Watching Big Brother

In Jolts (1985), now out of print, I speculated on the implications of living in an increasingly high JPM world.

LITTLE IS KNOWN for certain about the physiology of watching television — exactly what the brain does to and with the material our eyes take in from the TV screen. All one can do is make educated guesses. The model of how the brain works that makes most sense to me is that set forth by Paul MacLean, head of the Laboratory for Brain Evolution and Behaviour at the National Institute for Mental Health in Washington. His view has been elaborated on by Arthur Koestler, among others.

According to the MacLean model, the brain consists of essentially two parts — the neocortex (new brain) and the paleocortex (old brain). The neocortex, the outer layer, is the newest and most highly developed part of the brain. It is the seat of logic and verbal language; it’s the centre of our rational faculties and of voluntary behaviour.

The older and relatively primitive paleocortex, which occupies the large central portion of the brain, has been inherited from our reptilian and mammalian past. (“Speaking allegorically,” says MacLean, “when a psychiatrist bids a patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.”) The paleocortex is compulsive, ritualistic, addicted to precedent. It’s the seat of our feelings, our passions and what Jung called our “collective unconscious.” Our understanding of symbolic (non-verbal) language is centred in the paleocortex, which functions viscerally. It controls our autonomic nervous system — those parts of the body (the glands, for example) that are not usually subject to conscious control.

Central to the paleocortex or old brain is the hippocampus; it collects all our sensations and relays bits and pieces of this information to other parts of the brain. The hippocampus appears to affect all brain activity; it can excite or inhibit our thinking or our emotions. The hippocampus is especially responsive to the content of high JPM television. It “likes” loud sounds, things that move a lot, sexual explicitness and innuendo, physical and verbal acts of aggression. That’s the kind of language the old brain not only understands but thrives on — the language of the hunt. That language, gets our juices flowing and rewards us with pleasurable feelings. But while that’s happening, the higher functions of the brain, those located in the neocortex and involved in cognitive functions — analysis and judgment — are turned off. Which helps explain the mindless, passive appearance we often have when sitting in front of a television set (or a fireplace, for that matter).

The fact is we are dealing here with a reward system that is irrational, not in our best interests as human beings. As Aldous Huxley suggested, our glandular system, which is “admirably well adapted to life in palaeolithic times,” is not at all well suited to life now. We produce far more adrenalin than is good for us. Arthur Koestler’s view is even more gloomy. He believed that the human brain suffered from an evolutionary “design error,” a split between our thought and our feelings, between the human and the animal in us that couldn’t be bridged. The only solution, he felt, was biochemical intervention, a kind of physiological censorship. In Norman Jewison’s film Rollerball, the only outlet for aggression permitted by rulers is rollerball, a savage game which combines the most violent elements of hockey, roller derby, motorcycle racing and the martial arts.

Not only is it possible to become addicted to high JPM television, but many of us do. The amount of time the average person spends watching TV continues to increase. In the U.S. it’s thirty hours a week, about an hour more per day than in Canada. The process, I suspect, is not unlike that which occurs when rats who’ve had electrodes implanted in the pleasure centres of their brains continue to stimulate themselves even at the expense of doing their bodies harm — starving, for example. (In his novel Mind Killer, Spider Robinson projects us into a future world in which people “give themselves over to the ultimate addiction: they stimulate their cerebral pleasure centres directly with pulses of electric current.” In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a futurist film about our insatiable appetite for ever more jolts from television, poor people — those who have no TV sets — go to a Cathode Ray Mission. They go not to eat, as poor people of an earlier time might, but to spend time in a private booth with a television set, absorbing their daily doses of high JPM television.)

There are groups — the National Coalition on Television Violence in the U.S., for example — who are convinced that anyone who watches ten to fifteen hours of high JPM television a week “is unconsciously affected in a harmful way. The most common effects,” they write, “are significant increases in anger and irritability and a desensitization towards violence.” (The networks reject this conclusion; they, of course, have done research that proves the contrary.) According to George Gerbner, TV causes those who watch more than four hours a day to find the world more dangerous than those who watch it two hours or less.

Michelle Landsberg has written, echoing Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood, that “One of the most devastating charges that future generations will be able to hurl against the TV merchandisers is that they stole away the child’s birthright of play. Teachers report that children have lost not only the knowledge of the old games — the rhymes, chants and rules — but even the imaginative power to invent new ones. Parents say that when they limit their children’s TV-watching to a well-chosen half-hour each day, the youngsters’ resilience, energy, good humour, and playfulness come surging back.”

Our daily lives come more and more to resemble high JPM television. There is an increasingly rapid turnover in our relationships and pursuits. If marriages on soap operas now last an average of only eighteen months, those on this side of the screen appear to be catching up quickly. Many of us are into photography one month and yoga the next. Our boredom thresholds are such that we can’t stick with anybody or anything for very long. “Doesn’t anyone stay in one place any more?” sings Carole King. “Like I was into ecology,” says a hitchhiker in Blue Highways: A journey Into America — “but it got boring.” Can anyone imagine Einstein saying that about physics? It’s unclear whether the rapid turnover in our relationships and pursuits is good for us; but there’s no doubt that it’s good for the economy. We want to look nice and smell nice for our new lovers. Each new hobby has its own accoutrements that one shouldn’t be without.

I wonder about the implications for democracy of the increasingly high JPM world we live in. One of the tests of democracy, after all, is the capacity of ordinary people to endure boredom — the boredom of reading tedious reports and attending seemingly endless meetings. There’s no doubt that the more complex society becomes the more a capacity to endure that kind of boredom is required. In fact, we have less. The only thing we seem to have the patience to change is our own lifestyles, and that we seem to do endlessly.

Boredom has affected politics in other ways. Charles Citrine is onto something, I suspect, when he argues in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift that boredom, not justice, may be what some modern political revolutions are about. Boredom, says Norman Podhoretz, echoing Citrine, “is the most underrated force in human affairs.” And it’s interesting to observe the ways in which radical politics have changed in the last quarter century. It used to be that if you were a radical, you devoted your whole life to your radical cause. One thinks of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or J.S. Woodsworth. But some American radicals who’ve grown up in the age of television are different. They often do a stint in support of one radical cause and then move onto something radically different. In the 1960s Jerry Rubin led an American revolutionary movement, the Yippies; in the 1980s he’s a Wall Street broker and an apologist for Yuppies.

Mainstream politics have been affected too. Public opinion fluctuates so wildly that it’s become increasingly difficult for pollsters to make predictions with any accuracy. “The swings and yaws,” writes Dalton Camp, “are now so commonplace that any politician imprudent enough to crow about a favourable poll today is almost certain to be eating crow tomorrow.” One day we’re told that the federal Liberals under John Turner have an insurmountable lead over the Conservatives. The next day those predictions are proved wrong; Brian Mulroney has been elected Prime Minister.

And we know about looks. The trouble with Joe Clark, poor bugger, is that he looks Canadian. To be effective on television, you must not only look a certain way, you have to talk a certain way. The press made fun of Jesse Jackson’s penchant for using catch phrases and slogans in his campaign for the American presidency. But as Jackson explained, “Sometimes when we speak grammatically that’s not enough… we have to speak epigrammatically… because when you grow up in the mass media era, when you have these fifteen-and thirty-second bites, you must be able to use the language so you can get out a significant message in a very short space of time.” And it worked. Jackson got and continues to get a lot of attention.

Video games and rock videos are the ultimate in high JPM television. There are now video games to suit every taste, almost all of them of a kill or be killed nature. If you’re “into” science, there’s a video game called “Evolution” that requires you to pass through six stages of development from amoeba to human while avoiding electronic extinction. When you reach the human stage, stage six, you’re “rewarded” by being destroyed in a nuclear war; you return to being an amoeba, and start all over again. Each time through the game, the destructive forces are faster and more unpredictable. The game has ninety-nine levels of difficulty. Even the game’s creators have only ‘evolved’ to level forty.

If you’re into Jesus, there’s a video car race for you. The game asks the question, “Do you know that Jesus is the way?” You have to keep a speeding car on the twisting roadway of life. To go off the road is to fall into sin. But maybe you would like to fall into sin? There’s a video game called “Hold Up.” If you kill the bank tellers before they trip their alarm, you win. Another game called “Lover Boy” awards points for the “successful rape” of four naked women chased through a maze. In “Dragon’s Lair” the player becomes a barbarian who controls the violent animated action on the screen.

Video games are a cause of concern everywhere. In the Philippines, that friend of democracy, Ferdinand Marcos, outlawed video games in response to a public outcry. Filipinos believed the machines were “devilish” contraptions wreaking havoc on the morals of the young. And in the U.S. $5 billion was spent on video games in 1982, twice as much as was spent going to the movies.

No wonder the movies are becoming more and more fast-paced. “It’s bam bam pow,” writes Pauline Kael of George Lucas, the director of the Star Wars trilogy. But her words could equally apply to any one of a number of other directors. “He’s like a slugger in the ring who has no variety and never lets up,” she continues. “His movies are made on the assumption that the audience must be distracted every minute.” “Visual rock ‘n’ roll” is the term George Miller, director of the cult film Road Warrior, uses to describe this approach to filmmaking. Young people have become so conditioned to fast-paced material, says Miller, that they can look at “video cassettes with the fast-forward button on. They’re watching movies at maybe two or three times normal speed and still picking up enough information to follow the story.”

Douglas Trumbull, who worked on special effects for George Lucas, has himself directed such high JPM films as Brainstorm. But Trumbull has wearied of traditional filmmaking; he’s looking for new ways to intensify the film-viewing experience. He’s developed a process for projecting films at sixty frames per second rather than at the present twenty-four. Viewers respond (as measured physiologically) at a rate five times faster than their response when the same material is projected at twenty-four frames. The experience is so intense that viewers estimate the length of a ten-minute film as being considerably longer. Trumbull predicts the development of “the microfeature, a high-impact sensory experience, compressed in time.”
But isn’t that what a rock video is, a kind of ultra high JPM microfeature whose visuals frequently have nothing to do with the music and seem thrown in for shock value? It’s not surprising to discover that many successful filmmakers — Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and William Friedkin — are now directing rock videos, and that rock video directors are being invited to make feature films.

Advertisers are moving to the fifteen-second commercial. Just over ten years ago the sixty-second spot was the standard length; thirty-second spots were regarded as unacceptable. Les Brown of Channels of Communication magazine doesn’t rule out “the possibility of the radically speeded-up five-second spot… that would get to you almost on the subliminal level.” Ad agencies such as Vision Systems want to go even further. They want to display product information on video screens in stores and windows. Vision Systems has developed Videofile, a giant screen — two and a half feet by five feet — which, combined with a repeating video cassette recorder, presents advertising designed “to stop people in their tracks.” In Al Razutis’s experimental film America, billboards have all become huge video screens. In the city of the future in Blade Runner, the Goodyear blimp becomes huge floating video screen at night.

Not just film and television are speeding up. Serious books and magazines have more and more difficulty getting published. Bookstore shelves are increasingly filled with non-books — books for people who really don’t like reading: self-help guides, books by and about celebrities, thrillers, instant books — books, as American writer William Gass puts it, that stand to literature as fast food does to eating. A lot of writers, says Gass, “are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motorboats.” I know good writers who have been rejected by publishers on the grounds that they write prose that requires concentration; one was told that it’s impossible to read him and watch TV at the same time. (Some years ago TV Guide asked me to write an article outlining my JPM theory. I did so in the style you’ve been reading. TV Guide’s editor thought my prose too “slow” for his readers. He rewrote the piece. The revised version began, “Every September, the three U.S. television networks sit down to their high stakes poker game.” I asked to have my name taken off the article.)

Marshall McLuhan argued that people had stopped reading books in the early-to-mid-1960s. They’d begun to sample them instead. “The unread book,” he said, “is the normal thing of our world… I have only a few minutes in which to look at any of the books I have around here. I have to sample quickly and take them back to the library. Every day five or six new books come in that I can only sample, I can’t read. But that’s normal. The book is no longer something for reading.” Pay-TV now allows me to sample current movies the same way.

So what’s to be done? Nothing, says Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television; the medium of television can no more be reformed than can guns. The only real solution, Mander believes, is the total abolition of TV. Otherwise we’re doomed. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.

Censorship isn’t the answer either, although even the BBC has tried it. (It banned the Rolling Stones’ video “Under Cover of the Night” because of its images of blood, torture and violent death in Central America.) Certainly, none of what I’ve said to this point should be read as an argument for censorship. As a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, I am opposed to censorship of any kind. I believe it does more harm than good. But that’s not to say I think TV has no effect. I’m sure it does — for good and for ill. In 1980, for example, during the week after the Fonz took out a library card on an episode of Happy Days, the number of young people applying for membership in libraries across the U.S. increased by five hundred per cent. That’s no coincidence. It seems safe to assume that the Fonz’s behaviour caused the increase.

Television undoubtedly causes other things too. There are numerous cases on record of people who have seen a crime committed on TV and who have gone out and committed the same crime. Rowell Huesmann, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, has been following 800 viewers since they were in grade three. It appears, says Huesmann, that “high television viewers and high violence viewers are more likely to be convicted of more serious crimes.” “If you believe,” Irving Kristol wrote long before he became a famous neoconservative, “that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial.”

A character in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome says at one point, “The battle for the mind will be fought in the video arena.” Will be? The battle for the mind is being fought in the video arena. And the mind is losing. Television has become Aldous Huxley’s soma; it’s ingested visually instead of orally. And Huxley, not Orwell, it turns out, was right. Big Brother isn’t watching us. It’s far more subtle than that. We’re watching Big Brother.

— Jolts, Implications, 1985

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