After having Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” book referenced in nearly half of my class-related readings, I decided to take a closer look and make that one of my summer reads. And the timing could not have been better – coming in the midst of my television-less summer.
Putnam’s text outlines a number of reasons for steadily declining civic engagement in American culture over the last half-century. His research attributes the civic engagement decline – including decline in campaigning, volunteerism, political activism, local government, social groups, sports, committees, meetings and activity groups like card playing – to a number of factors: generational differences, suburbanization, education and television. Essentially, the American public, he argues, is becoming more concerned with life in the home and privatism., rather than engaging in community building, social networking and democracy.
His argument regarding television is a convincing one. The following are just a few anecdotes: today Americans spend an average of four hours per day watching television; husbands and wives spend 3-4 times as much time watching television over talking with one another; viewers today are more likely to turn on television even when there is no particular program of interest to them; and since 1982 eight of the 10 most popular American leisure activities have taken place in the home.
According to Putnam: “The major casualties of increased TV viewing, according to time diaries, are religious participation, social visiting, shopping, parties, sports, and organizational participation. The only activities positively linked to heavy television watching are sleeping, resting, eating, housework, radio listening, and hobbies.”
In many households the television is an extension of the family, meaning we eat dinner with the set rather than other family members, we wake up and/or go to sleep to the voices on the screen, and daily routines are sometimes dictated by set availability and programming schedules.
Now back to my self-righteous TV-less utopia. To clarify, I own a television set for viewing DVDs and playing Xbox. I’ve always been romanticized by the concept of the TV-less lifestyle but after living with other people, never the opportunity to create my anti-TV bliss. I seldom watch anything but sporting events (which I can see at a bar) or the first five minutes of Saturday Night Live, which is the point at which I realize the show has sucked for a solid decade.
I began with forgoing cable but carefully considered rabbit ears for local channels. My first thought being what if the world was invaded by Martians? I’d obviously be kicking myself for not having the technology to watch that unfold on TV. So I ordered my government digital converter box food stamps, purchased one of the shoddy models offered under the coupon, and installed it only to discover that Fox is the lone channel I get reception of. After mumbling some Rupert Murdock conspiracy theories to friends, I gave up. If my only access to television is Fox, I said to myself, then I want no access at all.
Now more than two months into my tubeless existence, I thought I’d share my early observances: I have more time to read (in peace); I get out of the apartment more (good for but bad for my bar tabs); I just got fingerprinted for a volunteer job (assuming felonies aren’t a big deal, I’ll begin in September); I clean my place less frequently (probably because I spend less time in it); I spend more time with my pet rabbit, Kirby; I listen to more music; and I’m experiencing a greater disconnect with the ‘real world.’ Exercise
When a friend told me about the new Sacha Baron Cohen movie two days ago, I had never heard of it. When Michael Jackson died, I hardly noticed (and found out 12-24 hours after most people). I also feel less informed about the happenings of North Korea, the Iran elections and Obama’s healthcare plan. More importantly, being the media critic I am, find I have next to nothing to poke fun of these days.