The Human Network

In their song “Child of Vision,” the band Supertramp rattled off a quick line that is simple in structure, but profound in its message.

You watch the television, because it tells you that you should.

I used to laugh when I found myself, glassy-eyed, scrolling through an endless assortment of satellite TV channels, the guide spinning through line after line of options. Like most people, I’d been fooled into thinking that this continuous string of networks represented a bounty of choices for me. But, in reality, the choice began and ended when I hit POWER.

I watched the television because it not only told me that I should, but because it had created an artificial aura of community, one that exists in the vacant stares of millions who don’t want to be left out. There aren’t dozens of little networks flowing through the digital pipeline; there’s one giant, optical network, spanning from coast to coast, capturing its affiliates (you and me) and repeatedly reminding them that they must stay connected.

Joining The Tribe

I was a loyal affiliate for many years. Although the amount of screen time I invested in the human network was well below average - which today, between television and Internet, amounts to a staggering eight-plus hours every day - I was convinced I had to keep up with the rest of the country. I had to know who the judges ripped, or who was voted off, or what the winning answer was. I was a slave in crystal-clear high definition.

Perhaps the television show Survivor resonated so strongly with people in its first few years - before the basic formula was usurped and copied again and again - through its primal association with the word tribe. The contestants weren’t the only ones separated into these clusters; the viewing audience, whether they knew it or not, had coalesced into one giant tribe. It’s no surprise that the symbolism of being “voted off the island” worked so well; as a nation, we’ve clearly established that we don’t want to be out of the loop. When people gather and socialize, they seek out common denominators, common points of reference. Television wormed its way into our daily national dialogue, to the point where those who don’t know the latest pop-culture tidbit or celebrity gossip can feel isolated. And for many people that’s not a comfortable feeling.

So they tune in. The television - and the human network - tells them that they should.

To be fair, it’s not a new phenomenon. The most popular television show in the 1950s, I Love Lucy, allegedly prompted many restaurants to close on Monday nights because they couldn’t compete with Lucy and Ricky. However, while today’s viewing might be dispersed across multiple channels and devices, the effect has become even more intense. Lucy held a nation’s attention for one night a week; today screens (big and small) rule every night.

I’ve managed to gradually disengage from the network, but I’m surrounded by people who are intimately connected with the comings and goings of this year’s crop of insta-celebrities. They know who did what, who said what, and who won’t be around after tonight’s dosage . . . until, of course, that unlucky person gets their own program in two months, recycling the human network into something “new.”

Breaking Through

But I’ve left the island. Each day I hear the buzz from friends and co-workers, often breathless in their analysis, but unless I pick something up through repeated exposure, I’m clueless.

And I’m okay with that. I feel like the airplane that has taken off in a thunderstorm, climbing upward through the gloom and darkness, buffeted by the turbulence, until it breaks through the cloud tops and emerges into blue skies and bright sunshine. To paraphrase another song, I see a little more clearly now.

Exactly five years ago I accelerated the process when I cancelled my satellite television altogether. The original impetus was to save money - money that I knew I needlessly squandered each month for a service I barely used - but the more I examined the idea, the more I realized that it was my final push through the clouds.

Don’t misinterpret, please. In no way am I claiming that I’m somehow superior for abandoning the network, nor am I condemning every programming choice. Indeed, through services like Netflix (and a wide selection of Roku outlets) I can stay informed and entertained. But I came to the realization that I was watching television - and bad television, at that - for no real reason beyond staying connected to the tribe. The sorry excuse of “it’s my escape” just doesn’t wash anymore; you can’t convince me that Americans need eight hours of escape a day. Sheesh, we’re not that overworked.

No, we watch because we dare not unplug from the social network.

But how would your life change if you did?

Thumbnail image courtesy of Marat Gilyadzinov