Distraction by design: Observations on Television

Distraction by Design: Observations on Television

Over three years ago, I stopped watching TV. I didn’t have one in the house I was in, so I just stopped. At first, it was strange to not constantly have noise and visual distraction. But soon, I didn’t miss it. I preferred the silence and space to think, giving myself time to immerse myself in reading and writing. Television felt mind-numbing in comparison. I did not miss switching my brain off. In the same way as I occasionally need to disconnect from the internet to improve my attention, I never got another television because I found myself more attentive and more engaged with the world around me. As these things usually go, it soon became a pledge. I didn’t need television and I could no longer understand the obsession with it. Sure, this removed me out of a lot of conversations, but I preferred the space and time not watching the box gave me.

Watching television is essentially a passive act. You sit while not taking part in anything. Reading is also passive, but I have found it engages my brain in a way that television doesn’t. I think of new ideas and learn new things. I have not found that to be the case with television. It is not that the form is inherently bad because there are swathes of fantastic television out there, interesting drama and brilliant educational documentaries. The problem comes with passive watching, surfing channels to find something to watch just for the sake of it. Filling endless evenings with shows you do not care about.

So without television, I have found some peace and worked harder to improve myself.  I watch the occasional show, but only on catch up and only once or twice a week. But in the last couple of weeks, the news has been on in the office at the day job and I have found myself staring at the idiot box once more. Here are a few things I have noticed:

Advertising is loud and distracting by design

I had forgotten what television adverts were like. I had missed out on most of them and was able to block the majority of adverts out from my life. I found myself buying things because I needed them instead of what I thought I wanted. Watching television again, I realise how loud and crass most of them are. This is by design as they only have thirty seconds to hammer themselves into your head. They need to be as loud and attention grabbing as possible to force your attention to the screen. They are unsubtle in their messages, even less than I remember. Buy this and your life will improve. Use our service and we will save you time. Your dreams will come true. It’s such an incessant, unrelenting narrative that it is hard to see why anyone would fall for it. But we do because even if you are a snob like me, television hammers the adverts into your brain every 15 minutes. If you watch the same channel for long enough you can quote the adverts word for word. Adverts crawl into your head through constant repetition.

TV is designed for the lowest common denominator

No surprise here. Like advertising, this was something I knew already, even when I was watching it regularly. This has just become more obvious from the continual absence. There are constant recaps of what you have already seen and summaries of what is coming up. It is intentional, as it allows you to jump in at any point and continue watching. It also captures your attention as you wait for upcoming segments. The problem is, it removes the educate part from educate, inform and entertain. There is the opportunity to learn so much about the world, but 90% of television will not educate anyone. Ask yourself, when was the last time you actually learnt something new from a program on television. It treats the audience as if they were stupid in order not to alienate anyone and to keep your attention for as long as possible. Why? To sell you more stuff of course.

Rolling news is terrible

90% of the programs are a waste of time. Sure, every so often there is The Wire or Planet Earth, but the majority are pointless diversions to capture your attention. This is doubly true of rolling news. I think I had watched it in passing before, in reception areas or to see the headlines. Having it constantly on in the office shows me how painful it is. With hours to fill, the news should be able to cover a range of issues, informing the public on multiple events happening around the world. Instead, it focuses on three or four stories a day and discusses them endlessly. Everything has to be a debate no matter how minor the point or how petty the argument. This does not increase complexity as you might imagine but reduces everything to a simple binary. Rolling news spend most of the day speculating about events that it knows are going to happen, showing those events, then spending the rest of the day talking about what actually happened. The only use for rolling news is when a world-changing event happens, but those are incredibly rare. It’s a waste of time and space for the majority of its existence.

Despite it all, I still can’t help watching.

My eyes get continually drawn to television’s movement, lulled by its bright lights. A story on the rolling news will catch my attention, usually about Brexit or Trump and the like. I will usually disagree and it will give me something to be angry about. I know all of what I have argued is true and yet I cannot stop watching. The tactics used to capture people’s attention are still effective on me. Of course they are, they have been refined over years to be irresistible.

I don’t blame anyone for wanting some escape after a hard day at work. Life is hard and people need to escape from it sometimes, turn their brain off and switch off and I get that. At the moment as well, television drama is the best it has ever been. I get the appeal of following different stories over multiple weeks. But I think it is worth being attentive to what watch and to ask yourself if you are actually getting anything out of the experience. Too often television becomes the default entertainment for an evening and too often people become passive slaves to the glowing box in the corner.


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