August 22, 2006

Television and Social Capital

Category: Miscellaneous,Television :: Permalink

One of the chapters in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone deals with the impact of technology — and television in particular — on social capital, the bonds which tie a society together and which have been replaced in this generation by increasing civic disengagement and isolation.

What has brought about this disengagement?  There’s no one answer, Putnam says.  But a lot of the blame can be placed on television (or at least television as it is often used).  He quotes T. S. Eliot on TV: “It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome” (New York Post, Sept. 29, 1963, cited on p. 217).

The biggest consequence of television, Putnam claims, is that it brings us home (p. 223), so that we’re not involved as much with other people besides (perhaps) our own families.  We can’t be out on Tuesday night!  American Idol is on!  In fact, the American Idol results are on Wednesdays and we don’t want to miss that eitiher.  Besides, Law and Order is on Wednesdays.  And so forth.

Putnam is not claiming, of course, that television benefits family life; rather, television tends to isolate us from our families, too.  Because not everyone wants to watch the same show, many families now have more than on TV on at a time.

In fact, Putnam also suggests that channel surfing may be linked to superficial friendships (p. 226).  Don’t like the guy you’re talking to?  Switch channels.

(Putnam doesn’t discuss the internet, largely because the book was written several years ago, but I suspect that the internet exacerbates this problem.  Just as we channel surf, we surf the web, jumping from page to page, link to link, and so we surf our friends also.  In fact, it’s my impression that there’s something about the internet which breaks down our ability to concentrate.  It’s easy to surf; it’s much harder — or at least for me, I think — to read something online in any depth.  I wonder if researchers will start to see that the internet disrupts our ability to read — or concentrate at all — for sustained periods of time.  Does the internet give us all a case of Attention Deficit Disorder?)

In the end, Putnam concludes that television watching is “the single most consistant predictor of civic disengagement” (p. 231).  The more you watch TV, the less engaged you’ll be in your society.  In fact, the more you watch TV, the more likely you are to give the other driver the finger, too (p. 233).  TV makes us aware of problems … but less likely to do anything about them (p. 242).

In this connection, he quotes an Amish man speaking about “how the Amish know which technological inventions to admit and which to shun”:

We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad tidings.  Certain things we definitely do not want, like the television and the radio.  They would destroy our visiting practices.  We would stay at home with the television or radio rather than meet with other people.  The visiting practices are important because of the closeness of the people.  How can we care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what is going on in their lives? (cited pp. 234-235).

I’m not Amish or Amishly-inclined.  I enjoy TV and radio, watch movies — and read books, for that matter.  But I can see the point this Amish man is making.

I mention books, by the way, because, as Jim Jordan points out in one of his lectures, reading is one of the most anti-social inventions of all time.  When you watch TV, at least you can do that with other people present, but when you’re reading, you lower your head, shut the other people out, and retreat into your own world.  Everything the Amish man says about television here could be said about books, in fact.  If you’re racing through your Dean Koontz novel to see how everything works out, you won’t be inclined to visit with your neighbor.

Nevertheless, I can grant the Amish man’s point only to some degree.  It still seems possible to watch television and listen to the radio — and read books — judiciously.  I admit that many people don’t, but one can limit television watching to a show or two, to read in the evening after everyone else has gone home, to make a point of getting involved in the community and visiting fellow church members and chatting with your neighbours at least sometime during the week, even if you don’t do it on the one or two evenings when your favorite show is on.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:41 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Television and Social Capital”

  1. Pacman Says:

    Good food for thought. Gotta go – off to the next web page.

  2. Elliot Says:

    Well, everything in moderation, right?

  3. Kata Iwannhn » Institutions and Charity Says:

    […] I suspect that Berry is right, that there has been a loss of community, due in part to increased mobility but also to television, which keeps people home at night and away from their neighbors, and to other factors, not so easy to trace.  Elsewhere in this essay, Berry also talks about specialization and the way that specialists tend to form their own ghettoes, all focused on the same area, even if they don’t actually live in the same vicinity.  A lot of what Berry is getting at is that life in cities tends to be relatively impersonal, and that has effects on our charity and our care for our neighbors. […]

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