Ten or so years ago it occurred to me that I spend much of my life staring at screens. I spend hours looking at television, the computer monitor (both desktop and laptop), Kindle and printed material (because isn’t print a primitive form of screen?). Other people stare at their smartphones. (I have avoided getting one. I think they are the spawn of Satan.) The writer David Foster Wallace (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again ) expressed concern with the fact that Americans averaged five hours a day watching television, and he wondered about the social, cultural and political implications of this. Although I have gone in and out of TV most of my life, for the past several years I have watched at least the five-hour daily average, and that does not even include non-TV screens. Many of my pandemic days have consisted largely of drifting among desktop, Kindle, newspapers and magazines, and the big-screen TV.
I could write an essay on each of these (“25 Years of SimCity,” “How the Golden Age of TV Gave Way to the Era of Excess,” “Struggles of an Aging Book Nerd”); however, in the brief space allocated, it seems to me appropriate to look for a unifying theme. (If you are interested in recommendations, or curious about what I watch, here are some that I enjoyed this summer: Big Love and True Blood from HBO via Amazon Prime, The Umbrella Academy from Netflix; on my Kindle, I have been catching up on African American authors, such as Walter Mosely [especially the Easy Rawlins series, but he is very prolific], James Baldwin [The Fire Next Time], Ta-Nehisi Coates [Between the World and Me], and Eddie Glaude Jr. [Begin Again]; and, I still spend some time on SimCity 4.)
What are we to make of all this screen-watching? (And, of course, are there any economic implications?) From Wallace I got the insight that the job of television is to keep you watching. (I have not worked this out to the fullest, but is this not true for any content creator, be it author, painter, TV producer, etc.? This is how they make money, which is necessary for the existence of the media.) For the first 30 years of my life, TV was dominated by the three major networks, who depended entirely on sponsored ads for revenue. This very much shaped the content. Perhaps there were subtle differences (ABC, traditionally the youngest network with the smallest audience, had a reputation for being edgier — but not by much). PBS did not become a network until the late ’60s or early ’70s. The big change came with the proliferation of channels on cable, and, I would say most importantly, the emergence of HBO. The proliferation of channels allowed content aimed at smaller audiences, such as the Golf Channel, the Fishing Network, Fox News, etc. (Product differentiation in action.) The arrival of pay TV meant there were no sponsors to placate. The question for the creators of pay TV became, What will people pay to watch?
In the early days of HBO, they mainly showed movies. Their competitive advantage was no ads, and no censorship. They also experimented quite a bit with this freedom. There were some lousy “adult” shows like Taxicab Confessions that persisted for a surprisingly long time. But the big breakthrough was The Sopranos starting in 1999. (HBO’s foray into high-quality programming was preceded by the Larry Sanders Show  and OZ , but it was The Sopranos that received the glowing reception.) My impression, over the years, is that HBO continues to take chances, with a number of duds that no one remembers (John from Cincinnati), some cult favorites (such as The Wire and Deadwood), some shows that were widely popular that I did not especially like (Sex and the City, Entourage), and some spectacular successes that are both critically and popularly acclaimed (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Game of Thrones).
In addition to the insights I got from David Foster Wallace, my thinking about staring at screens has also been influenced by the philosopher Charles Taylor (Modern Social Imaginaries ). Taylor describes the transformation from the medieval world to modernity as consisting of no less than a complete reimagining of the structure of society. Specifically, where people once imagined a world of hierarchical complementarity, in the modern world they imagine a world organized around mutually beneficial exchange among equals. This obviously describes a market economy, leading me to conclude that economics is a quintessentially modern discipline. One aspect of this transformation, and a key feature of the modern world, is the emergence of a public opinion that matters. (Francis Fukuyama also makes this point in The Origins of Political Order, I.)
Along with this emergence came the advent of the industry of influencing public opinion. Of course, advertising is a specie of this, but so are other forms of rhetoric, propaganda and outright lying. A big reason for trying to shape public opinion is to protect or to acquire power and/or wealth. From the standpoint of one whose purpose is to understand life, for which purpose truth is a prerequisite, those who see truth as a secondary good at best, and for whom truth may be the obstacle to be overcome, are natural enemies.
It has long seemed to me that the best TV shows, such as The Wire or Game of Thrones, succeed because, no matter how fantastical the story (think flying dragons), they do not hit any false emotional notes. Free from the need to avoid offending sponsors, these shows are able to present complex characters who cannot always be simplified into “goodies” and “baddies.” Throughout the six seasons of The Sopranos, the viewer is always trying to figure out whether Tony is really a decent, caring family man, or a sociopathic monster. The show never decides that for the viewer. This emotional realism makes the stories resonate. If a show is obviously contrived to arrive at an ending where good prevails, and evil doing is always punished, and all of this within an hour, my reaction is that this is a show for young children. (Slightly more sophisticated: think of all the movies that end with everyone at the office, or the bar, or the classroom, cheering for the couple who finally got together.)
There is a tradition of hostility by philosophers to Sophists, originating with Plato. The Sophists, with their emphasis on rhetoric, taught persuasive rather than truthful arguing. In the 1960s, “rhetoric” was widely used as a synonym for “baloney.” But D. McCloskey (The Rhetoric of Economics ) convinced me that rhetoric is unavoidable. He argues that for one to say, “I don’t do rhetoric; I do science,” is itself rhetorical. What occurred to me later is that the inevitability of rhetoric stems from human self-awareness. Self-awareness implies that we have choices as to how we present ourselves. I think about this when I watch the many TV programs during the pandemic that consist of people talking on Zoom. Why am I willing to endure some people, and not others? I like the ones who seem to be speaking directly, who are clear, and who appear to be honest. I have no time for anyone who appears to be reciting preassigned talking points. I have no time for anyone who plays the role of a hockey goon, making discussion impossible by repeatedly shouting some slogan. I have no time for anyone who deliberately obfuscates with double-talk or distractions. In the end I seek beauty. One of the blessings of aging is that I have come to appreciate many forms of beauty. I am well past the superficial magazine-cover approach. I was in my 50s when I realized that I thought Gwen Ifill of PBS was beautiful. The reason, simply enough, was that she made me feel glad to be alive and a human being.