It all started when I decided to cancel cable.
About a month ago, I got a letter from Cablevision, informing me that my monthly rates were about to increase. At that point, I evaluated the situation, as follows. I watch only about 3 hours of television per week. The rest of the time, it’s just on as background noise, while I am doing something on the computer. There are only two shows that I like to tune in to regularly – The Daily Show and The Colbert Report – which adds up to about 20 minutes of actual programming. However, lately, I’ve just been going to the (seemingly legal) sites that stream the funniest clips from those programs the very next day.
With that in mind, I made the call.
Hello, this is Frank, how may I help you?
I would like to cancel cable.
What do you mean?
I don’t want to pay for cable TV anymore.
Really? Have you heard of our low introductory offer for premium channels, such as HBO and Cinemax?
I think, maybe, I am not being very clear.
Ms. Paley, let me ask you, where do you intend to get television service?
I don’t intend to get television service.
[about 30 seconds of silence]
Well what about news?
I like to read the newspaper, and I visit a lot of Internet sites. Also, there’s NPR, which I stream to my computer. For free.
Well what about movies and original programming?!!
The New York Public Library has a very large assortment of movies on DVD, and Amazon sells collections of entire seasons of pretty much all the shows. You heard of Amazon, haven’t you? And the library? Do you know where the library is Frank?
[more silence, and I’m becoming less amused and more annoyed]
Sports! What about sports!?
Do you remember when Cablevision had that huge dispute with the Yankees, and I couldn’t get the YES network for about a month while they were working out the details of their contract? Well, that’s when I started listening to baseball on the radio, and realized that I actually prefer it that way!
This went on for a little while longer. But eventually, he informed me that I would be added to a special “watch list” of people who cancel cable without an explanation. And with that ominous warning, I was allowed to break free.
I was very surprised that this was such a huge ordeal. Who was this guy? Why did he take it so personally? Maybe he recently bought Cablevision stock. But what did my measly 50 dollars a month mean for their bottom line anyway? Plus, I am still shelling out a huge chunk of cash each month for digital phone and Internet service. In the next few weeks I realized why he was so upset. Essentially, I was putting into question the very foundation of our society.
Week 1: I lose 3 pounds. This is unexpected, because I am not dieting, and I am not exercising. I compare the ingredients in the shampoo that I always buy with those in the generic brand, and opt to buy the generic brand. Same deal with other toiletries and groceries. (Do I really need green tea extract in my soap? No, I don’t). Strangely enough, I find myself thinking “why am I buying another black dress, I know I have one just like that at home” at the checkout counter of Club Monaco. Also, I am extremely adamant against seeing the latest Matthew Mcconaughey movie. Total savings at the end of the week add up to about 150 dollars.
Week 2: I lose 2 more pounds. My ICC 3-minute blitz rating goes up by almost 200 points. I read “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward Tufte, and construct a “data rich” statistical graph to analyze my professional/academic/personal accomplishments and goals. Recalling something that my Professor mentioned in class a month ago, I decide that it might be fun to prove the trinomial revision identity geometrically.
Week 3: I stay up later at night, but I am more alert during the day. I become more disgruntled with current events. I get especially upset when people say stupid things. Particularly, if those people happen to be elected political officials. I realize just how powerful television really is at subjugating the masses. I decide that someone should publish a pamphlet. I call my friend at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA students are the go-to people when you decide to change the world), and he suggests that I blog about it, and poll the public for some links (i.e. supporting evidence in the form of valid research).
I conclude that television is an extremely effective and powerful way of controlling, manipulating, and distracting the American people. It works in three very basic and obvious ways:
1. Making you the passive observer of current events.
When you watch television, you become a passive observer of news. When this happens, your cognitive processes slow down, and you absorb information before you have a chance to process it. In this way, television makes your brain a soft and squishy sponge, perfectly willing to internalize all the misinformation that is propagated to further somebody else’s agenda. When you become an active seeker of news (as you are when you browse websites, read newspapers, or talk to other people) you are more likely to question and analyze the content before believing that it is true. If your co-worker tells you that the guy in the next cubicle is stashing weapons of mass destruction under his desk, you are likely to ask for proof; but if a TV news anchor tells you something similar, you will probably go on thinking that it is true.
2. Making you a consumerist whore.
Even if you turn your set off during commercials, you are still constantly being bombarded with advertisements on a very subconscious level. You can’t buy the things that you need to make your life better, but television is extremely successful at convincing you of the exact opposite. Your husband will not love you more if you cut your hair like Jennifer Anniston, there is no difference between a Hyundai and a Mercedes, and there is nothing in the world that will make you look like an underwear model.
3. Distracting you from the real problems.
Television is able to distract you from the real problems (in your life, in the world) by either presenting you with irrelevant and superficial problems that will divert your focus, or by providing enough instant gratification to make you forget about your drab and wretched life. Someone on television tells you that two guys in San Francisco want to get married, and you are so distracted by this attack on your ideals that you conveniently forget that there is a war, in which many innocent people are dying. Or you spend your evenings watching attractive people doing exciting things, and this escapism prevents you from facing reality and making positive changes in your own life. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with seeking entertainment, but television creates a routine of dependency that inadvertently results in a state of false complacency).
Finally, here are some really stupid things that people tell me when I suggest that they too break free, and cancel their cable TV service.
How will my son ever make it to the major leagues if he can’t watch pro ball games on TV?
This is quite asinine. From an entirely statistical point of view, I can say with relative certainty that your son will never make it to the majors. But besides that, Joe Dimaggio never watched baseball on TV. Neither did Sandy Koufax. They went out and PLAYED baseball. If you plop your kids in front of the TV for 3 hours every evening, you might make them overweight and dimwitted like baseball players, but you certainly won’t increase their chances of becoming professional athletes. If you really want to give your kids a chance at a career in sports, make sure that physical activity is an integral part of their (and your) daily routine. Take them to a real baseball game instead, at least that way you can all get some fresh air.
I watch CNN. Where will I get my news? How will I know what is going on in the world?
This is probably the stupidest thing that anyone has ever said to me. You will certainly not know what’s going on in the world by watching CNN, or any of the other major news channels. Nor will you become more informed about the world and people around you by watching local news. This is supposed to be the information age, so why are so many people still relying on such a primitive source of news? You can probably get more relevant content from reading Talking Points Memo for 5 minutes than you can from watching CNN all day long. And if you wish to stay away from such blatantly partisan sites, you can always turn to the more traditional AP outlets on the web. Even reading CNN.com is better than watching it on television, because it give you a chance to go back and take note when the reported information is stupid or just plain wrong. Television news never gives you enough time to have a “wait a minute there” moment.
What will I talk to my coworkers about the next day? They all gather and chat about American Idol, and I don’t want to be a social outcast.
Well, your coworkers are obviously idiots. And, instead of encouraging this sort of behavior, you should make an effort to change the culture. Have confidence in your decision. This is just like high school. When you do something odd, do it with unwavering self-assurance, and everyone else will follow your trend.
My hope is that there will be a massive social and cultural move away from television. The benefits of such a change will be tremendous. We will become smarter, more informed, and less prone to commercial manipulation. We will not stand for lies and misinformation from our government, we will take action and effect change. We will eliminate credit card debt, and pay off our mortgages faster. Our kids will eat more fruit and do better on standardized exams. We will become global participants, and won’t need to tell foreigners that we are Canadian when we visit their countries. We will use less oil. We will get to work on time. We will have better relationships with friends and family. We will make better music, write better books, and develop better software. Just for starters. Pardon my naïve optimism, but I really think that remarkable progress can be achieved very quickly, if you too decide to cancel cable.
This was originally posted March 28, 2006 by Irina Paley on the columbia.edu website – now only available via WayBackMachine.org. It received 102 comments. Thanks go out to Joanna for locating the oringal post.