Out of Focus

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin




THE BOTTOM LINE: An original and invigorating look at what TV tells us about the world, and what it leaves out.

HERE, IN THE PARLANCE OF HOLlywood, is a high-concept idea. Bill McKibben, a contributor to the New Yorker and author of The End of Nature, decided to take a look at what television tells us — and doesn’t tell us — about the world we live in. So he set up two representative days. For one 24-hour period, he taped and watched every minute of programming (more than 2,000 hours’ worth) on all 93 channels in the Fairfax County, Va., cable system. On the other day, he lolled around a pond and did some hiking in the Adirondack Mountains. His conclusion: despite the unceasing torrent of news, commercials, televangelists, sitcoms and game shows, TV provides an incomplete and distorted picture of our world — a picture that “masks and drowns out the subtle and vital information contact with the real world once provided.”

This back-to-basics experiment seems, at first blush, naive and obvious. Does one really need a walk in the woods to discover that TV has too many sitcoms, or that the Home Shopping Network is crass? Well, maybe we do. The Age of Missing Information is an invigorating, even revelatory look at what the TV age hath wrought.

Nearly every page has something fresh to say, or a fresh spin to put on things that have grown terminally familiar. TV, McKibben observes, celebrates unlimited consumption and economic expansion; a day on the mountain reminds us that the natural world is a place of limits, of cyclical time, of death. Though it links the world in a “global village,” TV erodes the sense of community, both by obliterating regional distinctions (all anchormen have the same accent) and by lampooning the community of shared values portrayed by TV in the ’50s. The medium fosters a “weirdly foreshortened” sense of history by endlessly reliving and re-examining the past 40 years (the period, of course, in which television has existed). The effect is to make the past four decades seem to us “utterly normative” — when, in fact, they are a radical departure from any period that came before.

Most important, TV diverts our attention from nature’s “one great secret”: man is not the center of the universe. “The idea of standing under the stars and feeling how small you are — that’s not a television idea,” says McKibben. “Everything on television tells you the opposite — that you’re the most important person, and that people are all that matter.”

McKibben’s environmentalist agenda is never far from the surface. Our disconnection from the real world, he argues, has blinded us to the urgency of the ecological crises facing us, from global warming to the wasteful use of finite resources. One doesn’t have to believe TV is all to blame for this to heed McKibben’s lessons about the omnipresent box. Like turn it off once in a while.

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