Tocqueville And the Tube
From the April 18, 2011 issue of NR


Excessive television watching would be a problem for any society, but it’s an especially critical problem for a free one that wants to stay free. Democracy requires that people pay attention and participate in public affairs. Television encourages the opposite, exacerbating a preexisting condition in American culture first diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who long before American Idol saw what might make Americans idle.

Tocqueville sought to understand democracy itself as a new technology. Democracy extends citizens’ movement beyond their previous boundaries in feudal and aristocratic hierarchies, enabling them to do pretty much what they like. In that sense it constitutes a technology of freedom. But Tocqueville worried that citizens might use the new technology in ways that undermined their prospects for maintaining freedom. He observed Jacksonian-era Americans with relatively modest aspirations: 

adding a few acres to one’s fields, planting an orchard, enlarging a house, making life ever easier and more comfortable, keeping irritations away, and satisfying one’s slightest needs without trouble and almost without expense.

So far, so good. The problem lies not with these “petty aims” but with attachment:

The soul cleaves to them; it dwells on them every day and in great detail; in the end they shut out the rest of the world and sometimes come between the soul and God.

If we move beyond the historical specificity of the examples — I struggle just to keep my grass mown, let alone plant an orchard — we see that Tocqueville captures our present dilemma. TV, like democracy, is a technology of freedom. It provides a window onto many worlds and offers vast amounts of information. It also caters ever more perfectly to the very proclivities — materialism and privatism — that in Tocqueville’s view produce dissatisfaction and disengagement, tending “to isolate men from each other.”

Sound familiar? It should. Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone chronicled a 40-year decline in community engagement and social connectedness, or “social capital,” a trend that closely resembles what Tocqueville called “individualism.” Putnam subtly divided the blame among a host of social, economic, and political factors, but TV viewing came in for the lion’s share. The more TV you watch, the more likely you are to be disengaged from your community, disengaged from political affairs, and disengaged from all kinds of face-to-face socializing. As Putnam put it, “people now watch Friends rather than having friends.” Critics have contested Putnam’s findings, arguing that news programming does not have the same negative correlations as entertainment TV, and that the worst effects are of heavy rather than moderate TV viewing. But the overall data tell a clear story: TV-watching correlates negatively with social and community life. The Italian economists Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca concur, arguing that while “relational goods” (Putnam’s “social capital”) vitally affect our sense of personal happiness, TV crowds them out with its cheap short-term pleasures.

Marshall McLuhan proposed that all technologies, including television, extend human abilities and senses. A shovel extends the hand. A microscope extends the eye. Television and other forms of electronic media extend our entire central nervous system, providing a radically enlarged selection of stimuli. (A scientist in Don DeLillo’s novnovel White Noise feels “proud to be an American” because “we still lead the world in stimuli.”) Given the human weakness for instant gratification, it should come as no surprise that TV-viewing supersedes pursuits with less certain or immediate payoffs, whether informal socializing and community involvement (as Putnam observes) or book-reading (as Postman feared).

This would not have surprised Tocqueville, who would have appreciated the political dimension of our attention-deficit democracy: For those who immerse themselves too completely in their private worlds, self-government can seem an annoying intrusion. Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom and unable to stop it in any case. In the end, democracy as a technology of freedom may actually make citizens more dependent: dependent on an overweening administration and on the petty pleasures for which they sacrificed self-government.