The Sopranos vs. Star Trek

Dear Steven,

Yesterday I got so worked up in my response to you that I ran way over my word count, so I’ll keep this brief. To begin with the Gipper’s question, I’m not so sure we can unproblematically claim to be “better off” in terms of televisual offerings today than we were 30 years ago. Comparing CHiPs,alow-end network cop drama of its day,to The Sopranos,a premium-cable offering that’s arguably the most sophisticated television show in the history of the medium, seems like some serious deck-stacking to me. But even if we posit that the ‘70s were a particularly low point for TV (just my luck, as a child watching endless amounts of it), skip back a few years and you have smart, literate, politically savvy shows like The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, or the original Star Trek. Comparing the relative merits of different decades is a fun parlor game, but ultimately, every era will have its high-end, intelligent works of art and its dumb, gladiatorial spectacles. The advent of cable has certainly increased the number of worthwhile shows on television (and thereby, perhaps, raised our expectations of what TV can be), but has it increased the percentage?

Your point about televised advertising being more skippable than it was 30 years ago is well-taken. But I have two important objections: First of all, the technologies that enable us to avoid advertising (TiVo, HBO, renting entire seasons on DVD) are class-bound; they’re available only to those who can afford them, which means that the commercial breaks of network television are rapidly becoming the province of the less well-off. Second, even as that happens, the advertising industry is mutating like a virus, finding new ways of invading our consciousness at every waking second. Recently, TiVo added “billboard” ads that pop up as consumers fast-forward through commercials. And the inroads product placement is making into program content are well-known. If advertisers could embed microchips in our inner ear playing the Oscar Mayer jingle they would, and I’m sure they’re working on it now.

I know that each new technology paradigm shift has brought in its wake a nostalgia for the technology that existed before. (Your book has an epigram by Marshall McLuhan to this effect.) After the printing press took off in the 16th century, there were no doubt cranks bemoaning the damage that would be wrought by the Gutenberg Bible (though their arguments would likely have been framed in terms of spiritual, not intellectual, decline). But even for those of us not given to Cassandra-like declamations about cultural decay, there’s something a little too rosy about your book’s assertion that everything is for the best in this most cognitively demanding of all possible worlds.

In general, I tend to mistrust arguments about culture that claim an evolutionary progression of any kind (“Hey, we’re getting smarter!”) for the same reason I look askance on those who bewail the loss of some formerly pristine state: Evolution and devolution are flip sides of the same coin, and both models can be easily deployed for ideological purposes. I’m not accusing you of this—your book is clearly motivated by a scientific curiosity about the effects of new media. But I do think that too complacent an appraisal of the merits of these technologies runs the risk of turning us into uncritical consumers of them.

Because you conclude on the notion of “hope,” I’ll end by hoping that you and I, coming as we do from different approaches to media criticism, both share a desire to keep open the question of exactly what our culture’s working definition of “intelligence” should include. Does it allow for imagination? Aesthetic judgment? Critical thinking? And if so, how can we make sure that our relationship to technology encourages these difficult-to-define, but essential, qualities, as well as more quantifiable skills?

Thanks—I’ve enjoyed our back-and-forth these last two days, and I hope your book is flying off the shelves, so that many people can continue the conversation.