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Life without television

We don’t miss the flickering images meant to sell us things we don’t need

Life without television

(Nastco/iStock)

Once television gained a mid-1950s ­foothold in our Texas town, the social pressure to acquire one began to build. Kids with television talked about it at school, ­causing the rest of us to feel deprived and backward. My dad didn’t want one in his house, but his brother worried that we were becoming un-normal and gave us one. Father parked it in an upstairs attic and left it there, ignoring the wails of his children.

He finally yielded, but it took a momentous event. In the summer of ’58, I was hunting ­jack rabbits with a group of boys and was thrown from the back of a pickup. My right arm was badly broken, and for weeks I lay around the house, suffering a significant amount of pain. The house was hot (we didn’t have central air conditioning), and I was too miserable to read.

I watched a lot of television that summer. I don’t recall that my dad said much about it, but he didn’t need to. His thoughts hung in the air like smoke from burning tires. He was ahead of his time in recognizing that television was a big step beyond radio, which allowed space between the listener and the medium, and we filled it with our imagination. Television filled the space with flickering images that flowed straight into the brain through the optic nerve.

As a natural conservative, he was suspicious of anything that hadn’t been tested by generations of human experience, and he wondered what a steady bombardment of electronic images would do to the human mind. We didn’t know back then, and still don’t. It might take a hundred years for the evidence to show up.

He was also ahead of his time in recognizing that the purpose of television is not to educate or even to entertain, but to sell us things we usually don’t need and probably can’t afford. The ­programming is there to hold us for the ads.

That can also be said about commercial radio, but radio addresses only one of our senses. Television goes after two of them, and advertisers have become adept at exploiting them.

Television was a big step beyond radio, which allowed space between the listener and the medium, and we filled it with our imagination.

On the rare occasions when my dad watched television, he refused to look at the commercials. When an ad came on, he would either leave the room or start reading a newspaper. At the time, I thought he was just being eccentric, but he must have understood that advertising is a contest between viewers at rest and professionals who are trained to find the mental spaces where we are vulnerable. He refused to develop a cozy relationship with their ads.

Joe Erickson was pleased that he succeeded in passing his eccentricities on to me, and in 1967 I married a woman who shared them. We never got around to buying a TV, and we raised three kids without it, in spite of their howls about being social lepers.

I’m aware that living without television has made us different (that sounds better than “un-­normal” or “weird”) and that we have missed out on a lot of the shared experience of our time. We belong to a tiny demographic of people who can’t talk about Dallas, Seinfeld, or Jeopardy.

On the other hand, we notice little things that others might not, such as people carrying on conversations about TV commercials—I mean, ads for cat food and beer. Several years ago we attended a Super Bowl party and noticed that very few of the 25 adults actually watched the game, but when the ads came on, the room fell silent. Everyone was watching the ads. It seemed odd. Who won the Super Bowl? Budweiser and the company with the lizard.

We are also sensitive to the creepy presence of television everywhere we go: restaurants, hotel lobbies, elevators, airports, doctors’ offices, and even gas pumps. It annoys me that someone thinks I need to be entertained every second of the day. It annoys me that I’m being stalked by people who want to sell me something. It annoys me that I can’t turn it off.

I know that everything on television isn’t bad, and if we had TV, I would enjoy watching some of it. But my memory from the late ’50s is that you watch the good, then you watch the not-so-good, then you watch the bad. And later, as you’re trying to fall asleep, you feel as though you’ve pitched hours of your life into a hole.