The Zen TV Experiment

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If you watch television, you should take a look at this post. It’s a repost of an article that first appeared in Adbusters Magazine on the effects of television on individuals and society. It proposes four experiments to attempt at home. I did this, and I recommend you do it to.

1) Watch TV for 10 minutes and count the technical events.

What is a technical event? We’ve all seen TV cameras in banks and jewelry stores. A stationary video camera simply recording what’s in front of it is what I will call “pure TV.” Anything other than pure TV is a technical event: the camera zooms up, that’s a technical event; you are watching someone’s profile talking and suddenly you are switched to another person responding, that’s a technical event; a car is driving down the road and you also hear music playing, that’s a technical event. Simply count the number of times there is a cut, zoom, superimposition, voice-over, appearance of words on the screen, fade in/out, etc.

For this test, I watched the first 10 minutes of this episode of my namesake show. In that 10 minutes I counted 223 technical events, and then I realized I didn’t count any audio effects!

2) Watch any TV show for 15 minutes without turning on the sound.

For this, I simply muted the volume on the same show and watched the remainder.

3) Watch any news program for 15 minutes without turning on the sound.

It took a while for me to find a recording of an actual news program online (I needed 15 contiguous minutes, and the news sites only offer clips) but I finally found this on Hulu.

4) Watch television for one half hour without turning it on.

I must admit that I haven’t done this yet. I want to do the experiment, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to waste a half hour sitting in front of a turned off television.

So, What’s the Point?

Well, the point is that television is messing with your mind. All the technical events that occur in a normal TV show make for a very disjointed set of scenes that we have trained our brains to assemble into a narrative.

Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that’s as far as television goes. The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What’s worse, it is filled with someone else’s obsessive thoughts and images.

Watching the TV without the sound makes it more difficult to connect with the story and therefore easier to observe all the technical events occurring. Switching to a news program you realize that there are fewer technical events.

With fewer technical events the news show appears realistic relative to other shows in the TV environment. Further, it appears super-realistic relative to the commercial shows in this environment. As earlier, we witnessed the joining of technical events in a coherent narrative. Here, we witness the reduction of worldly events into a narrative.

I admit I haven’t yet stared at a blank TV for a half hour, but I imagine two things would occur to me. First, I would realize just exactly how long a half hour feels, and I would be bothered by the things I could be doing with that time. Second, I would see the TV for what it is, an object, instead of what it is not, a companion.

If one is alone in one’s room and turns on the TV, one actually doesn’t feel alone anymore. It’s as if companionship is experienced, as if communication is two-way.

Again, So What?

This does make for an interesting, if not disturbing, academic discussion, but it is not fruitful unless a behavioral change occurs. I encourage you to make your own resolutions. As for me, I am making a deliberate effort to watch less TV. This is actually something I started doing a while back when we canceled our cable. There are still some shows I enjoy watching, and I will continue to watch them. I don’t think I’m going to start watching any new shows, and I’m definitely going to stop watching shows I find myself complaining about. To do otherwise would just be stupid. Tonight, for example, I elected to write this blog post instead of watching The Office or some other show.

Maybe one day I’ll stop watching TV altogether (although I have no plans to cease watching the Dallas Cowboys, no matter how frustrating of an experience that may be). I don’t want to bind myself to a statement I won’t be able to live up to. At least for now, I feel encouraged to read more.

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