On giving up TV, but not moving images

TV bad, but cinema good?

I’ve given up TV for almost all the situations I can control, including those situations where it’s appropriate to excuse myself from watching; that is, with the people who know me well enough not to take offence. But I still watch things you would call films, videos, movies or whatnot. So I thought I’d write a piece about the things I still watch and why I think they are acceptable despite taking a personal stand against television.

The exceptions that define the rule…

iPlayer vs. TV

Long live AD-FREE socially-funded independent broadcasting and entertainment. The Beeb will never be completely free from bias, and it will always attract a certain type of journalist, but on the whole I wouldn’t want to be without it. iPlayer lets you watch quality content on demand. I’m not saying everything on iPlayer is quality, or that you should sit down with the intention of watching something, anything, on iPlayer. But if there’s something good on, then make the most of this very special service. The recent series of Sherlock was well worth watching. I also enjoy Only Connect. And their documentaries are a starting point for learning. With the caveat that if you’ve ever watched a documentary on any subject you know well, you’ll know how lightly they scratch the surface.

On the whole, I’ve no objection to iPlayer and watch it maybe once a week.

Cinema vs. TV

Cinema has socialising built right in. It’s an actual shared experience where the room full of people shape your experience of the story told on screen. You make a communal decision to watch something, which helps break the filter bubble; and sometimes you end watching things you really wouldn’t choose to – like Date Night, damnit! Cinema is better than most TV watching because you choose a particular film, then go to the cinema – in that order.

Most importantly, films are stories. And sharing stories is absolutely fundamental to human nature. Films are a great way to tell exceptional, brilliant, inspiring and challenging stories and while I dislike TV, I’d never be without stories. This differs from TV shows that often begin with a great story, then degrade into the cycle of ever-declining-quality but never-ending-story mode; because the goal of a TV show is to stay on the air to keep selling ad space.

A film worth watching tells a complete story, mostly in one part. But like TV shows, when films are corrupted by advertising or created with the sole purpose of sales, you get the never-ending series of ever-declining-quality; a bit like James Bond, or The Lion King 2. I am certain that The Lion King 2 was not made with the primary purpose of telling a brilliant story.

So cinema is great, because great films are great and cinema makes them better for being social, and prompting active rather than passive consumption. It’s a valid business model to pay the artists without corrupting our minds any more than we have to. And you can always arrive a bit late to miss the ads.

Films on TV are OK, but it’s a mistake to think that films funded by advertising rather than purchase come at no cost. I’d rather pay with my money than my mind.

DVDs vs. TV

See the same points about storytelling described for films above. DVDs are also good for watching the best TV shows on your own timetable without giving your eye-balls to advertisers. Though watch out for the TV shows that deliberately drag out the story with the sole purpose of extending sales. Just because season 1 is excellent doesn’t mean you have to keep watching until season 5. If season 5 is mediocre, stop immediately; life is too short. There are enough truly brilliant films to watch instead.

If storytellers would stick to choosing the format that can best tell their particular story, it would be a better state of affairs than the current situation where stories are fabricated endlessly to fill-out the predetermined format. Today, the 12 episodes of a new season for a TV show will be scheduled with a TV station while the plot is still being written. That’s not storytelling, it’s content marketing. Hopefully the technological developments moving people away from scheduled TV to on-demand viewing will help address this issue, which also applies to pre-scheduled news, but that’s another article for another day…

Streaming Films vs. TV

Sometimes I stream films too. To date I’ve always paid to rent the film rather than paid to download and keep it. All the same arguments used in favour of DVDs apply.

YouTube vs. TV

Sadly, this is a channel destined to be riddled with advertising, which it’s not far off already. But, in comparison with TV, it’s a fascinating social experiment; an almost uncensored somewhat democratic free-for-all where the ideas that would never make it past the committee of common sense not only see the light of day, but take on a life and meaning of their own as they travel around the world.

By all means, watch and forward videos of sneezing pandas. But think twice about sharing adverts, and be conscious of the adverts sent to you by friends; you have make a deliberate mental effort to separate your friend from the advertiser who wants you to make the mental connection between friendship and the product they peddle.

Someone on YouTube taught me how to clean the throttle valve on my car better than my Haynes manual; I’d have been waiting a long time for that to come on TV.

So I still watch things on YouTube, sometimes.

TED (Plus TEDX, The Do Lectures and similar) vs. TV

TED have summed this up succinctly themselves: ‘Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world’. Pheebs and I have watched a few of these lectures while we eat dinner. I’ve watched a few more on my own at other times. Allow yourself to consider a couple of new ideas and fields you’ve never spent time with. These videos are a springboard to a whole world of ideas that will rarely make it onto scheduled television, because it’s not in the commercial interest of advertisers.

This, for example is a hugely useful piece of knowledge that wouldn’t sit well with advertisers: The paradox of choice.

And this talk is better than anything that will make it onto scheduled TV this year: How the human family can do better.

It doesn’t need HD, surround sound, or 3D glasses. It’s an inspiring story told as urgently as it should be. It would not have been better for a big budget six season TV series, with product placements, celebrity cameos or a special edition DVD box-set. It’s 20 minutes of talking with a few pictures, and it will make you want to be a better person.

More thoughts on TV to follow soon.

On the blurry definition of giving up television

The definition of television is changing so quickly, that although removing the physical device that is a television from our home is somewhat unusual right now, in five years time we may have many homes without traditional TVs, but where as much ‘television’ equivalent is consumed as it is today. So I thought it was worth exploring what it really means to give up TV, and how to stop it creeping back into your life in some shape-shifted form.

Firstly, people interpret giving up TV as losing out on something good, like giving up on their dreams. I think it’s more like giving up smoking. While the physical device itself isn’t the problem, keeping it in your home is like trying to give up smoking and pointing all your furniture at a stack of cigarette cartons.

I don’t have a TV at home anymore, but I still become a zombie when I’m visiting family and friends. I still stare at screens at train stations and in bars. I’d like to think I was immune but I’m really not.

So for me, giving up television is a work in progress, and not a lone activity; my wife makes her own decisions, and still enjoys TV a lot more than I do. But for context, we used to have a TV in every room. Our sitting room was a four-seater sofa pointing at a 42 inch HD fancy-pants LCD TV with Bose surround speakers, Xbox etc. If we were awake, it was on, and everyone in the room sat facing the same direction. When we moved into our first home, we had a TV before we had a bed and for roughly the first four years of our relationship, we slept with a TV on all night as Pheebs needed it to sleep. So we’ve come a long way to where we are now.

Even getting rid of our TV became an ethical dilemma. I took months to decide between sending a perfectly good machine to landfill, and passing along a device that I’d decided was inherently bad to have in our home to another human being. We sold it in the end, to someone who already owned a TV, who was buying a TV anyway. So I only felt 50% guilty.

Now, we have a laptop on which I write things like this, and sometimes we watch DVDs or download films. We sit the laptop on a small chest right in front of the couch. At that distance, the screen fills as much of our field of vision as the 42 inch TV did on the far wall. For some time we rented French language movies from Love Film to help learn some French – but mostly the stories were so good I’d get lost in the subtitles and my French didn’t get any better. Besides that, Pheebs watches iPlayer, 40D etc on her iPad. I tend to avoid this, but I’m not immune.

Now, we have two sofas that face each other, a wood burning stove and a radio. First and foremost, our living room is setup for people to interact with each other, and you’d be amazed at how much this has panicked some of our guests; they honestly don’t know where to look. They get used to it, but it says something about the raising of Generation Y when they struggle to sit in a room with someone face-to-face. Older guests I note, are more immediately comfortable. I’ll get on to write something about TV as a frame of social reference later, but in the home, TVs have become an obstacle to meaningful social interactions. Not an insurmountable obstacle, but an obstacle nonetheless.

So while I’ve rambled somewhat, you may have noticed that my objection with TV is not related to moving pictures – it’s specifically the content delivered on scheduled TV and most importantly, the advertising that funds it. And though it seems hypocritical to some, it is a considered choice to give up television but still watch films and other video based content on other mediums. Removing the physical TV device (then plastering, sanding and painting the holes from your mounting brackets) makes the passive consumption of advertising a less immediate option at the points in the day when you are most susceptible to weakness. And it sets the tone when people come to visit your home.

I’ll leave you with this: Our living room is now setup to welcome to thoughts, opinions, hopes and dreams of our guests. And I like it much more like that, then when we all sat facing the television.

On not watching television

When I tell people I don’t own a television, I’m often asked “how do you know what’s going on in the world?”.

I wonder instead how people who spend their time watching television have any idea what’s going on in the world.

I’ve come to realise that when people ask me “how do you know what’s going on in the world?” what they really mean is “how do you know what’s going on in the world of television?”, though in some cases I’m not sure they’re aware of the difference between the two.

A response to anger about the SOPA strike

I received the email below on Wednesday when Bibliofaction was on strike for the day. It’s a good, passionate email, so I thought I’d share it, and my thoughts about it, on this blog. I’d have replied sooner, but I’ve been ill for a few days and this is the first time I can bear to face the screen:

“It’s nice that you’re on strike, but you are aiming your protest at your customers and readers, not at the Congresspeople who need to see it. Google is placing a black mark on their website, Wikipedia is also on strike, and many other websites are doing the same thing. Nice that you are punishing your users, rather than actually gaining the attention of anyone who really needs to be made aware of your feelings, like people in Congress.

This is why I am generally against mass protests. They generally are not aimed at the people they need to be aimed at.

So, when the day is over, you can feel like you did something worthwhile by going on strike, your users will have been inconvenienced, and Congress will do what they were going to do anyway.

Wouldn’t it have been more useful to encourage a mass writer-letting campaign, and mass emails, aimed at Congress? But, no, we can’t do this. It might actually be effective.

You ever wonder why protests are generally so ineffective, and the agencies being protested against tend to do what they want regardless? Think about it.”

So, the email is a bit angry, but I can forgive that because it’s written by someone who cares and I’ve written plenty of angry emails in my time.

My short answer… I did the best I could in the time I had. I heard about the planned Wikipedia Blackout on Tuesday night. Looked at the SOPA Strike site and implemented their quick fix code for blacking out a website. I wrote a very quick email to Bibliofaction members. My wife checked the email for any nonsense spelling and then I forgot to press the send button. On Wednesday morning while I ate my porridge and looked at emails on my phone I was surprised no one had replied (Bilbiofaction members are generally pretty vocal and articulate and I thought this would be of interest). I realised I hadn’t press send. I sent the email. Then I was ill for a few days.

My longer, post-rationalised thoughts, considered after-the-fact and mostly prompted by this email…

  • Wikipedia drew a great big line in the sand. I had to choose which side of the line to stand. It would have been negligent not to take part in the strike, even if other methods of protest individually are more effective
  • “Customers” isn’t the right word for Bibliofaction members. We’ve run the website at a loss for over five years because it gives people a chance to express themselves creatively. I don’t care if the first time someone writes a short story it’s Harry Potter fan fiction, or if it uses trademarked copyrighted names, I just want people to have the confidence to write something. Anything. SOPA/PIPA are in direct opposition of that goal.
  • We couldn’t afford the time or the money to fight a claim under SOPA/PIPA if this became law. We can barely afford the hosting. It would be the death of Bibliofaction.
  • People rarely have time to read their emails, so blacking out the site is harsh, but it shows our members what is really at stake better than any email I can write.
  • Bibliofaction’s audience is worldwide, but a big chunk is in the US – if these people write to their members of congress it has more impact than me signing the petition (which I still did)
  • I can only email registered Bibliofaction members who have opted in to email comms. By blacking out the site I could also reach the readers of the website who don’t have registered accounts.
  • On a technicality, the links provided did ask you to write to congress. It would have been more effective if I had asked you to do that directly in the email (see excuse about limited time for that one)

So these thoughts are not the careful considered process I went through to decide what to do. This was not a planned campaigning activity, it was an action taken as a matter of urgency. However, it’s reassuring to reflect on these questions and still agree with the action taken.

Just as I finish writing this article, this message popped up in my email

“Thanks for letting me know. I live in Switzerland and never heard of it !”

Why patents are anti-social

Where would the human race be if the first person to do anything was the only person allowed to do that thing.

“Hey guys. Check this out. I’ve just invented the alphabet.

Would you like to use it? Sure.

I only ask for the carcass of one wild boar a week as payment for using my idea.”

If that sounds bad, imagine how much worse it would be if it wasn’t the first person to do something that owned the rights, but it was instead the first person rich enough to employ a patent lawyer that took exclusive ownership of the idea for the next ~20 years.

We now live in a world where companies buy-up other companies, not because the they want to sell their products, employ their staff or service their customers, but simply to own their patents.

Instead of protecting the entrepreneur from the competitive might of large corporations, patents now protect large corporations from the competetive threat of the entrepreneur.

Patents are inherently anti-competitive and favour the rich. If you don’t think they favour the rich, try hiring a patent lawyer or offering a 1-click payment solution on your e-commerce website.

Patents for web technologies can last close to 20-years; that’s longer than any web technology is likely to last. Instead of offering a grace period in which the inventor can establish a place in the market to benefit from their own invention, patents now offer total ownership of the marketplace for its entire lifespan.

So what’s the alternative?

How about…

  • No company or individual is allowed to own more than 5 patents in total
  • Companies with existing patents can keep them, but they cannot acquire new patents until they own less than 5
  • New patents last a maximum of 5 years
  • Patents can be sold, but they cannot be licensed
  • Create some kind of body where patents can be donated for public use, allowing inventors to patent ideas for the public good rather than private gain