"A new, hard test of our wisdom"

Back in August, Terry Teachout suggested in the Wall Street Journal that those of us grappling with new media take a few lessons from the history of TV. Television succeeded for a number of reasons, he says, including its unanimous, unquestioning acceptance by the people.

Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.

But is this accurate? Did everyone embrace it “without a second thought?”

In a remarkable essay “A Forecast of Television” (1935), Rudolf Arnheim wrote:

Television is a new, hard test of our wisdom. If we succeed in mastering the new medium it will enrich us. But it can also put our mind to sleep. We must not forget that in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts. For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think. When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

More from the same article:

Television will make up for actual physical presence even more than does radio. All the more isolated will be the individual in his retreat, and the balance of trade will be correspondingly precarious: an enormous influx of riches, consumption without services in return. The pathetic hermit, squatting in his room, hundreds of miles away from the scene that he experiences as his present life, the ‘viewer’ who cannot even laugh or applaud without feeling ridiculous, is the final product of a century-long development, which has led from the campfire, the market place, and the arena to the lonesome consumer of spectacles today.

Arnheim does not fit into Terry Teachout’s plan. He neither embraced TV nor fled to the past. He wrote of its potential dangers, but he was no misty-eyed radio-knob-turner. His wariness of the new technology was prescient, not nostalgic.

What can we learn from the past? That TV was immensely popular but not unanimously and unquestioningly accepted. Nor were the critics all clinging to the past. No matter what trends come our way, no matter how popular they may be, they need critics so they don’t get out of hand.


  1. Diana, you might be interested in my post on the social/psychological impact of new media technologies: duz web mak us dumr?

  2. I think Neil Postman’s assessment of TV is even more accurate when applied to web technologies.

  3. Without a doubt, the workings of the dominant mass medium will always have extreme effects on both society and the individual’s thought processes.

    The world of print encouraged reflective, analytical, independent minds, producing the culture that westerners think of as normal: rapid technological progress, separation of church and state, so-called democracy, and capitalism.

    The world of screen, particularly television, massively limited the reach of print into the full population, while producing effects of its own that seem nearly opposite: in particular, shortened attention spans and valuation of entertainment and emotion over ideas.

    Neil Postman’s books (Especially Entertaining Ourselves to Death) did a wonderful job of contrasting the heyday of print with the television era.

    It is beyon mere mortals to figure out, however, where the Internet and its allies will take us. An early guess is a valuation of options over all else. Where print produced a cultural norm of investigation and television produced a cultural norm of recreation, I suspect we will now see a cultural norm of choices take hold.

    But what will happen to community? Family? The balance between large and small business? Between general citizenry and the elites? And how about intellectual ownership?

    However, my read on history is that the critics will prove to be irrelevant. Technology’s impact has little to do with an informed citizenry deciding upon the rules (except perhaps in Amish communities). The new technology will take us where its structure takes us, and we will be alarmed as we go along and surprised when we get there — although, when our grandchildren go back and read through all the predictions from the early 2000s, some will have some truth, if only due to the law of averages.

  4. timfromtexas says:

    I’m always out and about finding out and experiencing things on my own. I don’t watch tv and never go to the movies. Why would I want to watch that which I already know over and over and over again.

    I’m 66 years old and I’m out,more or less, from 7 am until 9 pm or later every single day. I’m not afraid. I don’t need tv or a movie to tell me what to think,or what is frightening.

  5. Interesting post, Diana, and a topic that I’ve been thinking about lately as I struggle to cope with the new gadgets placed in my classroom last month. As with pedagogical innovations, tech innovations seem to be dropped into our laps with great fanfare and predictions of glory –and then never evaluated to see if the benefits outweighed the costs. In fact, I bet that few Americans would ever even acknowledge that there COULD be an innovation that had net negative effect. Innovation = good is an article of faith in America. Nevermind the massive disruptions each time an old tool is replaced by a new one. I love these tech triumphalists who seem to delight in the demise of newspapers. Old = bad, contemptible, deserves to die.

  6. I dunno – TV seems fairly popular – what was your point?

  7. wow, Arnheim was pretty accurate with his prediction….so I wonder if the internet and blogging is a step forward or back…or maybe to the side….at least we have some dialog and interaction..but it does take away from much of the human element of interaction.

  8. The funny thing about TV is that is sucks us into watching it. I had an interesting experience years ago. My TV broke, and we used a black & white portable for several months.

    After a few days, I noticed that we we turning it off and walking away once the show we were watching was over, rather than sitting passively, waiting for the “next show”. It just wasn’t that interesting.

    When we replaced the TV with a color model, we were back in the habit of passive, mindless viewing of whatever was on. It appears that the more “lifelike” the picture, the more we watched TV.

    I hate to think of the lure of HDTV – our society may begin to resemble the people in Wall-E.