American society is pretty polarized lately, and it's not just politically polarized -- it's economically and socially polarized. Class resentment abounds, and anger is lurking just below the surface of what the public opinion polls usually ask questions about. And it seems to me that in addition to all of the other things separating us, our preferred selection of technology also acts as a divide between American citizens.
To simplify things a bit, it seems to me that huge differences exist between television watchers and people who use computers. Obviously there's a huge middle ground in between. But I'm convinced that the people who rely much more on computers than television have substantially different kinds of brains than the people who primarily or exclusively watch TV.
Using me and Mrs. old new lefty as a demographic sample of two, we really don't have any TV to speak of in our house. The little woman's #3 son took pity on her because she couldn't watch Dancing With the Stars, and he gave her a big 7" screen that is just about never used. I put up with watching mandatory four minute segements of the program that she usually pulls up on the computer, but on the whole I wouldn't touch TV with a 10 foot pole.
My only exception to this is when I go to the gym. Since I watch so little TV, I actually watch the visual on the commercials (with the sound off) and I listen to my music on headphones while I work out. I discovered that the local TV station is airing a lot of public service ads in prime time. This is a clear indication that not only is the economy in the tank, but that the internet has also stolen a huge chunk of TV money just like the internet has affected newspapers adversely.
Now let's look at what I've observed about TV viewers. Many of them are older than I am, which means they're well over 65. Many TV viewers are in lower stratas of education and income, as well as being more unemployed. And of course, many TV viewers are not liberals but liberal haters, i.e. conservatives. That's one of the reasons why F*x News has the top 13 rated news programs. The exceptions to this general demographic that I've described are sports fans and the Oprah crowd.
If you don't think that my sample of two nearly exclusive computer viewers is enough, why don't we look at the general population of Open Salon? Discounting the Chinese spammers, the real people on OS appear to be slanted decidedly to the left. To be sure, there are conservatives in the OS crowd. But they certainly appear to be in the minority. But the place is filled with artists, people interested in actively sharing their lives, poets, and wise asses of all stripes.
If you can look at Open Salon as some kind of sample of computer geeks (discounting the self-select biases of the sample), then you can see major differences in the mentality between computer users and TV watchers. It seems to me that using a computer as your main tool almost requires you to live a life of the mind. By that, I mean that someone (even a porno hound or a LOL cat searcher) is actively trying to acquire and assimilate information. The computer, (and I'm including smart phones here) by the very nature of its technology requires you to hunt and gather information. And there's this active sense of being connected on a personal and active basis to whatever spot you've happened to pull up anywhere in the world on any subject.
To me, the internet is like a TV, only with a billion channels that always have your favorite program on for you when you turn on the machine, no matter what time of day it is. Assuming that I want to find a radio or TV program to watch on the computer, it's necessary for me to have done some research beforehand in order to get there. And the relation that I have to "channel surfing" is substantially different on a computer from channel surfing on TV.
One of the best books on television ever written was by Jerry Mander entitled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. In this book, Mander says that TV watching encourages passivity and a hypnotic like state. We can sit slack jawed in front of the boob tube with a big bowl of pork rinds while we click the remote through the channel selection to see what's on. And what we get is a pre-packaged deal. Above all, television is about spectacle. There are the quick cuts, the bright colors, the beautiful people, and all of those ads urging us to spend, spend, spend more money on those consumer items for the sheeple to buy.
Getting on the net, first means that you're there for a purpose. You want to find something -- usually something in particular. For example, I'll bet there are a hell of a lot of OS junkies out there. Admit it. How many times do you go back to the computer after being off of it a few hours, just to see what comments have been made either on your blog or one of your favorites? I know this is my kind of behavior. The fact of the matter is, not only is there an obsessiveness in our relations with our computers, but there's a purpose driven obsessiveness. And each of us has our own individual preferences that are distinct from one another.
This is not the case of television. Even if you have 500 channels, those 500 channels are all you're going to get. And for the most part, those channels are pre-packaged deals almost requiring passivity and consumption. A hardcore TV user is almost the opposite to me. Even if you're a passive searcher for information, you're a broadcasting station. And it should be common knowledge that there may be 15 people monitoring every website you go to or every keystroke you make, but you'll never know who they are. TV? Hardly anyone except Neilsen or the people you're watching the idiot box with care what you're watching.
As to news and information, unlike those TV viewers that only get their news from F*x, I've counted a full 33 different, regular news sources that I depend on weekly from all over the world on my computer. Could I watch Iranian, French, or Russian state TV with a cable or satellite television? I don't think so.
And if you are an active presence, be it in a chat room or on OS, you must establish an identity. Now you can hide behind an avatar and pretend to be someone or something other than what you are. But I'll contend that even if you do this, you reveal vast amounts of information about yourself. Are you an educated person? It will show up in how you spell words. Are you American, French, Arab, Latino, or whatever? Your cultural heritage will be on your identity like a fingerprint.
Whereas the television requires a mass audience of cultural lumpenproletariate, the computer requires activists and intellectuals and techno nerds, and all of this means an engaged and enquiring mind.
And that's why demographically speaking, in the long run America will substantially change as the audience of television viewers gets smaller and smaller, and the number of people who spend almost all of their electronic time on the computer get larger and larger.