Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In praise of distraction, or how to counter snobs who say "I don't own a television"

Inspired by gwinne's recent post about productivity and television, let me say this: I am too (experienced, old, productive, tired of academic bulls***--choose one or all of the above) to listen with a straight face to people who claim that they never watch television (including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the rest).

If you tell me this, I will laugh. I'm polite, so I'll try not to laugh in your face, but I will laugh.

Sometimes the further discussion reveals that while they would never watch TV, they do listen to This American Life on NPR. Or the BBC. Or play video games. Or read mysteries, a favorite among the academic crowd. Or they make an exception for PBS, because PBS. Or they go to the most recent depressing and obscure foreign film that they can find and brag about it. (Which can be good, but the bragging? not so much.)

Folks, it's all the same. Here's the big secret:  One is not morally superior to the other. All are ways of giving the brain a vacation, of distracting it so that it can stop beating you up for a while about the work you're not doing and give you a breather and fresh ideas so that you can do it.

But seriously--if you're not giving your brain a distraction, you're not giving it a rest. The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work. 

One of the best takedowns of this attitude I've ever seen, and the reason I refer to this attitude as "I don't own a television machine," is from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "I'm No Henry Walden." The premise is that a Robert Frost-type poet named Henry Walden* has had Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) invited to a high-toned literary party where no one knows who they are or understands what they do.

If you want to see the whole thing, including a brilliant double-talk performance by Carl Reiner that I swear I have seen many times given as a paper at MLA, the link is below. If you just want to get a flavor of it, including the immortal "I don't own a television machine," go to 11:33.

*From Henry David Thoreau & Walden Pond. Fun fact for the Orson Welles crowd: Henry Walden is played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane.


Servetus said...

So what should one say if one doesn't own a television and doesn't subscribe to any streaming service?

I'm not saying this to brag; I do spend a lot of time with other sorts of escapist entertainment (books; movies in the cinema; various sorts of internet reading; music); but in my case it's true. I've never found TV a very compelling entertainment. No prejudice against those who do, I just don't. For a long time I couldn't afford it and I just got used to living without.

I take the point that it's become snobbish to say one doesn't have a TV. However, I also find it tiresome to listen to people talking about things I've never seen and then when I look bored because I have little to no idea what they are talking about, to have them scoff when I say, point-blank, I don't have a TV and I don't use a streaming service.

undine said...

Servetus--but see, you're not opposed to other kinds of escape (internet reading, books, etc.) That's what I'm talking about--the idea that some people have that they're too good to engage with popular culture, and that's not you. (TV is just shorthand for that.)

I'm sorry that people have scoffed if you haven't seen the latest big show; I get the same thing with Game of Thrones (which I quit watching) or Breaking Bad.

Servetus said...

I imagine I'll live despite my fatigue :)

I wonder why people get so sensitive about the nature of their entertainment consumption in the U.S. anyway. (It's an even broader issue if we draw video games into it, as I discovered recently when I admitted that I play Candy Crush.) Is it part of the Protestant work ethic? We can't be seen to be goofing off so if we are, it must be "worthwhile"?

xykademiqz said...

The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work.

LOL! This is so true.

The productivity bull$hit drives me up the wall. Like, you have all these blocks of 10-15 minutes where you just sit on the toilet, why aren't you using this time productively?

There's definitely a Protestant work ethic component to it. There's an element of asceticism, of getting kicks by denying oneself all the things that one desires.

heu mihi said...

Ha ha ha ha! I don't own a TV! And I obsessively stream "Friends" reruns! It's the best of all worlds.

I appreciate this post as a defense of taking breaks. Screw the productivity police! I'm sick of the word "productive," anyway. Why must I continually "produce"? Is there a global deficit in scholarship on medieval saints [my field] that it is incumbent upon me to rectify?

gwinne said...

Thanks for linking to my post! There's a lot to untangle.... I'm glad to continue the conversation.

1. As you say TV *can* be shorthand for pop culture. But also "screen time." I suspect that some folks who say they don't watch TV mean the actual literal machine....but they spend plenty of time staring at phones/iPads/laptops for various reasons, or on social media, or playing candy crush, etc etc. Some folks also seem to want to make a distinction between old school commercial TV and streaming stuff on the internet. It's ALL THE SAME, I think. choose your pleasure.

2. Yeah protestant work ethic for sure. What I'm reacting to--via the self-help gurus-- is the sense that even leisure should somehow be "productive." As you say, rightly, brains need downtime. Creative work really requires downtime. There's a point at which I just need to shut OFF, and as someone who engages in words ALL THE TIME, I need something else. Sure, I could do a puzzle/make art/learn a language, and sometimes I do those things....but at 9:30 pm, no, not really.

3. And also, speaking for my own self here: I watch TV (as in, stream shows I like on my laptop) but I do not have a facebook account or even a phone with a data plan. I look at twitter for like 10 minutes per day, max. I don't play candy crush/video games/etc. I don't care if anyone else does.....but I'd like people to stop pretending that TV is somehow the problem. Because it's just not.

4. I also listen to audio books. Very good for info. I find I like nonfiction/memoir type stuff. If I want to care about language and nuance, though, as I do when I *read* it needs to be on paper, with a pen.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Why watch tv when you can have a video projector for the same price?

Since having my second kid (and moreso after getting a smartphone), I can't actually watch tv, and not because it is a waste of time but rather the opposite-- I can't keep my attention engaged for 20 consecutive minutes. I can't remember the last time I watched an entire movie in one sitting. I can handle 4 minute youtube videos and occasionally can go up to 8 min. This is a problem.

Luckily now that I no longer frequent Laura Vanderkam's page (I see she has a new book on productivity out...), I don't really come across anybody who is anti-tv or anti-leisure of any sort. So this discussion seems vaguely archaic, like from another life. (I see more discussions about how there's something wrong with moms who drink la croix and put their kids in activities because they're SES climbers... guilty I guess? But... I like La Croix.)

I really don't understand the productivity advice that is about smooshing together small units of time so you can enjoy big uninterrupted units of time. It seems like there's diminishing marginal utility to free time just like everything else, so shouldn't I enjoy those first 15 minute stretches more than the last 15 min of a three hour stint? It's not like you're creating time, you're just moving it around and trading task-switching inefficiencies for planning and not doing things at the right time inefficiencies.

I especially dislike productivity advice that isn't based on science or at the very least on proven techniques. Like, I LOVE the book chapter on meetings in Getting Things Done. That has been a huge boost to productivity because it has cut down on pointless meetings and has given me tools to make the meetings in my life actually do something (No meetings without an agenda, no leaving without action items.) Willpower was a great book because I saw some ways in there that I'd been hampering my productivity, like by not managing my blood sugar. But these pop culture books based on one person's opinion of what works for them, when their life is nothing like mine... not so useful. (Ditto books that have sample selection bias and ignore white male privilege.)

gwinne said...

La Croix is bad? My kid is an ADDICT.

undine said...

I wrote replies to everyone and Blogger ate them--ugh!--so here's the short version:

TV is my shorthand for any of these things, from Candy Crush to Netflix to actual TV, anything involving game or video content looking at a screen, including a phone or iPad. But really, we're all agreed, I think: it's the snobbishness about whatever form you don't use as being a waste of time that we despise. The thing is, the brain needs down time, as everyone has said.

La Croix--better for you than Diet Coke, yes? I am going to try to learn to like it.

Never meetings without an agenda and action items!