“There are only two things I love in this world: everybody, and television.”
—Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
—The Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer
TV is bad for you, right?
Western culture has a love-hate affair with television. Even though we watch copious amounts of it, we consider it an ignoble pastime. After all, it’s a vast wasteland! In theory, the only things one can watch without guilt are the news, which is always impartial (even FOX), and educational programming, which is always edifying (even endless specials about alien astronauts on the History Channel.) Everything else is commercial at best, morally and intellectually corrosive at worst. Books are much better. Aren’t they?
But what if the information you’re getting matters less than how you get it? What if images—whether they’re received through cave paintings, tintypes, TV, or the Internet—beef up the part of your brain left unstimulated by reading? And what if, historically, societies that were primarily literacy-based were consistently more violent, less religiously tolerant, and less egalitarian than those in which images were more important? This is the thesis of The Alphabet and The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain.
Most of us are at least passingly familiar with the division of labor within the brain. The left brain works in a linear, cause-and-effect sort of way, and is able to think in abstract terms. The right brain, by contrast, thinks more concretely, and is capable of taking in a lot of detail at once and recognizing patterns. The left is associated with action and knowledge; the right, with feeling and intuition. While Shlain emphasizes that these characteristics are present in everyone and not actually tied to gender, the values of the right brain have traditionally been associated with women, and the values of the left brain have traditionally been associated with men. This is because in prehistory, men were the primary hunters and women were the caretakers.
It wasn’t until alphabetic writing came along, Shlain theorizes, that right-brained values—and women, who were considered their representatives—were disdained. (Specifically, Shlain explains, an alphabet is any lettering system of thirty characters or less.) Listening to someone requires both sides of the brain, because your right brain is observing their expression, posture, and gestures, while your left brain is interpreting their words in sequence. Writing, by contrast, uses mainly the left brain, because it is linear and abstract (rather than pictorial). Writing not only facilitates communication, Shlain argues, but also subtly re-wires the brain.
The Alphabet and the Goddess traces the history of writing around the globe. Wherever writing has spread to a new region or via a new technology, great upheaval has followed. Much of it has been negative. For example, in the Middle Ages, most people in Europe weren’t literate, and women enjoyed relative equality. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, after the advent of the printing press, that the witch trials began . . . and women were their primary victims. Centuries later, Mao Zedong would implement the use of the Romanized alphabet in China. It was under the “spell” of his Little Red Book that the brutal, oppressive Cultural Revolution occurred. In both cases, visual art, as well as women, fell under the heel of change.
Most remarkably, Shlain proposes, all of the world’s major religions became more sexist, more violent, and less tolerant of other religions as they were written down and passed down. He specifically examines Christinity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confuscianism.
In Western culture, the most recent shift back toward the right brain seems to have started with photography, but experienced a quantum leap with the invention of television by Philo T. Farnsworth. Many members of the Greatest Generation, such as former Harvard president James Conant, feared that the Baby Boomers would be rendered almost catatonic by TV. Instead, they got a generation of cultural revolutionaries, motivated by equality, creativity, peace, and pleasure. As Shlain writes, “No one confronted with the business end of a rifle had ever thought to respond by placing a flower in its barrel.”
According to Shlain, it’s no accident that the second wave of feminism occurred in the TV era, and that the first had occurred with the advent of photography. But it was not just for women that the right-brained thinking promoted by TV had a benefit. Shlain hypothesizes that if we had merely read about the atomic bomb, rather than seen the footage of mushroom clouds, the bomb might have been used again. Likewise, the iconic images of Earth from space inspired the environmental movement, which considers the planet a home to nurture rather than a possession to control.
Shlain does not claim that TV’s effect on the brain is better or worse than that of reading—just that it’s different. One of the criticisms of TV I’ve often heard is that it puts the brain into a “depressive” or sleeplike state. More accurately, Shlain explains that the slow alpha and theta brain waves of a TV watcher are akin to those of someone in meditation. The beta brain waves of someone reading indicate fierce concentration. Dyslexia was not identified until after the invention of television, but with many dyslexics who are gifted artists, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, and surgeons, Shlain suggests that it may not be a disability as much as a different kind of intelligence.
Nor is Shlain concerned that television has made us a culture of couch potatoes. Of course, there is cause for caution—but he points out that Plato was afraid that reading would make people passive. Instead, he points to a surge of interest in museums and art galleries since the middle of the twentieth century. (I would not be surprised to learn that theater, ballet and opera had experienced a similar boost.) TV wasn’t the death knell for sports, either. The book suggests that it merely made people more interested in playing (and watching) multitasking sports like basketball and soccer rather than sequential ones like baseball or cricket.
Obviously, neither Shlain nor I advocate throwing literacy out the window. Both television and text can have degrading or ennobling content, however one defines that. Both can be used to deceive and to sell. If enjoyed beyond moderation, both can lure people into passivity and physical inactivity. But understanding how they engage the brain differently is the key to bringing the left and right brain into balance, and hopefully ensuring a better future for the world. This is especially important with the rise of the Internet, which integrates text and images in an interactive medium.
In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Shlain reaches occasionally, glossing over factors other than literacy which influenced historical events. (The irony of writing about this topic is not lost on him . . . or on me). Nevertheless, he offers one of the best explanations I have come across for for fluctuations in the status of women throughout history. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these topics.
—Lisa Anderson, Contributing Editor