TV Epistemology

Having read McLuhan some years ago, I find that I cannot watch a televised political convention or debate without being aware of the experience of "watching" itself. McLuhan's basic insight is that each distinct medium conditions us in its own way and alters the epistemological equation of our thinking processes.

The printed word, for example, conditions us to think in a linear, logical way, to weigh evidence, analyze ideas and concepts, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of arguments. How much we derive from reading depends a lot on the knowledge and experience we bring to the task. We cannot pick up any old book and "get it" in the same way we can turn on the tube and instantly understand what we're seeing. Reading requires patience and demands more of our imagination than the visual media do.

Television, by contrast, conditions us to form judgments about a person's likableness, appearance, gestures, poses; it makes no demand on our attention span; it appeals more to our emotions than to our powers of reasoning. Long answers and detailed explanations don't go over well on the tube, but levity and humor do. A person who is cordial and congenial looks better than someone who is arguing and dissenting; how one acts or "appears" is far more important than anything one says.

The point can be illustrated by considering the kinds of questions each medium conditions us to ask.

Questions Informing The Experience Of Reading:

1. What is the writer saying? What is the crux of the argument or narrative?

2. Is what's written true, factual, fair, nuanced?

3. Does the writer reason in a way that is persuasive, convincing, absorbing?

4. Does the existing evidence support her contentions?

5. Does the writer draw upon examples, evidence, statistics, metaphors, historical and literary allusions to enhance his points of view?

6. Is the piece or chapter insightful, informative, reasonable, profound, ironic, evenhanded?

Questions Informing The Experience Of Watching TV:

1. Do I like or dislike this guy? Is he cool or uncool, entertaining or boring?

2. Does he look presidential? Does he project a strong image?

3. Does he look and act like someone you'd want to have a beer with? (The presumption is "no" if the person is an intellectual rather than a frat boy.)

4. Is he someone you'd want to look at in your living room for four years?

5. Is she an asset or a liability to her husband's campaign? Does she smile enough?

6. Will the guy's speech play in Peoria?

The statements "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and "I never stopped believing in a place called Hope" do not impress us at all when we read them. But when we see and hear the lines on television, delivered with great dramatic flair, we're apt to think otherwise, even if we can't stand the politician delivering them.

Likewise, a deep insight on a page is likely to get us to pause and think for several minutes, whereas the same line delivered on TV would likely lead either to a yawn or to raised eyebrows. Can you imagine ever hearing the following lines on even a Public Broadcasting program?

We commit the blotted manuscript of our lives more willingly to the flames, when we find the immortal text half engrossed in a fairer copy.

Or this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The content of a medium "is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind," McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media. "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perceptions steadily and without any resistance."

More On McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan: Canadian Media Theorist. A good overview of the man and his ideas. The article elucidates McLuhan's notion of "hot" and "cool" media and offers a good bibliography.

Marshall McLuhan: The Man & His Message. TV and radio interviews with McLuhan on the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the 1960s and 1970s. The best and most instructive of these is the second one, "World Is A Global Village."

"The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, The Holy Fool," an article in Wired Magazine, January 1996. The pages download at a snail's pace, but they're well worth the wait. Great bio and anecdotal material here, as well as insights into McLuhan's media theories.

Criticism: Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, volume two of The Myth of the Machine (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), pp. 293-297.