online: 1 june 2004
modified: 1, 2 june 2004

31 may 2004 what's wrong with tv?

(a fragment of theory)

13:40 Looking across the street my attention goes to a flickering or jumping light in a room opposite... Then I recognise it as a tv screen, too small and far away for me to see what the images are - all I can see are suddenly-changing colours as the picture switches from one camera to another - and of course I can't hear the sound.

Unable to see the images (or their meaning - the continuity of 'the story' that is being told) I see only the abrupt, coarse, camera changes - surely far more sudden and disorienting than is the continuity of images that we see (consciously or unconsciously) while moving our eyes, heads and bodies in the course of 'ordinary living' (and perhaps coarser and rougher in tv than in the consciously composed flow of images of a carefully-edited cinematic film?)

Immediately on noticing this (to me a most significant observation) I remembered the first time I watched television. My main impression was of immense fatigue, as after very hard work. I felt exhausted and shocked at the difficultly of inferring meaning from this crude succession of visually disconnected images, linked only by the insistent force of the 'story' and the edited sound track, the 'meaning' imposed and intended by the director and the rest of the production team.

After a day or two I found that my eyes and nervous system had learnt to respond to this phenomenon without the conscious effort that accompanied my first viewings - but not without a feeling of relief, when switching off after an evening's viewing... That relief I still felt, years later.

I wondered if this effect, or alienation (deriving from the economic wish to attract and to hold the largest possible audience) extends to all experience of industrial life and culture?... Probably, in pre-industrial culture (even if agricultural) this high degree of disruption of perception is not present... except perhaps in initiation rituals, or in war?

I then remembered how I'd noticed*, in tourists, and in exhibition goers, the bewildered eye movements of people who 'don't know where they are' or 'what they are looking at'. The eye movements of people who are in known places, doing known things, are far smoother and well-directed, and are much more skilled.

This, I thought soon afterwards, is probably the basis of my profound dislike of television and refusal to have a tv in my home/workplace. But I try to imagine a vastly improved form of television (free of the need for imposed meaning or for audience manipulation) that could emerge eventually. It will I hope appear in fictional form in this softopia.

*john chris jones, technology changes, princelet editions, 25 Princelet Street, London E1 6QH, 1984. ISBN 0-86298-010-0. Notes re eye-movements pages 45-48.

(these pages are designed to be read with the window set to two-thirds of the screen width)

what's new


digital diary archive

© 2002, 2003 john chris jones

You may transmit this text to anyone for any non-commercial purpose if you include the copyright line and this notice and if you respect the copyright of quotations.

If you wish to reproduce any of this text commercially please send a copyright permission request to jcj at