Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Television Addiction

The HBO Addiction Project did less to heighten my awareness of the complex problems surrounding the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse (which were the primary concerns of the organizations that co-produced the material) and more to focus my attention on the nature of addictive behavior itself. Even before the series began to air, I had been writing about "the 'addictive stance' we seem to be taking towards our abundance of technology toys;" so I felt it was important to recognize instances of addiction beyond the scope of drugs and alcohol in the hope that recognizing those behaviors as addictive would be a first step towards rehabilitation. Most recently, my attention has focused on consumerism itself as an addictive behavior, which deserves to be recognized as a predisposing, if not functional, cause of the global economic crisis.

Last night I noticed that KQED interrupted their broadcast of Nightly Business Report to run a test of the new digital transmission of their signal on their channel 9 frequency band. I assume that they ran this test because, while they (along with other broadcasters) have been running spots to inform viewers of the need to prepare for the "digital switch" scheduled for February 17, 2009, there is a strong chance that many of those viewers who are unprepared for the switch have tended to ignore those spots. Thus, there was probably considerable value in letting those viewers see what their reception would look like after the switch gets thrown.

This set me to wondering how many of those viewers needed this kind of "shock treatment" because their viewing habits were basically addictive. I mean by this an unreflective consumption of the medium for the sake of little more than some primal stimulation having little, if anything, to do with the content being broadcast. My own writing has focused many times on such content that intentionally and successfully rises above that level of primal stimulation (the Addiction Project being a case in point); but the reflective behavior I have brought to that content is somewhat analogous to the way I reflect over a shot from my bottle of Macallan distilled in 1977. The fact that I have had that bottle for something like ten years (I know from the label that the actual bottling took place in 1996) without finishing it should indicate that sampling it is, for me, as special an occasion as a "live" performance of Elliott Carter's second string quartet (which, for the record, I have experienced only twice). My point is that, while a fine whisky is as much a "high art" experience as a fine piece of music, both are based in "materials" that, in other situations can lead to binging, whether it is intentionally drinking oneself into a stupor or blocking out any intrusions from the "real world" with one's iPod. From that point of view, one can also go on a binge in front of a television; and that binge has the same objective as any other binge, the shutting down of a reality that, for one reason or another (possibly the addiction itself), has become too painful to endure.

This raises a problem with implementing the digital switch. Those unprepared for it may well suffer the same sorts of withdrawal symptoms that arise from other addictions, but the addiction itself may numb them to recognizing the need for preparation. Using television itself to prepare viewers for the switch will probably be as effective as using the packaging of cigarettes to notify smokers of the health hazards. The good news is that the cable industry has been doing a reasonably good job of preparing its customers for the transition; but, as Marguerite Reardon pointed out in today's post to her Digital Media blog on CNET News, many cable operators seem to be more interested in using the transition as an opportunity to increase their revenues:

But the consumer advocacy group Consumers Union says it has noticed a surge in cable operators across the country migrating analog channels off their basic cable tier to a more expensive digital tier, which requires customers rent cable set top boxes.

The group has argued that cable's timing for moving channels off basic service to a higher tier service has been done deliberately to capitalize on the confusion around the over-the-air TV broadcast digital transition, which takes effect on February 17, 2009.

Furthermore, there remains the question of how many viewers have not been prepared for the digital switch through a cable provider, regardless of whether or not that preparation has affected their cable bills.

Beyond any questions of how addiction can numb our "sense of reality," there is the broader question of whether or not an entire culture is capable of change and, if so, how that change should be (in business-school-speak) "managed." After all, change was so important to Barack Obama's Presidential campaign that the Web site for his transition activities has been named However, if the informative power of the Internet could not even discredit rumors of Obama having any Muslim connection, can we really expect that it will be instrumental in bringing change to people who, by their very human nature rather than any underlying addiction, feel very strongly about maintaining their stability? Perhaps the real underlying problem is that, following George Herbert Mead's approach to social behaviorism, people who are concerned about their stability being disrupted are averse to communication itself, because communicative actions are the most effective instruments of change. In other words the problem is the classical challenge of leading a horse to water: People need to be informed if a change is being proposed or is already in the works, but what do you do if they refuse to commit to the communicative actions through which they can be informed? Perhaps if the Obama transition team considers the problem of bringing change to the nation's television viewers, they may gain some insights into how the manage the larger-scale changes that were promised during the campaign.

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