Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A series of technical events

with 6 comments

In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which was first published in the late seventies, the author Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive, lists a few of the “technical tricks” that television can use to stimulate the viewer’s interest:

Editors make it possible for a scene in one room to be followed instantly by a scene in another room, or at another time, or another place. Words appears over the images. Music rises and falls in the background. Two images or three can appear simultaneously. One image can be superposed on another on the screen. Motion can be slowed down or sped up.

These days, we take most of these effects for granted, as part of the basic grammar of the medium, but to Mander, they’re something more sinister. Technique, he argues, is replacing content, and at its heart, it’s something of a confidence game:

Through these technical events, television images alter the usual, natural imagery possibilities, taking on the quality of a naturally highlighted event. They make it seem that what you are looking at is unique, unusual, and extraordinary…But nothing unusual is going on. All that’s happening is that the viewer is watching television, which is the same thing that happened an hour ago, or yesterday. A trick has been played. The viewer is fixated by a conspiracy of dimmed-out environments combined with an artificial, impossible, fictitious unusualness.

In order to demonstrate “the extent to which television is dependent upon technical tricks to maintain your interest,” Mander invites the reader to conduct what he calls a technical events test:

Put on your television set and simply count the number of times there is a cut, a zoom, a superimposition, a voiceover, the appearance of words on the screen—a technical event of some kind…Each technical event—each alteration of what would be natural imagery—is intended to keep your attention from waning as it might otherwise…Every time you are about to relax your attention, another technical event keeps you attached..

You will probably find that in the average commercial television program, there are eight or ten technical events for every sixty-second period…You may also find that there is rarely a period of twenty seconds without any sort of technical event at all. That may give you an idea of the extent to which producers worry about whether the content itself can carry your interest.

He goes on to list the alleged consequences of exposure to such techniques, from shortened attention span in adults to heightened hyperactivity in children, and concludes: “Advertisers are the high artists of the medium. They have gone further in the technologies of fixation than anyone else.”

Mander’s argument was prophetic in many ways, but in one respect, he was clearly wrong. In the four decades since his book first appeared, it has become obvious that the “high artists” of distraction and fixation aren’t advertisers, but viewers themselves, and its true canvas isn’t television, but the Internet. Instead of passively viewing a series of juxtaposed images, we assemble our online experience for ourselves, and each time we open a new link, we’re effectively acting as our own editors. Every click is a cut. (The anecdotal figure that the reader spends less than fifteen seconds on the average web page is very close to the frequency of technical events on television, which isn’t an accident.) We do a better job of distracting ourselves than any third party ever could, as long as we’re given sufficient raw material and an intuitive interface—which explains much of the evolution of online content. When you look back at web pages from the early nineties, it’s easy to laugh at how noisy and busy they tended to be, with music, animated graphics, and loud colors. This wasn’t just a matter of bad taste, but of a mistaken analogy to television. Web designers thought that they had to grab our attention using the same technical tricks employed by other media, but that wasn’t the case. The hypnotic browsing state that we’ve all experienced isn’t produced by any one page, but by the succession of similar pages as the user moves between them at his or her private rhythm. Ideally, from the point of view of a media company, that movement will take place within the same family of pages, but it also leads to a convergence of style and tone between sites. Most web pages these days look more or less the same because it creates a kind of continuity of experience. Instead of the loud, colorful pages of old, they’re static and full of white space. Mander calls this “the quality of even tone” of television, and the Internet does it one better. It’s uniform and easily aggregated, and you can cut it together however you like, like yard goods.

In fact, it isn’t content that gives us the most pleasure, but the act of clicking, with the sense of control it provides. This implies that bland, interchangeable content is actually preferable to more arresting material. The easier it is to move between basically similar units, the closer the experience is to that of an ideally curated television show—which is why different sources have a way of blurring together into the same voice. When I’m trying to tell my wife about a story I read online, I often have trouble remembering if I read it on Vox, Vulture, or Vice, which isn’t a knock against those sites, but a reflection of the unconscious pressure to create a seamless browsing experience. From there, it’s only a short step to outright content mills and fake news. In the past, I’ve called this AutoContent, after the interchangeable bullet points used to populate slideshow presentations, but it’s only effective if you can cut quickly from one slide to another. If you had to stare at it for longer than fifteen seconds, you wouldn’t be able to stand it. (This may be why we’ve come to associate quality with length, which is more resistant to being to reduced to the filler between technical events. The “long read,” as I’ve argued elsewhere, can be a marketing category in itself, but it does need to try a little harder.) The idea that browsing online is a form of addictive behavior isn’t a new one, of course, and it’s often explained in terms of the “random rewards” that the brain receives when we check email or social media. But the notion of online content as a convenient source of technical events is worth remembering. When we spend any period of time online, we’re essentially watching a television show while simultaneously acting as its editor and director, and often as its writer and actors. In the end, to slightly misquote Mander, all that’s happening is that the reader is seated in front of a computer or looking at a phone, “which is the same thing that happened an hour ago, or yesterday.” The Internet is better at this than television ever was. And in a generation or two, it may result in television being eliminated after all.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2017 at 9:18 am

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Occasionally there can even be a “resonance” effect between two or more sites. I read two different sites discussing turning a story into a serial. The two different sites sparked some ideas that neither might have alone. You’ve written on this sort of synergy in other areas, IIRC.

    dellstories

    March 14, 2017 at 10:22 am

  2. I’ll bet the average pace, of 8 to 10 “technical events” per minute, is considerably higher in today’s TV than in the Seventies TV Mander was writing about.

    I’ll bet there are media-studies academics somewhere who measure this, though they may have different jargon for it.

  3. I remember Mander’s book as somewhat dull. I salute your indefatigability, anyway.

    If you haven’t come across it and have the time (and interest), a rather more original jeremiad against TV culture of about the same 40-years-ancient vintage (it was first published in 1978 and occupied a whole issue of William Shawn’s NEW YORKER) was/is George W. S. Trow’s WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT.

    https://www.amazon.com/Within-Context-George-W-S-Trow/dp/0871136740/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

    I see that the NEW YORKER’s site has up the first page or so of Trow’s book. Here’s the first graf ….

    WONDER

    Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1980/11/17/within-the-context-of-no-context

    And so on. Retrospectively, Trow looks like a David Foster Wallace precursor now, I guess, except I find Trow somewhat less tedious. Like DFW, he was something of a tragic character, who eventually left Tina Brown’s NEW YORKER and America itself in disgust, and died destitute in Naples, Italy.

    Mark Pontin

    March 14, 2017 at 7:09 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: Thanks for the tip about George W. S. Trow. I’m going to check him out.

    nevalalee

    March 27, 2017 at 10:11 am

  5. @Bill Higgins: I’d be curious about this, too! There have been similar studies conducted on the frequency of cuts in movies, which yield more or less the results you’d expect.

    nevalalee

    March 27, 2017 at 10:12 am

  6. @dellstories: Good point!

    nevalalee

    March 27, 2017 at 10:12 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: