Is TV Reality Creator or Reality Killer?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
Korea's infatuation with TV is quite alarming. Its moods, thoughts and action-decisions are virtually dictated through the TV medium. With this comes the danger of ``altered reality," now poised to take on Korea just as it has already invaded and occupied the United States.
Years ago, media guru Marshall McLuhan said, ``Media is the message." In the beginning of our modern media era, mainly dominated by television, what he meant was that our reality is so intertwined with the media that just being on the box makes something become part of our reality regardless of whether it is truly real or not. Thus the media itself becomes our reality.
Today we witness a different stage in our media evolution, one that I would call the ``post-media" stage. In this post-media era, what once constituted our reality has come to destroy our reality. In other words, the television that shapes and determines our reality has become the television that kills that very reality. This has happened to the United States already and is about to happen in Korea as well.
At this stage of the post-modern media era, what used to demand most of our intelligence (say, 95 percent of it) to comprehend now requires so little of our intelligence (say, 5 percent) to comprehend. This is to say, our reality has disappeared from our view. How did this happen?
Let's review the historical progression of communication media so that we understand how reality has disappeared from us. The percentage figures are my own estimates.
(1) Oral stage: About 95 percent of our intelligence needed. Here, the medium of communication is predominantly oral, normally in a person-to-person encounter. Writing, although existent, is used as a supplementary medium to the oral method.
In this form of communication, the receiver of the message needs to use at least 95 percent of his mental capacity to be involved in the transaction and comprehend the reality involved in this form of message transmission.
Without the 95 percent level of concentration, comprehending and remembering what is said would be impossible, as meaning would be lost if the concentration is less than almost total. The Jewish tradition of orally transmitted messages, before the writing was invented, belongs to this medium of communication. This mode of communication, combined with individual scribing, continues through the invention of printing.
(2) Printed medium stage: About 70 percent of our intelligence needed. Then comes the age of printed words as the predominant mode of transmission of messages. Now, the communication is between printed ideas, namely words and their readers. The reader is not as attentive or concentrated as the oral-message recipient because of the very nature of one-way printed words (the message is written down before him), but he needs at least 70 percent of his mental-intellectual capacity to comprehend the ideas embedded in the message. Also, the transmitted messages might be more complex than what is orally constructed and exchanged.
At any rate, this relatively high level of concentration is necessary because the recipient of written messages lacks help ― such as with pictures or body language ― with his printed words. The reader must connect the words in the message to the stored series of knowledge in his brain to make the words comprehensible, as the words (a combination of lines, squiggles and dots) do not make any sense in themselves, unlike the pictures, until they are comprehended by the brain's previously-stored knowledge that gives meaning to the words when read. Thus, reading requires quite an active mind that participates in the comprehension of the written messages.
(3) Auditory medium stage: About 50 percent our intelligence needed. This is the age of radio transmission of messages. It is ``broadcast" from a single source to a massive number of listeners, which is the beginning of the mass transmission that has seen us become familiar with television later. Because it is no longer a person-to-person transfer of ideas, from the writer to the reader, the intelligence required to comprehend the message drops further. Hearing a broadcast message, a relatively immediate experience that passes quickly, is different from reading a written message in that the message thus heard must be simple and dramatic enough to be comprehended instantly.
Also, the nature of radio transmission allows association of certain sounds with certain ideas, such as laughter to indicate ``happiness," that was not possible with the printed medium. About 50 percent of our intelligence is enough to comprehend this massive broadcast transmission. Listener concentration drops further if the transmission is made of sounds, such as ``music," which requires even less than 50-percent to comprehend.
(4) TV picture medium stage: About 20 percent of our intelligence needed. Arrival of the TV medium radically alters the level of attentiveness. Basically television is a ``graphic" medium, with its sound-based support, which requires very little of audience comprehension. Now, the audience sees, hears and feels the message all at once. If the item is a fire, the audience sees the flame, hears the sound of burning, and feels the agony of victims, all in one single process.
The computer, the successor to television, is an extended TV medium and functions essentially the same way. This immediacy of the message transmitted radically drops audience attentiveness, as there is really no need to pay attention.
As pictures tell the whole story at a glance, there is nothing much to ``comprehend" in the message on the screen. What is on the TV screen is all self-evident, self-explanatory and self-comprehended. If a cop chases a robber and fires his gun and kills the robber, all on the TV screen, what's there really to comprehend?
Accordingly, this TV-picture medium requires no more than 20 percent of audience attentiveness in the transmission process. By setting the requirement at the 20-percent level, I am actually being quite conservative with my estimate. In reality, it might be as low as 10 percent or even less.
(5) TV as reality killer stage: About 5 percent of our intelligence needed. This is the aforementioned ``post-media" era in which our reality is understood only through TV picture-messages that hardly any active comprehension is necessary and only minimum mental capacity is required to comprehend the messages on the screen.
At this stage, now fully developed in the United States, the audience gives just a few seconds to switch from one picture-message to another, until they find one that would hold their attention. But as soon as one switches from Picture-Message X to Picture-Message Y, all that one saw in Picture-Message X vanishes instantly from the viewer's comprehension or memory. The TV medium being entirely made up of pictures, what one sees is instantly comprehended when seen, and instantly forgotten when not seen. If the viewer remembered what he saw in Picture-Message X when he switches the channel to Picture-Message Y, Z, etc., the confusion would be so great that nothing but chaos would ensue. The vanished memories save us from this chaos.
Why is retaining the message of one picture impossible when one switches to another picture? It has to do with the nature of ``seeing." Seeing is the most dominant of the human senses along with hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. Our ``thinking" is difficult, or almost impossible, unless our senses are turned off or minimized. One simple example in our daily experiences is listening to the music on the radio while trying to compose a letter; we end up either listening to the music and forgetting to compose or composing but not hearing the music at all.
The effect of seeing the picture on the TV screen is many times the effect of hearing, to the extent that we cannot think of anything else when we see the picture-messages on the screen. Our brain function that helps us think shuts down completely when we switch from one screen to the next. When the last screen has been turned off, virtually nothing remains of Picture-Message of X, Y or Z.
How much credibility of reality would we give to those Picture-Messages we see on television that we can switch off at will, and from which we remember virtually nothing once it is out of sight? The answer is simple: Virtually nothing, as we tend to respect only those realities that we cannot readily alter or click into nothing.
Here is the supreme irony of our post-media era and TV as the reality killer. Almost everything we know of our reality-in politics, economics, cultural events, disasters, celebrity comings and goings, whatever-we get to know thorough television. Yet, since the TV-medium requires virtually nothing of our intelligent effort to comprehend it or remember its message, our sense of reality vanishes with this vanished requirement for our thinking.
The television that creates our reality is now simply killing off the reality it creates and gives to us, to make room for the next series of picture-messages that will vanish just as quickly from our intelligence or memory.
Both in the United States now and in Korea just around the corner, the TV medium is leading us to be a land of sleepwalkers and zombies who only remember and comprehend the few precious seconds of picture viewing that is presented in front of them.
Korea, beware: television giveth, and television taketh away!
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.