Sucking the Air out of Public Places

Look at this photograph I took at my local airport’s gate area:

What is it exactly that has these folks collectively transfixed?






Ah, yes. Television. In this particular case, the travelers were entranced by the latest celebrity scandal, complete with weepy and sorrowful media personality expressing his regrets. I was taken by the zombie-like expressions on the faces all around me, and so I thought I’d capture the moment.

Now, it should be said that the Japanese public persona and the American public persona are completely different animals. Anyone who has ever ridden a New York subway and a Tokyo subway knows what I’m talking about. The colorful and vibrant chatter of a New York City subway car stands in stark contrast to the quiet and reserved Tokyo environment. That’s not to say that New York subway cars are never quiet and reserved or that you might not encounter vibrant city life on a Tokyo train, but the general habits and norms of the cultures vary quite a bit.

Still, the typically reserved collection of Japanese commuters in this situation were more than reserved and internalized. They were psychically captive in a way that was unmistakable. I did a little mental survey while standing at the gate. I counted roughly 55 people in the immediate vicinity of the television. Of those 55, two were reading books, three or four were texting or web surfing on their mobile phones, and the rest were transfixed by the television.

How does television transform space? How does it transform public space? As a cool medium, television requires a high degree of sensory involvement to decipher and process messages. It commands participation and we get lost in our quest to engage and understand its content. Turn a television on in a room and it unifies attention and destroys all interaction in the process. In a living room, this has the effect of shutting down dynamic family interaction in favor of shared, collective, and silent relationship with the images on the screen. In public places, the Siren’s song beckons to all who have gathered in range and hypnotizes. Consider the effect of televisions in airport lounges, elevators, hospital waiting rooms and at the gas pump. Their purpose is to distract from the idle wait that accompanies the transition between spaces and the most mundane of tasks.

It effectively neuters conversation and renders our engagement with the environment of public spaces inert. Television is an environment and a powerful one at that. The radio in your car constitutes an environment in an environment, for example. Driving your car, you enter the environment of the automobile. You lose sense of the distinction between your body, your mind, and the machine. The great speed with which you are hurtling through the world outside the vehicle becomes invisible to us as the automobile becomes a second skin. The radio inside the car adds a layer to this numbing of our senses, and I imagine that anyone who reads this is likely to have had the experience of being engrossed by their listening experience to the point that they have no recollection of their commute at all. This is the numbing effect that television produces in subsuming the natural environment in favor of its own seductive tune.

Marshall McLuhan wrote of television in his epic Understanding Media and noted that the high level of multi-sensory involvement in deciphering television constituted far more than the sum of several senses. The total involvement required by television as an environment more resembles the tactile search for understanding. Our sense of touch is one of probing and exploring texture. McLuhan believed that television operates at this level, and likened the deciphering of its messages to the process by which we perceive and process iconography, taking in the totality of the image. I find this aspect of his probes very interesting with respect to Japan, which of course has a cultural history of iconographic writing. Unlike our linear, alphabetic tradition, in which the brain processes meaning via a highly specialized and fragmented series of letters which represent sounds, the Japanese system is born out of the Chinese tradition of iconography. It’s a tactile decoding that McLuhan would have us believe relates to television in some way.

Perhaps this begins to explain why Japanese television programming is accompanied by subtitles almost obsessively. I have always wondered why the Japanese insist on reading their television despite the fact that the text corresponds perfectly to the dialogue. One explanation may be the marriage of iconographic processing with the tactile(-like) decoding of the TV image. Perhaps the Japanese language and the television image were made for one another. Whatever the case, the air at my local, Japanese airport gate has been sucked out by the power of the television…

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in ecology, media, technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sucking the Air out of Public Places

  1. Yes…but wait…I am taking you to my local Sunoco station while I pump gas…mind numbing flat screens at each pump…I am begging you…think of something else and don’t look at the screeen!

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