Fifteen Years Ago I Unplugged My TV
In the UK every TV set purchased requires a license fee which goes towards covering the cost of public service broadcasting (the BBC in this case). The fee extends to laptops with a TV tuner card and standalone PC or laptop TV aerials. So seriously does the U.K. government take the paying of the license fee that it sends special unmarked vans festooned with electromagnetic radiation sensors to tour neighborhoods in search of offenders. Those caught owning a TV set without having paid their license fee, face prosecution and a hefty fine with the threat of jail time if the fine is not paid. This is why one fine morning in 2005 I found myself talking to an officious-sounding man from the TV Licensing team, on the phone who was finding it so difficult to believe what I was telling him that he was feeling compelled to threaten me.
“We can raid you without warning and if we find out you’re lying you will be in trouble. Big, big trouble.” He said trying to drive home to me the magnitude of the trouble I could find myself in.
January 2005 was when my life fell apart. I got divorced, quit my job, changed career trajectory and toyed with the idea of leaving the country for a while as I sought to pull myself back together and reprioritize what was most important to me. Owning a TV set was not on my list of priorities which is why I was, at that moment in time, having that weird discussion with the officious sounding individual threatening me. Having found my name in the Electoral roll and cross-referenced it with licensee fee paying records, he could see that I wasn’t on the latter. He was determined to fix this.
Content, Coverage and Access
The period after WWII in Britain marked an explosion in television content that was also accompanied by an improvement in broadcast quality and a downward trend in the cost of owning a television set. This led to a television ownership penetration curve that is paralleled by many other countries in both the developed and developing worlds. In that constellation of nations with high TV-penetration Britain, at position 25, shows that 97.5% of its households own and operate a television set.
The impact of television on society has been endlessly poured over by media analysts, sociologists and academics from various disciplines. The Guardian called it the mass medium that provides “a communal confirmation of experience” and original Pew Research showed that television is the preferred medium of communication for roughly three out of every four Americans.
Television is so ingrained in our daily life that we frequently turn it on the moment we wake up and turn it off when we go to bed. Its hum of news, opinions and entertainment now forms the common cultural backdrop against which we live our life, daily.
Visiting places we’ve never been to before and meeting people we’ve never really met via the visual medium of television however does something weird to the brain. Because vision is mainly mental we tend to ‘believe’ what our eyes have shown us. At a neurobiological level this creates visual memories that feed into perception which then goes on to determine our sense of what’s possible, what’s plausible and what’s real.
Neurobiology also plays a role in our enthusiastic adoption of television. Our brain has evolved to be curious about the world. This is the reason gossip, which is a way for the brain to better understand social norms, is never going to go away. Television, through its ubiquitous nature and constant flow of information (series, movies, documentaries, news, adverts,) becomes an easy channel for the brain to latch onto in order to satisfy that curiosity. In this fashion emerge cultural stereotypes about people we haven’t met, and a perception is created about “right”, “wrong” and how safe the world around us is. These are then used by us to have ideas, form opinion and make decisions.
Television, in other words, creates a common reality we readily accept because its entry threshold into our lives is low and its input is sufficiently populated with detail to always make it seem ‘real’. Consider it like an umbilical cord through which we are fed what we consume. It keeps us free of any feeling of effort in how we survive but, at the same time, it keeps us tethered to the nutrition the host body we are in thinks we need.
In time we habituate to all this to such a degree that to live without its information flow appears to be unthinkable.
The only real control we have lies in the way our attention is directed and what we then do about it.
Doing The Unthinkable
“We have means of determining if you have a TV, even if it’s a tuner card on your laptop. You can’t hide from us,” my interlocutor, kept on piling on the belligerence. In retrospect I can see that he was operating on the assumption that pulling the plug on watching TV was so inconceivable that for me not to have one was clearly a lie. So, now I am kinder in my assessment of him. At the time his insinuation that I was lying was beginning to irk to the point that I ended the conversation by inviting him to raid my home any time he felt up to it and hung up.
It’s not that I didn’t feel the lack of having a televisions set. Unlike most other people in addition to a healthy curiosity about the world around me, I also worked at the time as a freelance journalist which meant that I had a very real, professional need to be plugged into the zeitgeist. To compensate for the lack of a TV set, I had to devise an entirely new information-gathering strategy for myself.
What I did in 2005, when the internet was not as developed, smartphones were merely portable email servers and accessing the web meant going to your desktop, was put in the time to build a personal web of interlaced information sources, that has since become the blueprint I refined, expanded and still use today. Although I now do own a TV set its aerial has never been plugged in. I use it for games, Netflix and casting from my phone or tablet.
The jailbreaking of my attention from the grip of news organizations was, admittedly, an accident. The unexpected side effect of my not owning a TV set but still needing to be plugged into what was happening in the world. But by creating my own process to replace it, I learnt to direct my interests myself, refuse to be sidetracked by distractions and do my own verification of authenticity and research on information. Fake news, when it became a thing, was something I was largely immune to as a result of my approach.
So, the recipe: It has five distinct ingredients which have stood the test of time between the relatively archaic digital world of 2005 and the present.
- A handful of authoritative blogs — I made it my mission to find voices of passionate experts who created content, shared expertise and wrote opinion driven by their passion rather than an intent to attract clicks and rank up views to sell advertising. In virtually every case these are individuals. Their voice always provides perspective that’s hard to come by. Their ideas are often original and always thought-provoking. Their opinions frequently presage what’s to come and so act as both early-warning systems and trend-spotters.
- Two credible sources of information geographically apart — The Guardian and The New York Times, for example, may have ideological overlaps but their culture is rooted in their locality. Data creates culture. Culture (which is always local) generates context. Context, in turn, changes the way we view and interpret data. In a world where context collapse is exposing us all to similar stimuli irrespective of locality and creates a homogenous background culture against which our local differences play out, having credible sources from different cultures report on each other’s news and stories provides a unique way to cross-reference what is happening. The approach affords a bird’s eye view of global (and local) issues that strip away distracting arguments and highlight core issues quickly.
- One popular social media channel: In the early days I used Facebook (because there was little else) I then went on to Twitter, Google Plus and now, Twitter again. Social media is a bubble. It is always disproportionately weighed towards power users whose activity slants the world view presented through the social network’s platform. This means that the risk of finding oneself in an information bubble is pretty high. At the same time a social network is a weathervane. It shows public sentiment and opinion long before they become apparent and, as such, it has to be an indispensable tool in one’s information arsenal.
- One professional network channel: I’ve always used LinkedIn. Even in the early days. Professional channels are just that. The newsfeed there, such as it is, is usually professional. But they’re great in discovering professional trends. Should outside news breakthrough their isolationist shell it is always a great indicator of impact and they provide a very good indicator of general consumer sentiment.
- An off-beat platform or website: You can take your pick here. I use any platform that offers different and differing views without being an exclusively conspiracy-filled site or a politically extreme one. Imgur, Tumblr, Digg, Reddit or any of the Diaspora domains fit the description. These frequently help define the background context of emerging trends. Sometimes they act like the canary in the coal mine, signaling change before it happens. They can also help create context for extreme beliefs like Flat Earthers or believers in Chemtrails.
The Lessons Learnt
Everyone has an agenda. The news organization with its thirty-minute slots of information, packaged neatly for easy consumption and presented twice a day (and, occasionally, on a repeat loop) is guided by men and women who have something to gain that is distinct from what you and I do.
By unplugging my TV set I was forced to plug into the digital information flow of the world at large. As a result my view on politics, technology and society became location-agnostic without ignoring the value and impact of location and context. Big issues became easier to understand and big-picture thinking an easier thing to do.
As an example consider that The Social Media Mind released in 2012 was written on the move between Miami in the U.S. and Manchester in the U.K. and it was ahead of its time by far.
Google Semantic Search written the following year presaged Google’s Hummingbird change in search and the focus on semantic analysis Google would bring to bear across its entire range of products and was written as I travelled across Europe.
Google+ Hangouts for Business produced the year after that correctly signaled the switch to video on the web and offered techniques to help webmasters take advantage of them and for most of it I was situated in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Tribe That Discovered Trust, a year later, highlighted the intense interest in building trust in a digital domain that was the prevalent need of its time. SEO Help, in the same year brought practical semantic search techniques within the grasp of every webmaster.
The Sniper Mind was an exception in that it required me to take a three year sabbatical and dive into the world of neuroscience. At the same time it built on the growing awareness of neuroscience and the importance of psychology on marketing, branding and selling just as the field exploded with new discoveries and everyone focused on the mechanics of decision-making.
The real point here is that the timing of these books wouldn’t have been possible had I been bound to the reactive, pre-packaged, shaped-and-served news cycle that reflected someone else’s idea of what’s important.
The only real control we have lies in the way our attention is directed and what we then do about it.
If we don’t direct it ourselves, because it still craves a direction, someone else will do it for us. Unplugging my TV set me free. I didn’t unplug from what’s happening in the world. I chose, initially out of necessity and subsequently by design, to plug into it on my terms and decide what was important to me based on my values.
So can you.