Ghost in the machine: the enemy in corner of the lounge

08 Oct 2008

By The Record

Half a century ago, television promised so much. Its proponents claimed it would, among other things, be a means of delivering education to the millions throughout the world who had never had the opportunity to benefit from it. Today, amid a flurry of game shows, so-called ‘reality-TV’ and a never-ending parade of sitcoms, shallow news, increasingly pornographic advertising and shows, and identical dramas (same actors, same scriptwriters, same plots, change the setting), what has it really delivered? Former ABC presenter Tony Evans reflects on the ghost in the machine…

The Balloon Game, popular among students of an earlier time, imagined debaters representing historic figures or objects, or events, crowded into the gondola of a hot-air balloon. When the balloon is supposedly caught in a storm one of the debaters – the least convincing in the defence of his subject – was jettisoned to lighten the load and so save the balloon from crashing to the ground with the loss of all the others.
If you, intelligent reader, found yourself in a balloon debate as a representative of one of the great technological inventions of the last hundred or so years, which invention would you pray earnestly not to have to defend so that you would avoid being the luckless one chosen to be thrown overboard?
For this writer the answer is simple. I would tremble with fear and believe the debate lost before it began, if I were chosen to defend television. With all their faults, their weaknesses and occasional misuse I could put up a reasonably convincing case for motor-cars, telephones, aeroplanes, radio, washing machines and yes, even computers; but I would find it impossible to defend television. I might as well jump overboard before the debate began.
Television as an invention is about eighty years old. As a mass medium – whose development in England and elsewhere was delayed owing to World War 11 – it is under sixty years old. There is no doubting the high ideals held for the post-war television service, it was closely regulated, and standards were strictly enforced; hours of transmission were limited. Programming in the late sixties and early seventies in Britain is generally recognised as a golden age when the best contemporary writers and talent were drawn to the medium, and drama and comedy for example, were rarely afterwards surpassed and are still remembered nostalgically today. Few of us at the time, enjoying the good programs as we did, recognised that there was ‘a ghost in the machine’ – the seeds of corruption that lay at the heart of the technological marvel, seeds that would grow and spread like a cancer through the body until it was rotten and beyond resuscitation.
There can be no modern marvel of the technological age which promised so much at its birth and which was accompanied in its early years with high ideals and potential for good, and yet developed in a comparatively short time to be the most powerful corrupting and manipulating force throughout the world.
One person who did recognise the ‘ghost in the machine’ was Pope Pius XII. His now little-remembered encyclical, Miranda Prorsus (1957), although covering film, radio and television, surely had television very much in mind when he warned, that unless these marvels are “subjected to the sweet yoke of Christ, they can be the source of countless evils, which appear to be all the more serious because not only material forces but also the mind are unhappily enslaved.” In another part he writes of the powerful influence of television on men’s minds and how, instead of “flooding them with light and raising them to nobility, it can disfigure them by dimming their lustre, dishonour them by a process of corruption and make them subject to uncontrolled passions…’
Those of us who were connected with the television and film apostolate at that time were encouraged by the Pope’s encyclical which authorised the establishment of Catholic media offices with the purpose of writing criticism, training priests in the techniques of the media, and encouraging the production of television and film which endorsed Christian ethics.
Alas, the work was akin to David meeting with Goliath without the satisfactory conclusion recounted in the first book of Samuel.
The language of Miranda Prorsus should not be read as mere Vatican rhetoric or flowery, exaggerated prose. Compared with the language and argument in Jerry Mander’s 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, the Pope’s language may be considered fairly mild.
The title of Mander’s book caught the public’s eye and awoke responsible viewers and researchers to the dangers of television watching for the first time – albeit with special reference to conditions in the United States.
Mander is still read and quoted with respect today and hundreds of subsequent, but less publicity-seeking academic studies, have drawn similar conclusions echoing both Mander’s and Pius XII’s words.
Mander was the first to point out that the problems inherent in the technology itself are so dangerous to public health and sanity, to the environment and to democratic processes, that TV ought to be eliminated forever – a forlorn Quixotic cry with little or no hope of success. (The arresting title of the book ensured its notoriety although Mander refused to promote it on television, being true to his principles).
The growing disillusionment of older viewers with present-day public television is hardly significant enough to alarm television stations.
Their only response is to dumb down programs even further, and employ sensation built upon sensation in an effort to retain the viewing mass – thus safeguarding company profits.
Mander bases his arguments for the elimination of television mainly upon the medium’s effect on the human person, on the mind, the personality, and the behaviour of the viewer – and his particular concern is with young people and how their minds are hypnotised by the screen.
A more recent and authoritative study on how television is damaging our lives was published in 2005 and has as its title, Remotely Controlled. The author, Dr Aric Sigman, quotes research which shows that television watching slows the body’s metabolic rate, and stunts the development of children’s brains; how it increases attention disorders and leads to violence and related crime.
He also shows how continual television watching in middle age increases the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
Much of the evidence from current studies, he claims, is seldom reported in the newspapers because newspapers also own television stations, or fear their advertising may suffer if television was shown to be the danger that it really is.
A recent survey in Britain showed that children aged 11 – 15 spend an average of 53 hours each week watching television and computers.
“In fact, most of our children now literally have more eye-contact with television characters than with their own parents.”
The findings of statistical surveys are now legion, and alarming and conclusively point to the corrupting influence of television watching.
When Pius XII wrote of the technological marvels in his encyclical, he believed as most of us believed at the time, that television was a neutral technology, ‘a gift of God, our Creator’.
The Pope envisaged the possibility of this neutral technology being used for the betterment of mankind, to inspire goodness and transmit noble ideas and religious instruction to vast audiences.
His optimism now seems sadly misplaced. He could not see, as we could not see, the reality of what television would become, and the negative power it would eventually hold over us.
It was Mander, elaborating on his four arguments, who first argued that television was not a neutral technology, in the same way that a gun is not a neutral technology – the purpose of a gun and its only function is to kill.
“Far from neutral, television itself predetermines who shall use it, how they will use it, what effects it will have on individual lives, and if it continues to be widely used, what sorts of political forms will inevitably emerge.”
When Arthur Koestler published his book, The Ghost in the Machine, and so popularised the phrase, he was writing of the dormant, violent tendencies suppressed in the human brain and remain there, hidden, as a threatening presence which can and often do surface again and influence our behaviour.
Koestler was not a Christian and so would not have seen the analogy with the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the corruption in all of us which is endemic and must be exorcised by Baptism.
Unfortunately Baptism is neither theologically acceptable nor canonically sanctioned for use on technology.
Our only sensible conclusion must be that television is past redemption; that it should be consigned to the flames by Catholics and by all those who value their individuality and their mental health and the joy to be had in observing the natural world around them unadulterated by the warped and limiting vision presented to us on the television screen.
Perth author Tony Evans worked in ABC television for many years and presented the first daily current affairs program in Perth, Today Tonight. He is also the author of several widely-acclaimed biographies.



 By Peter Rosengren – editor, The Record

Some years ago I filled some columns of empty space with the story of how our family came to be without television, and the benefits it had delivered.
Years later, I can confirm that the decision by our son, then aged about two, to conduct a series of experiments into the vexed scientific issue of the electrical conductivity of blackcurrant juice as applied to the interesting slits in the back of the television set, opened a providential space in our lives.
All parents and grandparents please take note: if asked to name the chief advantage of His Royal Highnesses’ scientific curiousity I would say this: we are now in control of our loungeroom and a greater part of our lives.
Please also note: there are some difficulties that are real and which should be understood before doing away with television.
One is the tendency to use the Internet as a substitute. Just as much time can be wasted on the web as in front of the thing in the corner of almost every Australian home.
This issue is really all about self-control, and that never comes easy. If you are going to do away with the Child Whisperer (and please, God, you do), you must be prepared to fill the empty space.
Today, we have a DVD-player connected to a television set, on which we watch mostly children’s movies and the occasional documentary series.
The local library is a great source of educational and wholesome viewing and a wonderful local resource (while local libraries still exist,that is).
Then there is, from which, armed with a credit card, you can purchase all kinds of things to use as family viewing.
I share one of our greatest discoveries: the animated movies (almost all dubbed into English and all available with subtitles) of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.
They are extraordinary, and show what television could be capable of – but doesn’t do. Try Howl’s Moving Castle, or Spirited Away and see what I mean.
I would not allow a stranger into our house to whisper continuously at our children and my wife and me for the next twenty or thirty years. So why should you?