Law in Contemporary Society
I know we have touched on this in class, and that we have touched on much more that should perhaps be far more troubling, yet I keep coming back to TV. So, forgive this post for not being on the readings themselves, but it’s been on my mind. I have to wonder, is TV really destroying my ability to retain information? Is it really so simple that, as we heard growing up, television rots your brain? I have to admit that I watch a good deal of TV in a week—at least an hour a day and much more on the weekends. I eat dinner in front of the TV, and my breaks from studying tend to be curling up on the couch and watching a TIVO’d episode of House. Since TV first came up—I’ve been telling myself that I should go a week without watching it just to see what happens. But I haven’t, and when it actually comes down to it, it feels a lot harder than I would have thought. I was at first skeptical in class of the claim that TV is addictive (because, of course, I’m not addicted—the classic response). But this weekend I found that I’d gone through all my episodes of House, and ended up watching a show that just wasn’t good, and that I didn’t even like, just because I wanted to watch something. Google searches actually reveal quite a few websites on the topic, and some contain “survivor” stories of the cured. So I have to wonder, am I really addicted to television?

Some rehab programs ask you to list the benefits you receive from using your substance of choice, and then to list the negative effects it has on your life. Then, you “rate” how great the benefits are, and how high the disadvantages (say, on a scale of 1-5). The goal is to show you that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits (though I always wonder what the counselor would say if your benefits came out stronger). I won’t bore you with my list, but I’ve got to say that my benefits aren’t sounding that great. Is spending an hour not thinking really such a benefit? If we truly believe that cognito, ergo sum what exactly is going in our brains on when we stop thinking entirely for sometimes hours at a time? One of the google results suggests that (and please forgive me if you have any more of a biology background than myself) TV-watching turns off your analytical left brain and on your emotional right-brain, which releases endorphins. The endorphins not only make you happy (and addicted), but because of that happiness, make you particularly susceptible to advertising. It all sounds like some huge conspiracy theory. TV makes happy citizens and strong consumers. But is it possible that there is some truth in it?

  • Descartes wrote "Cogito, ergo sum," meaning "I think, therefore I am." You had forgotten this, and the best that can be made of your approximate Latin is "I am known about, therefore I exist," which is probably approximately right for the Paris Hilton Era of reality TV.

My “disadvantages” list is somewhat uncertain right now, and I can’t really evaluate it because I’m not sure what I’m losing when I watch TV. So, I know the answer is to just give it a shot, which I think I finally will. Any other TV watchers up for the challenge?

-- EllaAiken - 02 Feb 2009

During the class discussion of the evils of television, I couldn't stop thinking about Malcolm Gladwell's chapter on the mechanisms of Sesame Street in his book The Tipping Point. He discusses the history of the show - how it was established in order to spread the "virus" of literacy to poor children. Her partner in this venture, a psychologist named Gerald Lesser, was skeptical of the potential of such a thing, noting that "television has no potential, no power" to be engaging or interactive. Gladwell goes on to explain that "educational experts describe television as 'low involvement.'"

The moral of the story is that researchers developed Sesame Street in such a way that children would feel engaged in, interacted with, communicated to, and according to Gladwell, scientific studies on the show seem to find that it "increases the reading and learning skills of its viewers."

I wonder if this is different from mindless, addictive television, or if it is still addictive but it yields some positive educational outcomes. Perhaps I'm overlooking some huge negative here that pushes the show away from positive-but-still-an-addictive-medium to just plain negative.

-- MolissaFarber - 02 Feb 2009

While watching the Superbowl this evening, I couldn't help but think of this conversation during a commercial for Hulu. Alec Baldwin might as well have been Professor Moglen, warning the audience of the evil motives of the television networks and the transformation of our wonderful brains into green mush. The sample viewer was giggling softly while watching an episode of Family Guy while an MRI-like image showed his brain disintegrate. Baldwin mocked that even if we (the American public) could turn off our TVs, we could never switch off our computers as well; we will never be safe.

Everyone who paid attention (none of whom are in our class) laughed exactly as did the sample subject. The irony was startling. With this empirical evidence, I must admit I do believe in the mind-numbing power of most television.

But the next step in my thought process was, to what extent is television worthless? I began to formulate three possible benefits (I wonder if you share some of these Ella):

1) Visual transmission of important events - I believe television has the tremendous ability to give billions of people the opportunity to witness great moments in history (i.e. the recent inauguration) at a relatively low cost. Note that all the commentary, superfluous coverage and the like add nothing. This benefit is derived from television purely as a medium.

2). Useful sharing of ideas - Television has the power to be a "marketplace of ideas" and allow useful exchange. However, the prohibitive cost of appearing on television seems to greatly hamper this objective. Also, the ability to converse online (allowing for true interaction) seems more aptly suited.

3) Useful Education - As you alluded to, Molissa, I do believe that programs such as Sesame Street that place an emphasis on interactive learning (not only for children) can serve a useful purpose.

I must admit I do not really use television to achieve any of these goals. I tend to hold onto the "but without it, we'll go bonkers" claim, but I do see the inherent weakness/close-mindedness in this. Maybe today can be the beginning of the end. After all, Alec Baldwin told me so.

-- KeithEdelman - 02 Feb 2009

Ella, I too have considered "experiments" into television abstinence, with a similar lack of resolve best characterized in the classic addict’s statement of "I'll try it tomorrow." From your entry, I would estimate that I am about on your level of TV watching, and I am quite familiar with the frustration that comes when the DVR runs out of fresh episodes and you end up getting sucked in by a series of reality shows, HSN (Sham Wow!), and Food Network until you realize that you’ve spent two hours doing something unproductive and not particularly enjoyable. This leaves me no doubt that television, or rather my choice in watching it, is capable of holding me back from my more fruitful endeavors, but I disagree with Professor Moglen that I should smash my set with a hammer.

Professor Moglen suggested that we use television as an easy escape from the high level of pressure and stress we experience as law students. In this regard, I don’t think this discussion is far removed from the one on OnWhyIAmReluctantToTalkInClass and our fear of being wrong. Both in class and at home, we find ourselves making decisions that are not necessarily in alignment with our otherwise better judgment. For example, I hypothesize that if I spent less time watching television and more time studying, I would feel more prepared for class and be more willing to volunteer answers. However, my fear of being wrong, feeling embarrassed, or wasting precious class time discourages my participation, which leads me to say “what’s the point” as I close my books to take in this week’s two hour episode of Biggest Loser. Sadly, I don’t see an end in sight for this causal loop. As a lawyer, being wrong can be career ending, and spending 10-12 hours each day making decisions under this pressure would surely take one to the limits of sanity. Professor Moglen touched on this and went on to suggest that the role of television is often replaced by booze as we age. This is an unappealing proposition, but I am still not sold on an alternative to having something in my life which allows me to “zone-out.” I am either too afraid of what that might mean, to ignorant of what options I could explore, or too stubborn in my preconceptions.

As an alternate viewpoint, I see television as a popular unifying device for society (in concurring with what was said in class by someone whose name I regretfully do not know). I remember reading a quote from Stephen Dubner, one of the co-publishers of the Freakonomics Blog, saying that he would rather read than watch television because it makes economic sense as he reads faster than the average person, but is forced to watch television at a standardized pace. Sure, this makes perfect sense if you commoditize television only as a source of information, but I think the value lies elsewhere. As a law student, I often feel isolated from my family and the friends I had before enrolling. I quickly become self-conscious when I start off on another rant about “this great case I read today in Property.” Television provides me a way to relate with the people I know and people I meet. I propose that an explanation for the success of reality tv, is that viewers feel an intimate connection with the participants by living vicariously through their trials and tribulations and empathizing with the genuine emotions they show in the process. There is value to this human aspect, even if my left-brain fails to recognize it. If this wasn’t true, gaining social clout through water-cooler talk about last night’s game or episode of The Office wouldn’t be so closely connected to workplace success, even in law firms.

So how can we reconcile this situation in which television is an important part of our lives but we suspect if of precluding our achievement of greater things? I think that moderate television watching will be shown to have unique benefits, when prioritized correctly and combined with other endorphin producing activities (namely exercise and interpersonal contact). I just turned 24 years- old, and it’s probably about time that I took a hard look at how I structure my life. If I can utilize non-work related activities, like television, as rewards for getting my work done in a timely and thorough manner, perhaps a radical change will not be necessary. So I am not going cold-turkey on the tube, but rather scaling back my usage to a reasonable amount. I am interested to hear if those of us who have already established a routine incorporating a small amount of TV have found success doing so (recognizing that this might have come at age 12 rather than at 24). If not, I will report back soon, hopefully with good news.

-- JonathanFriedman - 02 Feb 2009

Isn't the modern problem unproductive web browsing, not TV?

It's very easy to let the hours slip away with the mind turned off, reading news, politics, and celebrity gossip. Reading can be active (trying to fully comprehend every sentence in a casebook) or just as mindless as TV.

Of course, the REAL problem is going to turn up when we get legalized soma. No side effects or overdoses, just pure pleasure. Or the orgasmatron from Sleeper. What happens when artificial pleasure is better than living in the real world? If it takes measurable willpower now to keep the TV off when you should be studying, then how much will you need to avoid popping a soma pill when you should be researching something for a client? We're already seeing a lot of this with World of Warcrack addiction...

-- GavinSnyder - 02 Feb 2009

In my view, the attempt to reduce this discussion to an essentialism about television ("is it really addictive?" "does it really have good social effects as well as bad ones?") misses the point just as thoroughly as studying the grades of Buddhist law students to see if Buddhists really do well in law school.

Like all technology, television is what we make it, both in the general and in the particular. Capitalism made broadcast video into a tool for the induction of consumption and the concentration of anti-democratic political power. Video, and broadcast video too, have other possible uses, and no structure, even presently-existing commercial television, could entirely subdue them. But our concern isn't with the overall socio-psychological consequences of broadcast television, but with the role it plays in your individual lives, and what the consequences are for your individual capacity to learn, remember, and enjoy the processes of learning and remembering. I have described, on the basis of my experience with thousands of law students, what I believe that role and those consequences are, and despite--as Ella wisely points out--the presence of strong cognitive dissonance thus created, which should lead to the rejection of the insights, almost all speakers have acknowledged that introspection confirms them to some extent.

What you do with your televisions is infinitely less important than what you do with yourselves. I don't care at all about your TV sets. Whether they wind up in a shrine or on the garbage heap of history is all the same to me. I care about you. What happens to you affects not only your happiness but the welfare of your society. The discussion you are having about your fears--and about how the mindless condition of slackly being absorbed into the pro-consumerist, anti-political culture presented by capitalist television assuages those fears, substituting for more nourishing forms of meditation and retreat from the mind-static of the world--is both courageous and all-important. My advice in this conversation is to give less attention to figuring out what something else (like television) "is," and to give more attention to what stops you from becoming who you want to be.

Thank you, Professor Moglen, for the redirection of this topic. I think that you are correct in pointing to the larger problem of how we, as law students, can use self-destructive behavior as a coping mechanism for our fears and for problems that we do not know how to solve. In my own experience, I have found that I often come home after a long week of school and want nothing more than to "veg out" (a quite appropriate term for these mindless activities).

I have always watched television, but I was previously much more content watching thought-provoking shows--not that you learn something tangible, but that you are required to piece together bits of information to understand a larger theory. Now I am drawn to completely mindless TV to simply relax from the tiring week. It isn’t that I am literally exhausted so that my mind cannot function; if that were so, I would simply go to sleep. Maybe these activities are coping mechanisms for larger fears and qualms of law school.

Particularly I fear that the law school curriculum, for the most part, does not help to guide us into becoming who we want to be. From most students’ introductions it appears that we have a particular goal in mind but no clear understanding of how to achieve it. I fear that I will graduate law school with a world of opportunities but without a better understanding of how these opportunities fit into these goals.

Last week I attended a research presentation relating to life satisfaction in middle-age lawyers. The good news was that most of these attorneys reported being quite happy with their jobs and lives. The bad news is that they were in their 40s and the majority of them had changed jobs about 3 times. If you couple this data with prior studies showing that the majority of young attorneys at their first jobs are quite unhappy, it seems that law schools should be focusing a lot more on helping students find the right job. How can we dedicate our TV watching time to figuring out how to become who we want to be?

-- LaurenRosenberg - 02 Feb 2009

I've long recognized the detrimental effect that television has on my cognitive functioning. As Gavin noted, though, the same effect could be achieved by other escapist activities; and therefore I don't think television is the central issue in this discussion.

I'm worried about what can perhaps be characterized as a sense of personal entitlement or a right to leisure. I find myself thinking along the lines of, "I've studied for three hours - I've earned the right to have ten beers or watch television for four hours." I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with leisure time, but I am really troubled by my almost constant desire to numb the processes of my mind.

I don't really think that this tendency was brought on by years of television viewership. A more compelling explanation seems to be a broad malaise and devaluation of work ethic within a privileged class of which I'm a part. Since the path of least resistance is clearly sitting on the couch and tuning in, a value system that endorses this activity gradually turns it into a learned behavior that is deeply entrenched in my daily life.

-- WalkerNewell - 02 Feb 2009

I believe the true focus of the discussion should be, as Professor Moglen and some others have pointed out, not the evils of TV in itself, but all forms of escapism. Not just TV, but alcohol, drinking, drugs, Internet surfing, computer/video gaming, etc. While each of these activities may or may not be inherently evil, they all have something in common: when used for escapism, they tend to dull the cognitive senses and bring about the evils mentioned above. When used for other purposes, they can be extremely beneficial: TV shows can educate, moderate alcohol consumption can ease conversation, computer games can train team building/strategy, Internet surfing can spur creativity.

The problem I find with the attack on escapism is that in doing so, basic human nature is denied. Basic human nature? I would go as far as to say that escapism is as result of the condition of being human. You might ask, what did people do back then without TV, internet computer games, drugs? They used the most primitive form of escapism: daydreaming. I firmly believe that our need to have a break from reality is entrenched in our nature. The extent and degree with which it controls our lives may have changed over time, but this need is primal. Denying our urges for escapism would not make us better people or students. If watching an hour of Paris Hilton prevents me from dashing my head out on the concrete and allows me to become a lawyer and help society, then I believe providing and watching the hour of Paris Hilton is a socially useful service.

Instead, the focus should be on how to control/guide/limit our urges for escapism so that we can be constructive with our lives and get where we want. It is useful to study our desires to escape from an analytical perspective, so that 1. we don't dash our heads out on concrete trying to deny our primal needs and 2. we don't allow escapism to control our lives. I believe the biggest problem with modern times is the increased availability of these forms, so that we are constantly being inundated with the urge, desire, and most critically, the ability to escape. Often, many people fall into this temptation (and who is to blame them, given the billions spent in advertising), simply because it is so available. Now, I am not proposing a solution or an analysis of this issue because I have not yet thought it through, but maybe someone else can.

-- AlexHu - 02 Feb 2009

Alex, are you suggesting that daydreaming is something that "dulls the cognitive senses and brings about the evils?" It seems to me that daydreaming is not self-destructive in the way that your other examples are (TV, drug use, etc.). My understanding of daydreaming is that it allows you to explore thoughts and relax. Maybe escapism is not necessarily an "evil" but that certain types of modern escapism cause problems (memory loss, brain degradation, drug addiction, etc). An interesting investigation would be to determine why we are often tempted to use these self-destructive activities as opposed to daydreaming or mindfulness techniques (other than the easy answer that we are already addicted to the self-destructive activities).

-- LaurenRosenberg - 04 Feb 2009

Lauren, I am not saying that daydreaming necessarily "dulls the cognitive senses and brings about evils", just like I am not saying that other examples (TV, drug use, etc.) necessarily "dull the cognitive senses and bring about evils." I merely used daydreaming as an example of perhaps the "purest" form of escapism. While I will not dispute your understanding of daydreaming as allowing one to explore thoughts and relax, I would also defend TV, etc. as allowing one to explore thoughts and relax. I grouped it with the others because I believe they are more similar than different: when used "properly", they allow someone the temporary escape that they need to feel happy and sane, but when overused, they result in the problems (brain degradation, etc.) What I wish to say, basically, is that daydreaming can be just as destructive as TV if taken to its excesses. Feel free to disagree with me, but I believe that someone who is "addicted" to daydreaming may suffer the same "brain degradation" and inability to focus as someone addicted to TV and such.

-- AlexHu - 04 Feb 2009

  • Alex, it's time for a chat. Please make it convenient to drop in on my office hours on Thursday 5 February anytime between 10:30am and 1:00pm. Thanks.

I would say the difference between daydreaming and watching TV as forms of escapism is the daydreaming is, to some extent, creative and self-directing. If you watch TV as a form of escapism (as opposed to for some other reason), the point of it really is to shut your brain off and zone out, right? Whereas with a daydream, you are escaping into your brain, not from your brain.

This doesn't make excessive daydreaming healthy, but I think it makes it qualitatively different from more mentally passive forms of escapism.

-- AnjaliBhat - 04 Feb 2009

I feel as though I'm violating a rule by posting a link to a television commercial jesting(?) about the mind-mushing effects of television, but I thought this commercial was on-point.

Nevermind the fact that I found it while I was catching up on the COMMERCIALS I missed by not watching the Superbowl on Sunday. The more I think about it, the more tragic my behavior becomes.

-- MolissaFarber - 04 Feb 2009

I wholeheartedly agree with one particular aspect of Alex's argument regarding various forms of escapism: excessive escapism does more harm than good. In fact, I'm a stout advocate for the idea that absolutely anything, when taken to the extreme, inevitably lead to more harms than benefits. But I will save that argument for another day. The main issue in here concerns the addictiveness of TV. In and of itself, I believe TV is neither good or evil. As Alex said, when used in moderation, television watching provides a person an opportunity to relax while familiarizing oneself with the society, indeed, the whole world, in which he lives. TV enriches people's lives and provides a pleasant break from our hectic lifestyles. However, a person who occupies a majority of his time by watching TV and nothing else definitely wastes valuable time by not focusing on other activities such as work, study, or physical exercise.

Similarly, I believe daydreaming in moderation enhances our creativity and expands imagination by freeing the mind. However, too much daydreaming lead to similar problems as watching too much TV: people fail to dedicate time to other useful activities.

In effect, I do not think that TV and daydreaming, or escapism in general, can be categorized as good or bad because they foster addictive behavior. Indeed, arguing in such a way suggests a pushing of blames on anything but ourselves. I believe that we should have enough self-control to limit our enjoyment of escapism to a moderate degree. Perhaps failure to do so implies weakness within ourselves.

-- YinanZhang - 05 Feb 2009



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