The role of television in the spread of consumerism and voyeurism

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At the core of understanding how television affects society is the relationship between television and consumerism. Television allows people to consume images that otherwise most people would not have access to in the course of a typical life.

However, while this might sound like a benefit – and the industries constantly remind consumers of this benefit – television is not simply about seeing new and different things. It is primarily about selling. Television programming evolved hand-in-hand with consumerism, first in its birthplace in America in the mid-20th century, but increasingly everywhere else in the world too. Television has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe. It has also spread voyeurism, a more insidious form of consumerism, in the way it reveals what used to be private aspects of human life to public view. Television has normalized consumerism and voyeurism, and in turn these cultural preferences, encouraged by television, exert an influence over the medium, so that there is a relationship of reciprocity between television and society. The TV industries monitor this give-and-take by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programmes to what they perceive as the interests of their consumer-viewers.

Most people are unaware that their viewing habits are carefully monitored, and the television industries have created what they call “audiences,” which are really market segments, to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any other commodity. Although people think that they are sitting at home watching the tube, the tube is also, in a sense, watching them, and their viewing habits are traded in the marketplace.

In a sense, television has created a universe of what some have called “hyper-reality,”: the reality of television seems to be more real to viewers than real reality. This intertwines with another feature of the television society: the appearance of what some have labelled the “simulacra”: copies without originals. Because the electronic images seen on the television screen look real, the mind is fooled – unless viewers constantly remind themselves that they are not real, which spoils the viewing experience. Viewers are fooled into living mentally and emotionally in a world with no place limits, no time limits, no limits of any sort: a place whose origins are obscured and hidden; a world in which long-dead people still make audiences laugh, and viewers are disappointed when they meet an ageing actor who does not look like his television-image. In this world people sit transfixed by what is essentially an electronic box emanating coloured lights, at the cost of living in the reality around them, face to face with other people. In short, television fosters a consumerist society and creates a society of people detached from their own real world.

The most commonly consumed images on television are those of sex and death. This is for two reasons. First, sex and death as depicted on television are self-evident, and do not need character build-up or explanation, or even language. Second, human beings are fascinated by sex and death, which in and of themselves are not necessarily bad but, when turned into spectacles and commodities, can create pathological relationships that result in a sort of television-induced numbness.

Sexuality is the basis of an intimate relationship between two people, yet television has turned it into a public spectacle. Many people now see their first intimations of sexuality on television. But it has to be understood that, in addition to the obvious moral issues at stake, these images intrude on reality, create a reality larger than reality, a hyper-reality, thereby generating expectations that can never be met by reality, namely expectations of beauty, passion and success. Talking about sexuality used to be something negotiated by people in the context of their own culture, in their family, community and society. Television has intervened, forcing this discussion to take place in a way framed by Western culture.

In one sense this is intrusive, but in another it requires a new way to relate to these seemingly private issues, since, unless we burn all the televisions, video-machines and personal computers, these images are here to stay, so they are a challenge to Muslim societies to find ways to deal with them with some degree of sophistication. This begins with realizing that human intimacy has been turned into cheap imagery by the Western entertainment industries. People can become obsessed with these images, to the detriment of their own dealings with other humans, at which point television becomes politics. One satellite-television owner famously proclaimed: “I will conquer the Muslim world with sex.” This is not a military conquest but a cultural conquest. The entertainment industries have two overall goals: to make money and, more importantly, to convert people into voyeuristic consumers who have become completely distracted from reality.

The irony of consumption is that it is rarely overtly forced, and is almost always ostensibly voluntary, so it is dangerous to imply a one-way cause-and-effect relationship between television and society. So many people would not take to American entertainment so readily if they were not somehow already deficient or denatured in some basic components that enable healthy human dealings. So the weightier, more important question is about what has happened to Muslim cultures, to their forms of entertainment and other activities, that encourages people to consume éentertainment’ from the market, and from the Western culture industries. These culture industries are run by powerful interests that involve the highest levels of business and government, and there is little that most consumers can do to effect change on that level, except to stop watching and stop consuming, thereby depriving the market of its main commodity. If Muslims could teach themselves to become producers of culture, instead of consumers, then we could realise that the problem relates to broader issues than just the “effect” of television on society.

Why have Muslims become consumers? Islamic civilization used to be productive; now Muslims are consumptive: we used to be active and creative; now we are passive and derivative. This change demands a sophisticated diagnosis that links television to the issue of production/consumption. It is not enough to tell young people not to watch movies, if they feel that they do not have anything else to do. We need more than one strategy to address this problem. One could be to encourage the original, indigenous local, authentic cultures, especially those activities that involve direct face-to-face human interaction. If people must be entertained electronically and technologically, then some standards can be raised, perhaps by encouraging the kind of productions that are presently coming out of Iran and Syria. While not all of what they do is going to solve this problem, they at least provide some alternatives to the Western culture industries.

It is very difficult to protect children from something as pervasive and intrusive as television, and that is the tragedy of what amounts to a large-scale cultural incursion into Muslim societies. We should all probably watch less television, first of all, not just on moral grounds, but in order to “roll back” consumerism, voyeurism and hyper-reality. In terms of making children into consumers, even ‘clean’ shows such as Sesame Street are guilty. In fact, despite what many parents think, ‘educational’ American TV shows (Sesame Street is just one of a multitude) teach children two main things: how to watch television, and how to become consumers. When they get older, their tastes may evolve to more “adult content,” but the practice of consuming has already been instilled in early childhood. This is a warning against the usual parental strategy of limiting children to watching things like Barney and Sesame Street (and their recent Third World clones): these programmes are as much a part of the problem as the immoral programming that most people lament. There is always the simple answer of using the remote to flip channels, and there is also talk of developing a chip for digital televisions that filters out some messages (which the industry is fighting hard).

However, voluntarily eliminating television from our lives should also be a possibility. In fact, despite its pervasiveness, millions of people around the world are voluntarily turning off their televisions. There is even a movement, that began in the US, which involves family organizations, churches and schools, that promotes “TV Turnoff Week”, during the last week of April (www.tvfa.org). This has been going on for several years, and provides a relatively painless way to reflect on the content of television, and especially on the absence of television, and what can be done with that absence. Muslims can begin with these kinds of activities, as a voluntary device to get the discussions going, especially about the role of television in their own families and societies, and what a post-television society might be like.

Many people lament the way television has affected education. The phenomenon of “infotainment” has radically altered children’s expectations of schooling. Teachers have noticed and pointed out that television has shortened children’s attention-spans and curtailed their ability to concentrate, and rendered obsolescent things like lectures and discussions in classrooms, which are being replaced by gimmicks and games. This is because television changes the terms of the relationships within which knowledge is exchanged and transmitted. Schools used to be like factories, dreary, gray places of regimentation, uniformity and conformity, but now they are becoming places of “fun.” So, instead of gray paint on the walls, one can now find colourful Disney characters. But is that really an improvement? It used to be that students respected teachers but now, in the name of fun, students challenge teachers and defy them.

Perhaps, as parents, we need to reframe the entire discussion: the issue is not replacing gray schools with pink ones, but that the entire prospectus of schooling should be rethought: the whole idea of keeping children cooped up in cages for six hours a day, five days a week, ten months a year, for between twelve and fifteen years of their lives. Television has created a consumer society addicted to “fun”, but at the same time the sense of what is fun and what is boring is also being defined by the same industries that provide the “fun” solutions to seemingly boring lives. It is a vicious circle that must be broken: this involves redefining the terms of the debate, and seeing issues in a new way. Why have parents and teachers let the culture industries of the West, through the medium of television, define the meaning of “fun”? What did people do for “fun” before these industries took it over?

Some scholars have pointed out that television has moved the West from a text-based to an image-based society, and that this has had a profound effect on cognition and understanding. However, the applicability of this thesis to other societies that have not followed the same trajectory as the West is questionable. Many societies are oral-based, rather than text-based, and others involve a combination of orality and literacy. Muslim society is an interesting hybrid, when one thinks, for example, about the relationship between orality and literacy in Islamic history, with the hadith “literature” as a case in point. Orality, literacy, text and images can be part of any healthy society, but the question is to what degree these should be determined by local conditions rather than distant institutions. For example, television replaces a significant activity of most societies: the practice of storytelling. Before television, and with fewer books, people used to tell each other stories. How is it that most societies have turned over the primary role of storytelling to the entertainment industries? Instead of telling each other stories, something that human beings have done since time immemorial, with or without books, most people now sit passively and let Hollywood, “Bollywood” or some other institution (other cinema companies and television companies, mainly) tell stories. And, because these institutions are market-oriented, it is in their interest that everyone consumes the same few kinds of stories, so as to increase market shares and sizes.

Another aid to understanding the television society is the realisation that technology is not value-free. All technologies embody cultural assumptions, and all technologies have profound, and often unanticipated, cultural and social repercussions. The problem is not just the content of television; its form is a factor as well. The form involves technological issues, such as television versus the personal computer, and it also involves formalities of presentation, such as conventions of storytelling in a particular medium. So there are three areas to consider: 1) the actual content of a movie or programme, the stories that are told; 2) the formalities of storytelling utilized in that medium, i.e. how the stories are told; and 3) the overarching messages from the form of technology used to tell the stories. All of these are culture-bound, and culture can intervene at all levels. Obviously, one way to intervene is to gain control of the stories being told. Toward this end, there are worthwhile efforts afoot in Iran and Syria, and a few other places, where stories are being told with local cultures in mind.

The formalities of storytelling also have space for intervention. To illustrate, it may be instructive to compare two Arabic-language satellite-television stations. Both feature “talk shows” whose guests discuss the issues of the day. One channel has adopted the American convention of holding the discussion as a rude argument, to the extent that guests are coached by their hosts to interrupt each other and get emotional, and even yell and scream. The other channel eschews this American convention, and allows each speaker to finish making a point in a more mutually respectful format. The first channel adopts the conventions of American programmes such Oprah, which sacrifice content to ratings and style, while the second channel has constructed its own way of dealing with live discussions, one that places promoting understanding of issues above ratings and style. The argumentative American-style approach may be entertaining and exciting to watch, like a football game, but viewers are left with impressions, not with any knowledge or understanding of the issue that was ‘discussed’.

The third area, that of technology and how it embodies culture, is too sophisticated a matter to deal with properly in a brief essay. In short, it has been documented that Western technologies, from computers to spaceships, embody Western cultural assumptions about cosmology, divinity, epistemology, humanity and methodology. The Western technologies embody the beliefs of a form of Western Christianity known as “millenarianism”, which sees technology in terms of the redemption of humanity: not redemption through prayer or living a good life, as the great religions teach, but of redemption through technology, with scientists and technicians becoming the new priesthood in what amounts to a secular religion, leading their helpless flocks toward utopia, a paradise on earth created by technology. Western technologies such as television and computers are non-neutral and non-value-free, and in their modern forms they embody the deepest cultural assumptions of Western civilization. To adopt these technologies, in their present form and content, is simply and finally to adopt Western culture. It is not yet too late for Muslims to start being more careful and more critical about the consequences and implications of such adoptions.

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