the tv monster
April 22, 2003 05:35 PM

It turns out that we're freaks at our house.

Maybe because we were both the sort of latchkey kids who were allowed to do homework while watching 3-2-1 Contact or maybe resulting from some multitasking gene, embracing of pop culture or other oddity, we don't really get sucked into the television.

I've always assumed that the icon of child or beer-can-toting armchair driver staring unmoving at the glare of a television set was largely a propaganda tool. A great portion of my family's interaction now and as a kid took place with some form of media background - music, television, reading at the dinner table. These things weren't outlawed as a distraction from real life, but accepted as part of life. Don't most families work this way?

Turns out - no. My informal survey of my friends, which started last weekend with one of those semi-intelligent discussions you try to have in a too-loud bar, reveals that it's more common for television and other media to be forbidden. Homework is homework, reading is reading, and television-watching is an activity unto itself.

I had no idea.

And. This is a cultural problem in America. Television, particularly, is only occasionally enough to occupy the brain without any other stimulus. It's not that interesting, or that informative, when you consider how effectively people can process multiple stimuli in the background and keep on working (this is, for instance, one reason you can work in a cube environment and not constantly be looking over your shoulder). People are good at giving focus to one thing without ignoring others completely.

By forbidding ourselves and our kids from ingesting multiple media at once, we reject this capability in ourselves and fail to train it. We make ourselves worse at driving, at defending ourselves, at getting things done - because we assume we have only the attention to pay to one thing at a time.

I have no doubt that part of the reason I am now so productive at work and so creative at home is my ability to work on multiple levels simultaneously, and I'm equally sure that these things are a direct results of years spent doing homework in front of the television and reading while listening to music on the porch.

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your wicked thoughts

And it helps us handle multiple things in life. I'm like you, I was able to do homework as a kid with the TV or radio on. I still do it. The fact that I let myself get sucked in is more due to the fact that I don't want to do my work. My hubby hates it. He was brought up to do homework without tv/radio...quiet at the kitchen table. Our kids will get to do whichever they want. Just as long as it gets done! :)

these are the thoughts of Roni on April 24, 2003 11:44 AM

its a blogger love-in!

the reasons that I love you: You're a good friend who was able to look past a lot of my weird personality stuff. I love that you always write with a specific purpose and point and am happy that I can relate to most of it.

these are the thoughts of eris on April 25, 2003 12:08 PM

Interesting--instead of bemoaning the "good old days" when people did one thing at a time, maybe we should be exploring the possibilities of multitasking. I see my students in the computer lab (5 or so years younger than me), and they are always simultaneously downloading an MP3, talking on IM, working on an essay in Word, and sending an e-mail. It's kind of amazing that this stuff has become second nature--but your point about TV means that it's not entirely a new phenomenon.

these are the thoughts of Ruggles on April 27, 2003 10:46 PM

I see your point, but I think you may be ignoring something I think is a huge factor in how I respond to t.v.: the idea that people can differ in attention-dividing abilities, not because of upbrining, but simply because of brain-pattern. Nature, not nurture.

I, for instance, am _terrible_ at divicing attention. When a television is on (at a restaurant, for instance), and I don't want to watch it, it drives me crazy. My focus isn't strong enough to cope with tuning out a noise and light-pattern-filled distraction.

I do best when I'm allowed to focus all my attention in on the task at hand, whether that's having a conversation, writing an essay, or watching t.v. I participate intensely in one activity, complete it quickly, and then move on to the next. It works for me, too -- as long as someone doesn't try to make me listen to music while I work or talk to me while I'm writing, I'm efficient, focused, and able to do whatever I'm trying to do well. (At work, if someone needs to talk to me while I'm doing something, I stop what I'm doing, conduct the coversation, and then continue. I don't do both at the same time, because my work quality would decrease. I _can_ tune out the sounds of others working, because those stimuli aren't terribly obtrusive, most of the time.)

My sister, on the other hand, who was brought up with exactly the same television rules as me (in fact, even stricter "no t.v." rules at some points -- I got to watch when I got home from school, but she didn't) is a champion attention-divider. She listens to music, looks at web-pages, IMs her friends, and does her homework all at one time. I get dizzy just looking at that amount of attention-dividing activities.

So what I'm saying is that, while forbidding something can definitely make it a more inviting lure, I'm not convinced that it changes how you _focus_ on it. I might _want_ to watch t.v. more because it was made into a special activity for me as a child, but I doubt, even if I'd watched a lot of t.v. as a kid, that I would be an attention-divider. It's not how my brain works. In terms of syndromes, I'm more Asberger's, my sister's more ADD, and I suspect that's how most people work, too.

these are the thoughts of gloamling on April 28, 2003 11:15 AM

I find that as I get older, these things change for me, in terms of my attention dividability. That or I'm trying harder to be productive after a long, long time of not being so, so I'm finally noticing how to do that. When I'm at work, I can do most of my tasks with the music playing. When I'm watching TV, I get bored unless I'm also doing something else, but not something too intensive.

However, if I try to compose a really complicated essay/post I MUST turn off the radio. Or if I want to do some really complicated task, I cannot do it in front of the TV.

My thoughts from our chat, or what I was trying to get across, I guess, was that I feel like most of what is on television is such a waste of time that even if I could divide my attention really well I wouldn't want to spend any of it on TV.

However as it has been proven to me over and over again, you can't confine yourself to serious, important things all the time. I aspire to it, but the closer I get to that perfection, the more I crave vegging out. Sigh.

these are the thoughts of kim on April 29, 2003 01:21 AM

Of course, I don't think anything is so simple it can be boiled down to this or that. So yes, individual people have different attention threshholds (level of attention to secondary focus items, ability to maintain multiple near-primary focus tasks, etc.). But I do think, when considered as a system, people are getting progressively better at multitasking as a result of the multidude of media.

And Kim, I think I got what you said about TV mostly sucking and then chose to ignore it. I recall you distinctly saying almost exactly that, but it brings up a whole different issue that I wasn't prepared to talk about - namely, that I don't think television (even just non-cable) sucks as much as conventional hipster wisdom claims it does. It doesn't live up to its artistic potential, but as an educational and entertainment medium, I think it's doing alright.

I find that a lot of the things I'd split my attention between are mutually exclusive - say, reading and dancing. So the television serves a function of filling what feels like empty space for me when I'm really doing something else.

these are the thoughts of april on April 29, 2003 01:13 PM

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