Monday, March 9, 2009

The neighbors in your TV

If most people live life akin to the way I do (which is probably the most erroneous assumption I can make,) then they probably don't get to see their friends or family every day. If they do, then there is probably at least some amount of time dedicated to doing something else (work, school, chores, etc.) that keeps them from engaging in the amount of socialization that they would prefer. Sensory overload also plays a part: some of us go to the bar to meet new people because that is the acceptable place to meet new people. Passing on the street, in line at stores, all of a thousand other places we could potentially meet people but these are considered inappropriate places in the most common experience. It's common in cities to ignore others as they pass you as an attempt to give them some privacy and get some of your own in return. We are literally more surrounded by people than ever before (at least in world population terms, probably density as well but I haven't verified that) and yet there is still a sense of loneliness that pervades our world. We rely on electronic pacifiers to sate our need to connect - Twitter, blogging, Facebook, text messages, television. You name it, and most of modern technology is wired around that central idea of connecting to the humans that you know and maybe meeting a few you didn't know before.
Now enter the modern living situation. Fewer people own their own homes, especially with the current economic crisis. This will probably continue to be a trend with less and less home owners and more renters. Not surprisingly, this follows the current trend of separation of lower and higher incomes, often called the death of the middle class. If you have to be rich to own a house, then only rich people will own houses. The rest will rent. This can mean an entirely different perspective than the old-fashioned 'get to know your neighbor at the barbeque' approach to social interaction.
Having renters next door or in your own house is a mixed bag. Some are the sweetest people you can find, treating where they live as a home and taking care of it. Some are horror stories just waiting for a photographer to come in and document the stained carpet, holes in walls, and disgusting bathroom. Most are in the middle, treating the home for what it is - a transitory place that they do not own and will not be living in for the rest of their life. This can affect your house value if you're the neighbor next to the renters who don't mow the lawn or cause you to end up with vermin that don't belong to you from a neighbor's less-than-sanitary food habits.
How does all this connect together? Simple - as a population we need to recognize why we need TV. If the people next door move every year, or you move every year, the desire to have strong bonds with the neighbors is just not there for most people. Why invest in a temporary relationship that means compromise and getting used to another person's idiosyncrasies? Enter where TV comes in; shows are like neighbors that you can interact with on your terms. The most long-running shows are people-centric; the Simpsons (family that never really changes), Cheers (bar friends), and the aptly-labeled Friends are all shows designed with a need to interact and be involved with another person's life. Furthermore, they can be tailored to fit your busy schedule. Can't call your friends at 10 PM? Simple - watch some TV before bed. Get up too early for the rest of the waking world? Watch some TV. Even news falls into this; invest in a story for just three minutes and then grab coffee and leave for work. Instant social interaction.
The amount of disconnect from reality in this situation (which is probably a realistic situation for a lot of people) is disconcerting. I'm not trying to bash TV watchers or label them as antisocial, but overall as a society, what does that say about us as a whole? Where do we think the pressure on our teenage girls is coming from to be thin and sexy? For boys to be action heroes? It's not from TV programs per se - it's the ability to see TV programs as a normal societal interaction. With a group of friends, one can watch TV and laugh about the stylized choices. When TV is how you connect to people after a busy day, it becomes a lot less easy to differentiate.
Again, I'm not villainizing television or television watchers - just pointing out that TV is on the whole being used as a substitute for interaction, and that puts a lot of power in the broadcast corporations over society. We need to make sure to fulfil our need for social interaction with others in a meaningful way or risk taking on even more problems with our interactions.

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