By Ellen Hill
Twenty-one years ago, when people heard I was to move in to a home without a television, numerous wedding guests offered to gift one to us. Colleagues began a collection for an office present. Friends offered hand-me-downs to this poor young couple beginning a life together deprived.
We declined them all, diplomatically at first, patiently explaining that our No TV policy was a lifestyle choice just like our jobs. People believed we thought ourselves superior because we chose to shield ourselves against gratuitous violence, immorality and consumerism. In reality, we knew we were just as susceptible to the insidiously numbing forces of repeated exposure as everyone else and the best way to self-control our viewing was to eliminate it altogether.
For years we were the brunt of office jokes and labelled hippies, weirdos, freaks and luddites. Co-workers would strike up conversation in the tearoom “Hey, what about such-and-such on TV last night?’’ before petering out and fumbling for milk in the fridge in awkward silence – they had nothing else to talk about.
People were perplexed: how could journalists keep up with the news without TV. We’d explain that we continued to gather news how journalists had done for generations before us – we answered the phone, we listened to the radio, we nurtured contacts, we talked to people in the street and we sticky beaked, noticing our surroundings and were genuinely interested in other people. We went to the pub.
“What did we do for leisure after work and on weekends?’’ they asked. We read books, we ate out, we went bushwalking, lay under trees in the park and saw pictures in the clouds, we went to the movies, gazed at the stars and talked, really talked, together, soul to soul.
When our son was born, the banter and bewilderment intensified to become unveiled criticism. Some people were downright rude and hurtful. How could we deprive our child of entertainment? He’d be picked on at school. He wouldn’t know the latest trends and characters and shows. His schoolwork would suffer. He needed TV for homework research. How could we deprive ourselves of a babysitter?
The result was a child who was happy to eat what was served to him, who never asked for fast food, shiny gadgets and toys or expensive outings because he didn’t know about them. Hence, birthdays and Christmas were magical occasions of true delight. Our son has never been greedy or consumer driven and we have never felt pressured to live beyond our means to please or appease him. On my days off from my part-time job, he and I gardened together, we read books, we baked, we walked and explored our neighbourhood, we sat in cafes reading the newspaper together and sat on the front fence for hours watching trucks and trains go past our home.
Our friends and family were amused when each year for a month, we hired a screen and a video player to catch up on movies and nerdy documentaries. Then, about 10 years ago we bought a screen and a DVD player for ourselves but restricted viewing to weekend nights only.
We still don’t have TV access by choice, and from the little we understand about the medium today, it is now beyond our comprehension. Apparently there are sub channels to the major five and non-commercial stations show ads! We’re told you can even pause and rewind programs.
However, with a gnawing abhorrence, we recently realised that we had instead succumbed to possibly a greater zombification: the wonders of the worldwide web, with its endless news streams filled with useless information designed to hold us in a perpetual state of breathy anticipation, worthlessness and fear as we gorge our minds on titbits of inflated minutiae of bland people’s meaningless lives and gulp in as inspired word the wild imaginings of anyone with a YouTube channel.
We have decided to reflect on and review how we as a family juggle the obvious benefits of the digital age with personal contact communication with everyone in our lives from family and friends to commercial clients and story subjects.
* Ellen Hill is a writer, journalist, communications consultant, wife and mother who occasionally feels the need to vent about random topics that are usually of no interest to anyone else.