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Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

By George Karras

This article presents a summary of the book titled “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” by Jerry Mander. Mr. Mander holds BS and MS degrees in Economics, spent 15 years in the advertising business, including five as president of Freeman, Mander, & Gossage, San Francisco, one of the most celebrated agencies in the country. The Wall Street Journal called him “the Ralph Nader of Advertising.” The entire book is available on-line at

The book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1977) by Jerry Mander presents a compelling position that there are a number of problems with the medium of television. Its author argues that many of the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed. In specific, the technology of television is not a neutral, 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.

Mr. Mander maintains 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. Mr. Mander’s four arguments are as follows:

  • The first argument is that 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.
  • The second argument concerns the emergence of the controllers. That television would be used and expanded by the present powers-that-be was inevitable, and should have been predictable at the outset. The technology permits no other controllers.
  • The third argument concerns the effects of television upon individual human bodies and minds, effects which fit the purposes of the people who control the medium.
  • The fourth argument demonstrates that 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. And this point must be understood by every well-meaning Orthodox parent who allows (and at times even encourages) the subjection of family youth to countless hours of television viewing.

The author points out that what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, feel and understand about the world has been processed for us. Our experiences of the world can no longer be called direct, or primary. They are secondary, mediated experiences. When we live in cities, virtually all experience is mediated in some way. Concrete covers whatever would grow from the ground. Buildings block the natural vistas. The water we drink comes from a faucet, not from a stream or the sky. All foliage has been confined by human considerations and are designed according to human tastes.

Most of us are conditioned to give little importance to this change in human experience of the world, if we notice it at all. We are so surrounded by a reconstructed world that it is difficult to grasp how astonishingly different it is from the world of only one hundred years ago, and that it bears virtually no resemblance to the world in which human beings lived for four thousand years before that. The fact that this affects the way we think is rarely considered. In other words, our artificial environment is there and we can experience it, yet it has been created on purpose by other humans. We are left with no frame of reference untouched by human interpretation.

When people cannot distinguish with certainty the natural from the interpreted, or the artificial from the organic, then all theories of the ideal organization of life become equal. None of them can be understood as any more or any less connected to planetary truth. Therefore, the person or the worldly forces which are capable of speaking the most loudly or most forcefully, or with some apparent logic — even if it is an unrooted logic — can become convincing within the void of understanding. In other words, whoever recognizes that people’s minds are appropriately confused and receptive, can speak directly into them without interference. Television is the ideal tool for such purposes because it both confines experience and implants simple, clear ideas.

On Advertising

We all know that advertising cannot be considered truthful. In fact, it is by nature one-sided. Advertising always reflects only the facts and opinions of the people who pay for it. Why else would they pay for it?

Advertising exists only to purvey what people don’t need. Whatever people do need they will find without advertising, if it is available. This is so obvious and simple that it continues to stagger the mind that the ad industry has succeeded in muddying the point. No single issue gets advertisers screaming louder than this one. They speak about how they are only fulfilling the needs of people by providing an information service about where and how people can achieve satisfaction for their needs. Advertising is only a public service, they insist.

Speaking privately, however, and to corporate clients, advertisers sell their services on the basis of how well they are able to create needs where there were none before. The only need that is expressed by advertising is the need of advertisers to accelerate the process of conversion of raw materials with no intrinsic value into commodities that people will buy. In fact, advertising intervenes between people and their needs, separates them from direct fulfillment and urges them to believe that satisfaction can be obtained only through commodities.

The goal of all advertising is discontent or, to put it another way, an internal scarcity of contentment. This must be continually created, even at the moment when someone has finally bought something. In that event, advertising has the task of creating discontent with what has just been bought, since once that act is completed, the purchase has no further benefit to the market system. The newly purchased commodity must be gotten rid of and replaced by the ‘need’ for a new commodity as soon as possible. The ideal world for advertisers would be one in which whatever is bought is used only once and then tossed aside. Many new products have been designed to fit such a world (such as cigarettes).

Thousands of psychologists, behavioral scientists, perceptual researchers, sociologists and others have found extremely high salaries and steady, interesting work aiding advertisers in finding nuances of artificial discontent in consumers. By entering the human being’s inner sanctum (the family), our inner wilderness, advertising effectively pulls our feelings up out of ourselves, displays them and sells them back to us like iron from the ground.

Though television passes for experience, it is really more like ‘time out.’ Its interaction with the human body and mind fixes people to itself, dulls human sensibility and dims awareness of the world. This enhances the commodity life by reducing knowledge of any other.

The Inherent Believability of all Images

Seeing is believing. Like many an axiom, this one is literally true. Only since the ascendancy of the media has this been opened to question. Whatever information the senses produce the brain trusts as inherently believable. If the sense could not be relied upon, then the world would have been an utterly confusing place. Humans would have been unable to make any sensible choices leading to survival. If there were no concretely true information, there could have been no sane functioning; the species could not have survived.

This is not to say there is no illusion. There is animal camouflage. Animals use it to fool each other, including humans. In this way images become processed images, deliberately altered, and may serve to fool an observer whose senses and interpretations are not sufficiently sharp. These are classical exceptions which prove the point, because the basis of success for camouflage and illusion is that humans will believe what they see. In this sense, camouflage is a kind of sensory jujitsu that only confirms the original point; the senses are inherently believable.

Without the human bias toward belief, the media could not exist. What’s more, because the bias is so automatic and unnoticed, the media, all media, are in a position to exploit the belief, to encourage you to believe in their questionable sensory information. This bias has commercial value for the media since it allows them to keep your attention.

The natural evolutionary design is for humans to see all things as real, since the things that we see have always been real. Distinguishing real from unreal on television has to be learned. Yet how is a child to understand that? When the child is watching a television program, he or she has no innate ability to make any distinction between real and not real.

The Bionic Man’s movements, his way of speaking, his attitudes, his way of relating to people, are in the child’s mind no matter what we tell him about reality and unreality. Volume IV of Television and Social Behavior, prepared by the National Institute of Mental Health for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, reports that a majority of adults, nearly as high a percentage as children, use television to learn how to handle specific life problems; family routines, relationships with fellow workers, hierarchical values, etc.

Practical knowledge and methods of problem solving lead the list of knowledge acquired through television programs. Heavy viewers of television were more likely to overestimate the percentage of the world population that lives in America; they seriously overestimated the percentage of the population who have professional jobs; and they drastically overestimated the number of police in the U.S. and the amount of violence. The more television people watch, the more their view of the world matched television reality.

Our thinking processes cannot save us. To the degree that we are thinking as we watch television, a minute degree at most, the images pass right through anyway. They enter our brains. They remain permanently. We cannot tell for sure which images are ours and which came from distant places. Imagination and reality have merged. We have lost control of our images. We have lost control of our minds.

The liquid quality of television imagery derives from the simple fact that television sets its own visual pace. One image is always evolving into the next, arriving in a stream of light and proceeding inward to the brain at its own electronic speed. The viewer has no way to slow the flow, except to turn off the set altogether. If you decide to watch television, then there’s no choice but to accept the steam of images as it comes.

Thus, the first effect is to create a passive mental attitude. Since there is no way to stop the images, one merely gives over to them. More than this, one has to clear all channels of reception to allow them in more cleanly. Conclusively, “Thinking only gets in the way...”.

Artificial Unusualness and the Technical Events Test

To get an idea of the extent to which television is dependent upon technical tricks to maintain your interest (lacking real content), try the following “Technical Events Test:” Put on your television set and simply count the number of seconds between each cut, zoom, superimposition, voice-over, dissolve — a technical event of some kind. Very rarely will you be able to count more than about eight seconds without some video-magic alteration of reality.

Each technical event — each alteration of what would be natural imagery — is intended to keep your attention from wandering as it might otherwise. The effect is to lure your attention forward like a mechanical rabbit teasing a greyhound. The luring forward never ceases for very long. If it did, you might become aware of the vacuousness of the content that can get through the inherent limitations of the medium. Then you would be aware of the boredom. Commercials have roughly double the amount of these interruptions per minute.

Thus, television has become an extremely odd phenomenon. On the one hand, it offers non-unique, totally repetitive experience. No matter what is on television, the viewer is sitting in a darkened room with almost all systems shut down, looking at a flickering light. But within this deprived, repetitive, inherently boring environment, television producers create a fiction that something unusual is going on, thereby fixing attention.

Leaving the television to go outdoors, or to have an ordinary conversation, becomes unsatisfying. One wants action! Life becomes boring, and television interesting, all as a result of a system of technical hypes. This begins to explain Attention Deficit Disorder and the drastically declining skills in written and verbal articulation that are becoming so rampant now in society.


Television has helped to create the ironic cynicism that permeates western culture. On television reality is constantly re-arranged to suit the advertiser’s needs, and everything has a snappy, one line answer — people who are indoctrinated by television acquire this mental habit of putting all of life into surface-only flash cards. By being constantly ironic, television preempts our own instinctual derision of it. By being coy and silly, and mocking itself, it poses as an ally to our uncertainty — our doubts about television in general.

Television drives a wedge between reality and fantasy, putting us in a dream world, and creating an inability to differentiate between real bullets and fantasy bullets. “Pulp Fiction” is a film that could not have existed if television had not been there first.

A constant diet of the television con-game turns its watchers into con artists. A fusion of crass commercialism and witless sentimentality, television has created a nation of credulous wheedlers, impressed by one dimensional surface displays, like stretch limos and cell phones, designed to prove that the owners of these objects are “somebody,” and to hopefully impress someone even more vulgar than themselves.

Let us not forget a pointed 21st century paradoxical observation by a well-meaning NY artist: “Theater is Life, Film is Art, and Television is Furniture; Television must be a Medium Because it’s not Rare, and it’s Certainly not Well Done…”.

Of course, television does have a good side. Within the spectrum of material broadcast, the crass, commercial junk does predominate; but the educational effect of television has been well demonstrated. Mander is dubious of this potential, pointing out the bad aspects: “Shallowing” of content, superficializing history, creating the illusion of experience, etc. And when people substitute television for real life, they’re in trouble. But it can be useful, when used judiciously. The TV set is an appliance, and with VCR assistance, corporate spew becomes totally avoidable!

Published - January 2011

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