Television the New Literacy?
Television is getting smarter, MTV notwithstanding. Steven Johnson in Everything Bad is Good For You offers up several pieces of evidence for this bold claim. Among this evidence are multiple threading and social networks. To put that in more mundane terms, television shows today involve mutliple story lines that intersect with one another and demand that the viewer mentally juggle all of these story lines, keeping them in the air simultaneously. The old adage that television viewing is a passive enterprise is now officially deceased. Multiple threading requires active audience participation. The viewer must constantly remember plot lines from several episodes back and how they connect to new episodes.
In addition to multiple threading, cast size for many television shows has increased dramatically. This increases the possible social relationships ongoing at any one time exponentially. As with multi-threading, the viewer has to keep a lot of information in mind and constantly apply that information to what he or she is seeing on the screen.
Where we really see current advances in television today is when these two features of multi-threading and complex social networks occur in the same show. Although Johnson's book is a couple years old, several shows on TV today give the proof to his theories. For instance, Lost is a show that practically requires a flow chart for keeping all of the relationships straight. More people visit this island than visited Gilligan (assuming we count the Harlem Globetrotters as a single entity). Numerous storylines are at play at once (both present and past), involving characters in the double digits. Heroes likewise has multiple main characters, most of whom have never met one another. In each episode, four or five different storylines are playing out at the same time, sometimes in isolation and sometimes intersecting with others. Even the traditional sitcom has fallen prey to this phenomenon. The Class has a cast of ten or twelve main characters, each with their own storyline.
I find all of this to be both intriguing and encouraging. Scripted television today demands a level of mental engagement from the audience that was previously found primarily in literature. I suggest that television shows like the ones mentioned above and many others like them are rapidly becoming our culture's visual literature. And I can't help but wonder if David Bianculli is right when he says that it is no longer valid to determine standards of literacy based upon a person's ability to read words. That any standard of literacy in our culture today must include a person's ability to watch television intelligently, or as he callls it, "teleliteracy." Food for thought.