Gotham Diary:
Further Transport
5 July 2012

What I never got quite round to saying, the other day, was that I don’t have the time to watch things on television. I really don’t! My days are full. Rather than watch two people have an interesting conversation, I’d prefer to read a transcript; not only can I do that more quickly, but I remember the insights much more precisely. The effort of netting useful information from the wide televisual datastream is a distraction from actual understanding. Also, most of that data is not only irrelevant but tedious.

As for watching television to pass the time, this, I assure you, is a capacity that can be relinquished, and once you let it go, television becomes a maddeningly pesky irritant. It’s raison d’être is to attract attention, for whatever reason. Usually the reason is dubious. One of the great things about iPods and smartphones is that televisions in public waiting rooms are now on the way out. Now we can expect everyone, and not just readers, to come equipped with personalized (and silent) means of passing the time.

I love watching movies at home, but this is not watching television. This is slipping a DVD into a player and watching a self-contained work of cinematic art. I don’t have as much time for it as I’d like; I seem to have less time for it than I used to do. A movie, unlike a TED talk, can be inherently transporting. The movie is not a medium but an end in itself, and the thoughts that watching a good movie inspires are not like the thoughts that one carries away from an enlightening lecture.

So my objection to TED talks in particular and to audiovisual presentations of information generally is two-edged. First, they take too much time. Second — and this is what’s wrong with being transported by a slideshow — they convey an illusory mantle of expertise. The bad thing that you take from a satisfying lecture is the half-conscious sense that you now understand something that you didn’t before. But this is to beggar any meaningful conception of “understanding.” What you learn from a truly good lecture is that you understand very little. If you want to understand more, you’re going to have roll up your sleeves and make a lot of decisions: whom to ask for advice about what to research, how to find out about useful projects that might be able to use your help, or whether you ought to pursue an advanced degree. Chatting agreeably with friends afterward over a glass of wine does not constitute understanding.