Friday, January 28, 2005

One Idea by Norman Mailer*

The premise of Mailer's condemnation of advertising on TV is that the constant interruption of 30 second commercials, that in total now add to 33% of the air time, is the cause of short attention spans in children. I disagree with this premise. It is true that children have shorter attention spans now but I believe that we have to look elsewhere for the cause.
Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind blames our philosophies. And he bemoans the loss of literacy in the college students he sees. This unfortunately has become the rally cry for the conservative return to traditional values. This is also not a workable solution.
Marshal McLuhan predicted that we had entered a post literate age. This he believed was the result of our physics and our media. He coined the phrase, "the medium is the message", that real effects of media, which are the extensions of man, are not ordinarily perceptible to man. Television itself, along with all of the other "electric" media (McLuhan's term) are the root cause of our post literacy.

Literacy, with its Western alphabet, fundamentally changed our perceptions of time and space from preliterate times. Euclidean geometry and linear time go hand in hand with literacy. The reading of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books train the mind for long attention spans.
All our perceptions of time and space and how we think about them are being changed again as we move into the post literate age.

Television required a new type of mental processing as the visual image we "see" really is never there. It is a mosaic of flashing lights (pixels), that like speech, exists only in the present. The mind puts everything together. And, the data provided to us can be nearly instantaneous.
I believe that it wouldn't matter what the content of television was, the impact on us would have been the same, even if it were all PBS like programming. As a matter of fact, look at Sesame Street. Observe how they have to make it so fast paced in order to keep children interested.
I have even observed some teenagers with a remote control clicking back and forth between two or even three programs at the same time increasing the fragmentation of the messages they receive.

Mailer's solution is the call for commercial free television. To a certain extent we have that already in public television, some cable television, pay per view, and DVDs. Look how quickly advertising has crept into these forms as well.

The unifying religion of our society is the consumer driven open market. This is what we export to other countries that so appall some. Since our Declaration of Independence we have been in "pursuit of happiness." We are on the journey to happiness, but never seem to arrive. Advertising exists because it works. Otherwise, it would have disappeared long ago. It is one of the linchpins of our consumer driven economy.

Our now almost complete worship of the free and open market as the arbitrator of what's good in our society puts ever increasing pressures on business to make larger and larger profits. Since ads work and can lead to increased profits, the value of advertising increases and the time allocated to advertising gets larger.

This paradigm is not easily changed.

"Bad news engages the viewer's participation in what McLuhan recognized as a collective surge of intense consciousness (a 'process that makes the content of the item seem quite secondary') and sets him up for the good news, which is more expensively produced" notes Lewis Lapham in his introduction to the MIT Press Edition of McLuhan's Understanding Media. (Remember, in McLuhan's terms, TV is a cool medium, i.e. it engages the viewer to participate.) The lesson plan:

* the bad news
* the smiling anchor person
* the good news

What do we learn: Things are bad, but if you use these products or services your life will be better.

Unfortunately we need the good news in our life. It fills our need in pursuit of happiness.

Paul Schumann

* Norman Mialer, "One Idea", Parade Magazine, 1/23/05 and
Roy Williams, Voices of Dissent, 1/24/05,

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