The other day I was listening to a radio program that was exploring mindfulness, and it touched on imagination as an important part of human life. Offhandedly, someone said that’s why radio and books are better than TV: they leave more to the imagination. I have heard this sentiment echoed in a number of places, as well as expanded to say that TV is rotting brains, that kids these days have no imagination, or that technology will destroy humanity. This unsettles me. I’m always put off by negativity towards new technology because every generation seems to think that their new tech will destroy humanity, and yet somehow it never does. Particularly when it comes to things that make our lives easier or are pleasurable for us, people tend to judge very harshly and extend that judgment to the people who partake in the technology. This makes me incredibly sad, because we’ve shown ourselves to be a highly adaptive species that does not lose its curiosity and imagination over hundreds of years, and at the end of the day what this shaming does is tell people they should feel guilty for enjoying themselves.
So I’d like to mount a defense of the ways that TV does engage our mind, curiosity, and imagination, as well as explore how TV pushes us further than books and radio in some ways to show that technology may change what skills we use or focus on, but that does not necessarily mean that it is making us worse.
The first thing I want to mention is fanfiction. This may seem unrelated to whether TV rots our brains or not, but I find it a really good illustration of how TV is often a springboard for other imaginative ventures, and how TV is in many ways on par with if not exceeding books in the ways it inspires further exploration of the characters and themes. Fanfiction requires a great deal of imagination. It involves actively internalizing characters and worlds, then reimagining them in new ways and situations. There is a great deal of fanfiction for TV shows. I have no idea what the ratio of TV to book fanfiction is, but at the very least it illustrates that both of them can inspire imagination on the same level.
If I were to make a guess, I would suggest that TV garners more fanfiction than books. Why? TV is visual. Some people think this means that it makes watchers lazy, but I would argue that it often engages them more deeply than words on the page. We tend to see extreme loyalty to characters or shows when it comes to TV that is far more rare in books. I know that I fall in love with TV characters in a visceral way that I often don’t get when I am reading or listening. Many people then take that emotion and run with it. We do this in more ways than simply fanfiction, but many of these ways don’t have tangible, measurable results: we fantasize about characters, we imagine what ifs, we bemoan what happened and play if over and over in our heads, we imagine meeting our favorite actors and what we would say to them, we put ourselves into the world and wonder what we’d do. When you see people talking about their favorite show, posting about their favorite show, thinking about their favorite show between episodes, they are using their curiosity and imagination to recreate and reimagine parts of that show. Because of the extended nature of TV, this also happens more with shows than it does with books, which you can just finish reading if you want to know what happens next. Because the visual element of TV often hits us on a more emotional level, it engages us to continue thinking and feeling long after the episode is over.
An additional element of TV that is often missing from books and radio is community. While some books create discussion and group solidarity, or are read with other people, it’s far more common for people to watch TV shows together, live tweet them, talk with their friends about them the next day, or reference them in general conversation. This community provides a beautiful forum for engaging our curiosity, our intellect, our analytical skills, our imagination, and our interpersonal skills in ways that books are not always ideal at. The number of times I’ve seen a group of friends speculate about what would happen next in a show, or dissect the social justice elements of a show, or just talk about what their different interpretations are is astounding, and each of those times the individuals involved were engaging their minds and imagination. I’ve seen this far more around TV shows than I have around books. Anecdotal evidence, but there we are.
As humans we are creative and imaginative beings. We can see this as far back as we have evidence of our culture. While the ways we have expressed these things have changed, we have continued to explore and question and imagine and wonder. Different technologies have helped us do this in different ways, and have engaged different elements of our minds. So why is it that every time a new technology comes along we’re convinced that it’s evil? Is it because it provides people enjoyment? Is it because we don’t understand it? I don’t know, but I will argue that these fears are generally unfounded, and that their end result is more shame in the world. I will always argue against more shame in the world.
TV has positives. Computers have positives. Social media has positives. Books have positives. Each of these things impacts us in different ways by giving us different ways to express ourselves and connect to our world. Each has their downsides. That’s ok. Let’s stop shaming people because we don’t agree with the ways they choose to relax.