and how is it possible that any attempt at changing it (leveraged by a raft of technological “game-changers” that always change much less than what was expected, beyond of the financial situation of some of its promoters, that is) tends to meet at most a very limited success. I think the explanation comes from an unholy intersection of an unfortunate feature of human nature with the current mode of development of our overarching social structure (for lack of a better word I’ll stick to the term “capitalism”, which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to qualify as “digital”, “post-industrial”, “advanced” or even “desiderative”, without ever settling on any as being clearer or more illuminating than the rest). Such intersection, when analyzed, makes me fear that open television, funded by advertising and uncritically watched by enormous audiences, will still be with us for many years to come.
Starting with human nature, and without having to go all Maslow-y here, people do indeed need to be entertained (as easily and effortlessly as possible), and after their other basic needs have been satisfied something to fill the endless hours gets a pretty high priority in their scale. The fact that a complete history of leisure still has to be written is revealing, as my hunch is that for most of humanity’s existence there simply was not such a thing. People mostly herded cattle and cultivated the fields, or collected wild berries and tubers, seek suitable partners, wooed them, raised a family and took care of them until they croaked. A tiny few were lucky enough not to have to devote 100% of their time to that, and demanded to be entertained by others instead, but they were such a minuscule proportion as to be entirely irrelevant for the ordering of society, although the tale of their exploits have survived the passing of time much better than the relatively traceless remnants of the majority, and thus they occupy a fraction of our image of past ages much greater than what is warranted. Only after the agrarian revolution that preceded the Industrial Revolution in Europe has our species faced the prospect of what we may term “mass leisure”, that is, the existence of significant numbers of modestly well-off citizens with time on their hands they could devote to pretty much what they wanted, their basic necessities (food, clothing, a suitable dwelling and child-rearing) having been taken care of.
Interestingly, we start to have a better grasp of how people passed their recently (in historical terms) acquired “free” time thanks to the concomitant appearance of the modern novel, a form of narration in which common folk suddenly is deemed as worthy of attention, and in which the inner lives of said folk are minutely traced (or may we say invented? But let us not get too post-modern here) by the authors, which requires presenting how they spend their days. And what we grasp from them is that women did manual labors (mainly sewing, past beyond when thanks to mass retailing it stopped making economic sense to do so), lorded over a dwindling supply of home servants and paid visits to one another (visits that, when received, demanded stupendous efforts of said servants to keep the house in pristine condition and prepare the complicated foodstuff that back then played the part of an expensive car and wall-to-wall plasma TV). Men kept themselves busy feigning to work at almost all times (not that different from today), having a drink at public houses (that, then as now, didn’t require the patrons to speak more than a few words if so inclined) and, when confined in the house due to bad weather, played cards and read the newspaper. They may even, in some scarce cases, read some works of speculative thought. It was also assumed that they needed an outlet for their “bodily passions” (that no sane and healthy man could entirely satisfy with his wife), requiring either the maintenance of a full-time mistress or frequent visits to houses of ill-repute that would still consume a good deal of his free time.
Problem was, due to automation feigning to work more than 80 hours a week was starting to get difficult (we are talking about the beginning of the XX century here folks, so do not think in humanoid robots taking the dentists’ jobs yet). The temperance movement made spending many hours a day in the public houses (and the houses of ill-repute) less and less admissible, and there is only so much a man can play cards without wanting to assassinate his playing partners for a change. So, in a possible instance of the old Marxian dictum that society only proposes itself problems it can solve, in came the radio and the birth of mass “culture”, soon to be followed by TV.
Rich societies adopted both radio and TV at a speed that had no parallel in human history (except if you forget the internal combustion engine automobile, which in the less densely populated USA went in a decade from being owned by 0,1% of families to being owned by 99% of them, quite faster than mobile telephony or the internet, regardless of what today’s techno-utopians like to claim). And this is where the second dimension I mentioned before came in handy (the first dimension, remember, was the brute fact of human need to be entertained and receive help to pass the time once basic necessities have been satisfied): some social arrangements are more vulnerable to the threat of massive boredom than others. If a group has agreed that the ultimate goal of life is to excel between you peers in some public pursuit (be it poetry, philosophizing or charioteering -that would be my current understanding of the keystone of dominant reason in classical Greece, btw)) it provides enough incentives to every one of its members to cultivate certain (socially valued) abilities that will be for them meaningful enough as to devote them most if not all of their “free” time. If a society mostly agrees that the only valid end of human life is to prepare for the afterlife according to the precepts laid out by a barely-literate people more than twenty centuries ago (as most of Europe did between the fall of Rome and the demise of baroque reason in the XVIII century) again, they will find better uses of their time (praying, fasting, renouncing, or whatever activity makes the attainment of such afterlife more likely) than to idly seat watching images be rolled in front of them (specially if they can indirectly decide what kind of images they are presented with, and witness how they collective decide for the ones celebrating lust, sloth, greed and wrath, which the aforementioned book tends to condemn as the most despicable vices).
But if a collective has settled on our current desiderative reason, and considers that a) the ultimate end of life is to satisfy desire (or alternatively, to experience the maximum amount of pleasure over pain in a lifespan); b) every desire is but the expression of a single desire: to show to others that you are socially better considered than them and c) the only meaningful, socially sanctioned way of social consideration is having unfettered access to tons and tons of goodies, once you have exhausted your means of ensuring your access to said goodies (i.e. once you have worked your butt off to have as much money as possible given your circumstances) there isn’t much you can do with the rest of your waking time. You may just eliminate such rest, and just devote absolutely 100% of your energies, your every waking hour, to work, and to the undistracted pursuit of more money, but even our ultra-materialistic, ultra-consumerist society seems to have learned that there are limits that it is better to impose on individuals (like we already did with the pursuit of other pleasures, from drinking -and in general using any drug- to boning, which beyond certain limits are loudly and universally frowned upon). Limits that are in some places (Silicon Valley, where a 9 to 5 work schedule is considered as revealing “loser” status, or the financial community) crumbling and actively contested, but globally our society still thinks that people should do “something” apart for work.
How could it be otherwise? If people only worked, who (or when) would thy consume the fruits of such super-intensive labor? And if such fruits (abstract and intangible as they may be) are not to be consumed, or fought for, what is the point in producing them in the first place? Note that the need for consumption commensurate with production is a needed corollary of the final success of our current dominant reason: once there are no alternative societies with which to vie for supremacy the system must either find a super-hyped-up, super-evil “other” to justify the growing sacrifices demanded to its population (even more so in a scenario where people is pushed to 100% production, with almost no time to enjoy themselves the goods produced, that would be mostly diverted to the military-industrial complex) or attain a steady-state equilibrium (acceptance of lack of growth, lack of opportunities of professional advancement for the ambitious young, and likely lack of technological advances and productivity growth due to reduced incentives for them).
Which is really the world we are living in, with both developmental paths open and in an uneasy balance, as we collectively seem unsure about which one to pursue, so we waver between both. Some societies seem more committed to the military-industrial path, lashing around in search of an external enemy strong enough to justify the maintenance of a “weaponized Keynesianism” that can keep the system in a state of perpetual growth to prepare for an ever-growing menace (surely the USA is the country in which such tendency is more marked, and where it has worked better – the other countries where you can see it in play are places like Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran… and China may be the other moderately successful economy toying with the idea of following the nationalistic-militaristic path). Others seem more resigned to the steady state and the accompanying stagnation and likely deflation (Japan and the EU are the poster boys, with much of South East Asia soon to follow). What the little technological development that remains ensure is that given the current levels of productivity, there won’t be much work to go around, regardless of the path chosen. Just as there isn’t now, hence the prevalence of bullshit jobs, make work, high unemployment or low participation levels in the workforce.
What all these societies have in common is the embrace of a dominant reason that precludes any pursuit outside of working more to earn more money and thus be recognized as socially superior. Not just that “undervalues” such pursuits, or that “gives less weight” to them. For our current dominant reason any life-project outside of the crass materialism outlined above is an existential threat, and because of that it is both unintelligible (it can not be “understood”, or compared with the alternative it presents and weighed against it) and dangerous. But let us take stock for a moment about the kind of life projects and interests that have no place in the grand narrative we have collectively settled for, through some examples:
· identifying some transcendent truth and devoting ourselves to it
· choosing a field with a well-recognized set of external criteria of excellence (what MacIntyre called a “practice”) and try to be as good as possible in it, even if it doesn’t give you any money
· caring for other people altruistically (not “reciprocally altruistically”, but for the sheer joy of helping flourish and prosper those we deeply care about, regardless of being paid or even recognized)
I’m not saying that the activities derived from those pursuits are somehow superior or nobler or in any sense “better” than the ones our dominant reason would rather direct us to engage in. Aw, what the heck! Of course I’m sayin’ that! Because what is at the end of the day what desiderative reason beseeches us to do? Watch friggin’ TV so we get more brainwashed into desiring more stuff, which will in turn make us want to work more, or go deeper into debt, but will help keep the whole system spinnin’… Whoa! Some life program, isn’t it? But for some time (was that the secret allure of the 60’s, so difficult to understand from today’s perspective?) it seemed like people were waking up to the emptiness of the value system that wasn’t yet as hegemonic as it is today (what the Marxist critique would call its “internal contradictions”). A system that forbid any “meaningful” activity outside of working for its cancerous, suicidal, perpetual augmentation (regardless of how close it got to running against nature limits through overpopulation and non-renewable resources exhaustion) was at the end of the day a system nobody would want to live in. If the only leisure it could abet was watching a shabby catode-ray tube showing endless commercials barely interrupted by snippets of shoddy story-telling it is no surprise people started flirting with “alternative” lifestyles and different value systems that allowed for more time to be devoted to activities perceived as more “meaningful”, that required a higher level of engagement, that allowed people to find a fulfillment, a contentment that passively watching the tube could not match.
But, alas! The system reacted… there are multiple narrative threads that may contribute to an explanation about how from that momentary weakness the reason dominant back then, instead of evolving and adapting and changing gears just doubled down and succeeded in becoming hegemonic over the whole globe: with the development of identity politics the powers-that-be played different segments of the populace against one another, with the result of having each embrace the overarching value system even more fiercely; the main alternative to dominant reason (embodied in capitalist society) was even more exhausted (it was, after all, communism, the embodiment of bureaucratic reason, an older version of western values); and, last but not least, entertainment technology simply got much better, and fused itself with the dominant ideology more strongly and more subtly, which leads directly to our own days’ flat-screen HD TVs, the internet, mobile telephony, social networks, the golden age of TV shows and, of course, videogames and any time soon Virtual Reality.
Which leads me back to the original thread of this post: “commercial TV”, understood as TV produced by enormous corporations (the “networks”, and most likely the traditional ones, as they are the institutions both well connected to the legislative power and with the knowledge of how the content is produced and distributed and what the customers are willing to spend time watching… see the mostly failed efforts of big Telcos to gain a significant foothold in that turf for well over two decades), distributed for free (although some “carriers” -satellite and fiber- will be able to wring some revenue from taking some premium-quality signal to a substantial number of homes paying for only a fraction of the distribution costs) will still be with us for the foreseeable future. It is just too valuable for the maintenance of the whole civilizational compact to be easily replaced.