OPINION | Here's a plan: Turn off your TV for a year and travel
For something that didn’t even exist when my parents were born, television sure has made an impact. In fact, TV, and its online offspring, have not just become an essential part of our lives, they have taken over.
And now it’s time for us to fight back -- by switching off and getting out into the real world while it’s still there to see. Not forever, but long enough for us to get a grip on what’s truly important in our own lives and for the future of the planet.
I’ve been coming around to this viewpoint for a long time.
It goes back to when I used to write a television column for a metropolitan newspaper, and later for a widely circulated magazine. First daily, then weekly, for about a decade all up, I would drone on about what to watch, and what not to watch, on television. And here’s my confession: the more I wrote about it, and the longer I talked about it on various radio spots, the less television I actually watched.
I had a busy life, for sure, but I had little interest even in filling my “down time” in front of the TV let alone doing it as a vocation. It was becoming a chore, and one that I didn’t miss when I finally gave it up.
Many years down the track, I feel like I’ve had a lucky escape. I feel for my former colleagues, and the newbies who have taken on the burden of keeping track of what’s playing on the ever-increasing number of video platforms these days.
I love the fact that I don’t even know the names of half of the big stars of the small screen. I especially love not knowing the “reality” television people who break out like acne for a short time then retreat to non-entityville, perhaps after briefly stealing a breakfast-radio gig from somebody more qualified and more talented.
Sure, I know who the big stars are -- and they’re not just those in front of the screen, they’re also the writers, producers, directors and other creatives and crew members who can and do produce quality work.
And I’m not really attacking those who work on “reality” television. Some of them -- especially those who cast the shows and conceive the plot twists -- are simply slumming it: wasting their talents on a lesser artform that happens to be popular.
Anyway, I digress.
The great thing that happened when I stopped watching television was that I discovered real life. And I did that largely through travel.
I’ve seen great big chunks of the world in the past 11 years. Sure there’s been a bit of if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium tourism (thanks to my addiction to cruises), but I’ve also spent sizeable amounts of time in many countries that weren’t on my original itinerary.
Why? Because unlike television -- even “reality” television -- life isn’t scripted. A chance meeting led to me spending three months living with a family in Belarus, a country that had never been on my radar and whose language I couldn’t speak. Try doing that and then tell me it didn’t change the way you saw the world.
I lived in the United Arab Emirates for five years, often breaking bread with people from a dozen nations at the same time. I’ve been to almost every Western European capital, and a good number of those in the East; I’ve spent eight months in Shanghai and six in Glasgow. I’ve been to America and Africa, and much of South East Asia. At the time of writing, I’m in Thailand.
Now, I’m not saying that all of that has been a result of giving up TV. In fact, it’d be wrong to say that I don’t watch any television at all. I dip into YouTube and Netflix, and I try to catch up on my favourite Aussie shows when I can. And I read about it, thanks to excellent online resources such as TV Blackbox.
But I’m not chained to the set any more. I don’t feel a need to know the minutia or every show that my friends like or my contacts tweet about -- either for professional reasons (because I no longer have to write about it), or personal ones. I’d rather be enjoying a sunset on a tropical beach than desperately, and inexplicably, worrying about who the Bachelor will be this year. I’m interested but not obsessed.
For that reason alone, I heartily recommend that you all ditch your devices and get out a bit more for the sake of your sanity.
But there’s another, even more compelling, reason to stop watching so much TV. And that’s because “they” don’t want you to.
And by “they” I don’t mean the TV networks (although, obviously, they want you to remain hooked), I mean those who run the world. Without going crazy conspiracy theorist on you here, it’s obvious that the Trumps and Morrisons (and their opponents, if they were in office) would rather you be worrying about what’s going to happen with Jess on Married at First Sight than analysing policies that are probably designed to screw you.
Watching that stuff may be entertaining, but it’s sucking the life out of you.
The real living is to be done outdoors, not inside with your eyes stuck to a screen. Travel -- which could be anything from wandering around your own neighbourhood to circumnavigating the globe, and everywhere in between -- is far more rewarding.
Television is busy telling you that the world is a dangerous place and that strangers are to be feared, but I’m here to say that (with a few exceptions) that it is not and they are not. Even travel and cooking shows set in exotic locations are actually designed to keep you in front of your set rather than venture out. To make you feel like you’ve had an experience rather than to actually have one. The people they feature are, for the most part, stereotypes who will feed your preconceptions rather than challenge them, as travel so often does.
Wherever you go, people are both the same as you -- they love their children, they want to succeed financially, they laugh and they cry -- and very, very different.They look different, they eat different things, they believe in different gods, or no god at all, and they sometime behave in ways that seem irrationally, just because they are unfamiliar. This should be nothing to be afraid of.
But television paints its pictures in broad strokes, where there are only heroes and villains (in the news, in dramas and even in “reality” shows) rather than ordinary people getting on with often extraordinary things under sometimes unbelievable circumstances.
If you don’t understand this, you’re not just missing out, you are contributing to your own ignorance. Not understanding how the media manipulates reality makes you more likely to be suspicious of, to dehumanise, even to hate, people you know nothing about.
If you turned off the television and stepped out into the world (or into a different part of your own country), you might just learn how to look out for and love other people, and realise how, on this tiny blue planet in the midst of infinite space, we’re all in this together.
The television, and latterly the internet, came to us with promises of opening up the world. Instead, with notable exceptions, TV shows have made many of us fearful and insular.
At the least, the bread and circuses of scripted drama, televised sport and reality programs have distracted our attention away from things that are important to our own future. At the worst, they have told us that to win in life, somebody else has to lose. And that’s just not true.
Right now, nothing could be more important to our individual survival than understanding the world and getting along with the people who share this space.
But you’ll never know that until you take the time to see what you can see beyond your lounge-room walls -- and that begins with turning off the TV and walking away.