A close look at the impact TV and the Internet have on our daily lives.
Questions about the media's effect on audiences are often limited to content, assuming that humans mimic art with little forethought or individual agency. Less often considered is the question of how the social and economic structures necessary to support new media affect behavior.
A recent study by Stanford geographer Martin Lewis about a major drop in global fertility rates contains an interesting insight: Lower birth rates in India are found in areas with the highest television ownership and media exposure.
Television isn’t what causes fertility rates to decline but a space where people go to rationalize approaches to family planning and sexuality that have already become part of the zeitgeist.
In America, we are long past the emergence of television, but there is a parallel to the Indian case: Teen pregnancy rates tend to be lowest in the areas where broadband Internet is most accessible. Some people have argued that using the Internet regularly lowers a person's sex drive, depresses people, or leads to addiction, so it's possible to think that Internet access itself lowers the likelihood that a person will want to actually have sex.
But it's just as likely that broadband Internet access, like television before it, is a function of social and economic conditions that make it unlikely for there to be high birth rates in the first place, especially among teens.
It's not the Internet or television that desexualizes us but money and its tendency to drive those with it into living conditions that are isolated in ways that make the pursuit of new leisure technologies consistently desirable. It’s never just the device but what we want the device to represent. When the device becomes familiar and domesticated we lose our faith in its ability to represent the values we want to be true, and so the changes that seemed to have sprung from the emergence of a technology slowly undo themselves.
Televisions have become so ubiquitous in America—285 million in 2006, almost one for every person in the country—that if they had some innate power to reshape human behavior, sexual or otherwise, it should still be in effect. Just as television's ability to entertain is gradually fracturing as TV sets have become cheaply available, so too has its predictive power on teen pregnancy and fertility rates.
The less scarce and luxurious a technology, the less power it has over us. Those with the most money will rush into markets for new technology that is most desirable to people who’ve already retreated to the suburbs or expensive apartments.
The comforts of living with things make it easier to live separate from people.
It's true that media does change our lives, but it is superstition to think that it’s because of the content conveyed through them. The space we want technology to occupy in our life leads to a clearing out of the old things that used to fill that space. The 34 hours a week the average American spends watching television take the place of something else. The more than 26 hours the average millennial spends online seems to overlap neatly with that same structural blank spot those with leisure hours and money to burn try to fill with machinery.
All technologies become interchangeable over time, but money is the one constant that predicts and affects our behavior far more consistently than television, Internet, rock and roll, or whatever is coming next. The development of economies of scale complicated enough to support televisions and Internet aren’t precursors to changing values in a community, but byproducts of values that have already changed.
Television isn’t what causes fertility rates to decline but a space where people go to rationalize approaches to family planning and sexuality that have already become part of the zeitgeist. It provides a fantasy space that allows the viewer to think the changing standards around them can be accepted as virtuous, while minimizing the stress of feeling like an outsider if you choose to not use birth control or have more than the normal number of children. Like television, the Internet is just a coping mechanism for glacial shifts in social order that are beyond our ability to control.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.