The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

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June 12, 2009


David Shenk

I agree: Any sort of unthinking orthodoxy is not a good thing. If my words gave you the impression of a knee-jerk response, I wasn't being careful enough. I spent many years and a couple of books writing about how various tools and technologies help shape our thinking. And while it's absurd to say that one tool is good while another is bad, I do believe that particular tools come with their own powerful influences that we'd be wise to pay close attention to. You've heard this before, I'm sure: A person with a pencil will tend to see the world as a series of observations he can write down. A person with a still camera will tend to see the world as a series of potential still images. Etc. It doesn't mean tools can't be used in thoughtful ways, but it does mean that we should constantly be striving to use the right tool at the right time. Cellphones aren't inherently bad -- they're marvelous in so many ways. But that portable ring is a very powerful thing: look at what they're doing to families and good friends in parks and restaurants. Look at how a cell call can help transform a perfectly decent person into an obnoxious idiot who is telling a whole coffee shop about his bad marriage.

Video screens can convey great, nuanced, meaningful stories. I agree. But they also have a hypnotic power over our attention, and I think their rising ubiquity is one of the worst things about our emerging world. A tv is a sports bar is one thing -- that's what a sports bar is all about; but TVs screens in cafes, lobbies, parks, waiting rooms, etc? In my view, they tend to intrude on people's thoughts and conversations. It's not enough to say "no one's forcing you to watch," because sometimes the screen is on and we really don't have a choice. Other times, people turn it on and leave it on out of habit; and maybe a small nudge from a crank like me will help them think twice about doing that.

Douglas Rushkoff has talked a lot about how we should teach media literacy in schools, and I strongly agree.

CJ Alexander

I take your point, and appreciate your response. I just don't understand the normative attitude that says "TV = bad."

Maybe it's a generational thing, but the near-religious belief that, among a certain generation, TV is evil, is itself inaccurate, unhelpful, and distracting. TV's just a medium. Are airwaves Evil, then, and pulped trees Good? Who then shall henceforth be in charge of mediating the manner in which our stories may be received Respectably?

David Shenk

Thanks for your comment, CJ. I sincerely meant what I said about more quality, and more choice. I don't think it's a contradiction to celebrate quality but also ask people to reconsider how much time they spend watching.

- David

CJ Alexander

I find this whole attitude tiresome, too. Beyond the's brief, grudging hand-wave in the direction of "excellent TV out there" — notice how it's still kept at a distance — this is exactly how our parents used to sound. And they were right, until recently, when TV was mostly a source of anesthetization rather than real artistic boundary-pushing (see Clay Shirky on the excellent parallels between gin during the industrial revolution and sitcoms during the '50s-'80s:

But as a writer, David, I'd think you'd be supportive of the flourishing landscape that TV has recently provided for excellent writing. The center of gravity for great storytelling in Hollywood has long since moved from movies to TV (I'd say "the small screen," but many of them are pushing 50" these days). The proliferation of cable channels has led to some daring artistic choices, like the use of serial-arc narratives over the course of a full season. When you can tell a story for 13 or 24 hours instead of just two or three, you can breathe a lot more life into the characters; a lot more subtlety into the plot; a lot more complexity into the narrative.

Good writing is good writing. Complaining about the medium itself is literally pointless; it's the refuge of the curmudgeon. Does the exact same story become "better," in a normative sense, simply because it's shown in an arthouse cinema or on a theater stage instead of on television? Of course not.

"We'd all be better off if we watched a lot less." Speak for yourself. It's a part of the human condition, traceable at least to Homer, that we like to be told stories. If it takes dreck on TV like "Two and a Half Men" to get network executives to also give us The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Dexter, Rome, Rescue Me, etc. etc. then so be it. Nobody's forcing us to watch anything we don't want to. And frankly, we don't need to hear you whine about what other people are watching, either.


Defining yourself in terms of something you *don't* know is a strange status game. Why is it good not to have heard of Seinfeld?

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