Medium Supremacy

by Tom Ingram

I’d like to take a moment to say a few words about this guy:

Ray Bradbury

That is science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. He’s best known for the 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, a book about a future where the government burns books. Many people are great fans of this book, because of what it has to say on the subject of censorship. However, recently Bradbury has said that this wasn’t his intention at all. Apparently what he was trying to say is that television makes people stupid. There are some theories out there that Bradbury may have had a political motive for claiming this, but that’s not relevant to the current discussion. Bradbury is well-known for his views on the subject of television. You need look no further than his famous short story “The Veldt” and its line “I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell”.

In fact, you hardly need to look to old science-fiction authors to hear this opinion. It’s a fairly common thing. You hear it from teachers, from your friends, from parents. “You shouldn’t watch that stuff. It’ll turn your brain to mush” is the prevailing opinion about television (which is counterintuitive considering how popular it is). Is this actually true?

I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not interested in doing a double-blind study on the effect of television on intelligence. But the same applies to the other side, the people saying that TV is evil. It’s nothing but arrogant, alarmist propaganda. One of the things you see after spending any significant amount of time on the website TV Tropes is that all fiction is just new and creative ways of ripping off the Epic of Gilgamesh, which in turn was probably ripped off from something else that hasn’t survived. Since fiction is all made of the same gooey stuff (known in that neck of the woods as “tropes”), one medium can’t be inherently superior to another. Certainly they’re all different in some ways and similar in others. One medium might be better suited for certain tasks than another. But you can’t say that one is “better” than the other.

This attitude toward TV and new media in general is usually accompanied by the idea that there’s some sort of massive societal decay going on. Throughout the history of the world, there have been peaks and vallies of cultural development, and naturally we are on our way down a valley because there’s no way we could possibly be good in any way. It’s part of the idea of “the good old days”, when children read books more and ethnics weren’t allowed on golf courses. You don’t need to go far to find people utterly destroying the notion of “the good old days”. They only seem good because only the goodness has survived. The bad stuff has been forgotten or whitewashed, all that’s left is images of children playing happily.

It would seem, if the howlers are to be believed, that the evilness of a medium is inversely proportional to its age. Books, which became common around four hundred years ago and were still around a good long time before that, are of course the gold standard. Theatre is just a rung below that–the English department’s perrenial favourite object of affection is Shakespeare. Next comes film, which is about a hundred years old. Thus it is capable of producing serious, introspective works but usually squanders its talent on movies about aliens. Television, which is only about half as old, is very near the bottom of this multi-storey outhouse. In its infancy it produced a very small number of shows that were mildly entertaining (though they never tackled the Big Issues that only literature is capable of handling), but all that crap that’s on now is just the government’s nefarious mind-control propaganda, which turns your brain to mush. Video games and the internet, it seems, get the worst deal. Video games have only become really common in the last twenty years, meaning of course that they are the great Satan. Never mind that they are an exercise in strategy, planning, and hand-eye coordination, or that the storytelling is all interactive (meaning you have to make decisions rather than just sitting around and having things spoonfed to you, like in literature). They’re evil. The internet, rather than being a new way of thinking about a not-so-new medium, is polluting the minds of our children with useless factoids and pornography.

Looking back on Mr. Bradbury, I want to address the line quoted earlier from “The Veldt”. Peter, the homicidally deranged young boy, tells his father “I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell”. Clearly this is a scathing critique of TV, because when you’re watching TV, you’re doing nothing but sitting there idly, with drool hanging out of your mouth. That’s entirely unlike reading a book, which looks like sitting there…idly…possibly with drool hanging out of your mouth, depending on the person. There are thoughts running around your head during both a TV show and a book. They probably function differently, but to suggest that they’re completely absent is ridiculous. TV and literature are both ways of communicating ideas to people. How the idea gets into your head is irrelevant. It’s what you do with it once it gets there that’s important. Being a lazy, uncritical reader is exactly as bad as being a lazy, uncritical viewer.

This arrogant “medium supremacy” is harmful. Critical viewers might be driven away by the perception that TV is all explosions and propaganda. In a vicious cycle, that perception will become stronger, and eventually it could end up becoming true. Can you imagine missing out on a work of fiction you might love, just because of an old luddite bastard like Ray Bradbury?