‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television‘ is a 1978 book written by liberal activist Jerry Mander which argues that there are a number of problems with the medium of television. Mander argues that many of the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed. Mander spent 15 years in the advertising business, including five as president and partner of Freeman, Mander & Gossage, San Francisco, a nationally-known advertising agency.
‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television’ argues that the technology of television is not a neutral or benign instrument or tool. The author argues that in varied technologies and institutions such as militaries, automobiles, nuclear power plants, mass production, and advertising, the basic form of the institution and the technology determines its interaction with the world, the way it will be used, the kind of people who use it, and to what ends.
The author argues that far from being ‘neutral,’ television predetermines who shall use it, how they will use it, what effects it will have on individual lives, and, if it continues to be widely used, what sorts of political forms will inevitably emerge. The four arguments are: 1) While television may seem useful, interesting, and worthwhile, at the same time it further boxes people into a physical and mental condition appropriate for the emergence of autocratic control; 2) It is inevitable that the present powers-that-be (or controllers) use and expand using television so that no other controllers are permitted; 3) Television affects individual human bodies and minds in a manner which fit the purposes of the people who control the medium; and 4) Television has no democratic potential. The technology itself places absolute limits on what may pass through it. The medium, in effect, chooses its own content from a very narrow field of possibilities. The effect is to drastically confine all human understanding within a rigid channel.
What binds the four arguments together is that they deal with aspects of television that are not reformable. In an interview with Nancho.net’s W. David Kubiak, Mander summarizes his book: ‘Well, one of the points of the book is that you really can’t summarize complex information. And that television is a medium of summary or reductionism – it reduces everything to slogans. And that’s one criticism of it, that it requires everything to be packaged and reduced and announced in a slogan-type form. But let me say this: the book is not really four arguments, it’s really hundreds of arguments broken down into four categories. And the categories have to do with a variety of effects that are not normally discussed. Most criticisms of television have to do with the television program content. People say if there is less violence on television or less sexism on television, or less this or less that, television would be better. If there were more programs about this or more programs about that, then we’d have ‘good television.”
‘My own feeling is that that is true – that it’s very important to improve the program content – but that television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature.’ ‘And the book is really about television considered from a holistic point of view, from a biological point of view – perceptual, environmental, political, social, experiential, as well as the concrete problems of whether a program is silly or not. But other people deal with that very well. My job was to talk about television from many of these other dimensions which are not usually discussed.’