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THE DENSE MEDIUM: TELEVISION AS TECHNOLOGY

by Robert M. Young

The future - including the very existence - of civilization depends on getting right the relations between expertise and democracy. Television is the most pervasive and powerful medium for presenting issues in the public domain. Put these two assertions together and the attraction of a TV series on the social relations of science, technology and medicine - broadly conceived - is irresistible. So when the opportunity presented itself I grabbed it, then loved it, then hated it, and then went into a black depression which is why I found it so hard to write about it. This is my first attempt - three years after the series ended.

 

Please allow the word ’science’ to stand for all areas in which people get power by virtue of having expert knowledge, including social science, management science, and all sorts of quantification. Science, then, is impinging on our lives in increasingly direct and intimate ways. Some are obvious - chips, computers, word processors; new recording and reproduction technologies - compact disc, video recorders and cameras; in vitro fertilisation, genetic engineering, monoclonal antibodies, gene transplants. Some are in the pipeline - the transformation of the electrical, electronic, chemical and pharmaceutical industries; direct broadcasting by satellite, direct translation from voice to print. Some are less obvious - greater control over work in factory, office and home by close observation and monitoring, giving rise to increased pacing, surveillance and control; direct behavioural control of deviance and parolees by a combination of electrical and chemical implants for transmission and receiving of instructions.

 I could go on at length and one could ask if all this is qualitatively different from earlier epochs of scientific progress in the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the industrial revolution of the 19th, or the development of automation in the 20th. I say yes, because it is so subtle, direct and (eventually) cheap, and will transform, what it means to be a person in education, work, play and culture. It also has profound implications for the nature and location of employment, since cheap and efficient communications will greatly diminish the need for clerical work as well as for bringing people together in office aggregations.

 The problem, of course, is that there is no public access to the process of origination of new scientific developments. They come, usually as a surprise, from three highly secret pipelines. Much scientific research is secret because of careerist competitiveness among academic scientists. Ask yourself who was the second person to discover/invent any important process, theory or thing. Industrial research is secret so as to steal a march on the competition. Military research constitutes over half of the Research and Development budget in Britain and is legally protected - classified.

 Worse than all this, nobody seems to mind. Existing coverage of science in all media is almost exclusively of the ’gee whiz’ variety. It explains, celebrates and entertains. On the whole, it does not question and rarely gets up the pipeline so that there can be public debate about the direction of scientific ’progress’. We get told only when it's ’Tomorrow’s World’ or when things are on the ’Horizon’. It is true that there are scandals, e.g., over thalidomide, Dalkon Shield (intra-uterine device), Bhopal, powdered milk, but these are rarely discovered by the media (asbestos is a notable exception - twice exposed by TV researchers). It is therefore almost impossible to mobilize public opinion and conduct a public debate when new developments are at a stage when the questions are open. By the time we hear about them they have been highly capitalized and/or have gone wrong. For example, the automated factory and office were sets of products for sale before they became matters for debate on the part of the people whose jobs were affected. The same can be said for electronic news gathering and the new technologies of print journalism. Ditto nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Even when new developments are widely reported, and when the public - at least in principle - has access to them before they are deployed, there is a strange reluctance on the part of the public to take them up. Think, for example, of how long we were told about the research of Steptoe and Edwards on in vitro fertilization, before there was any serious public discussion of the implications of this work.

I have spelled all this out before saying more about my own television experience in order to drive home the rationale of a series whose raison d’etre was to contribute to an atmosphere in which it could be felt by ordinary people that they should hold views on such matters. I can't think of anything more important to do, though lots of things are arguably as important.

I had been thinking about these matters for a long time, and had even been doing research for several years on how television treats science, when I was rung up one day and asked if I wanted to comment on a new series being developed for Channel 4. The producer was a very nice man, open to new ideas and, to make a long story short, I soon found myself the chief consultant on what was planned as an on-going series of monthly hour-long documentaries on science in society. It was a very exciting time - having ideas, building up a team, basking in the enthusiasm of the programme controller, Channel 4 and the people we were working with as consultants and contributors.

So why am I so miserable about it? What went wrong? I want first to say that a lot less went wrong than some suppose. That is, we made eleven programmes: I am proud of three, quite pleased with three more, not ashamed of three, and only think two were duds. Not bad for a TV series, I am told. We also had consistent - though not uncritical - praise in left circles, though we were predictably panned by the right. I also felt deeply fulfilled by some of the work and learned more and more quickly than I had in a long time.

But, having said that, I have never had a series of experiences remotely approaching those three years for sheer human duplicity. People - especially higher-ups - would look you in the face and say the opposite of the truth with utter sincerity. I heard a person say on the record that he had had many conversations with the producer and me in the planning phases of the series and had written to us at length and with great sadness when it had to be terminated. This from a man I had met only once, and only to shake hands at a sidewalk cafe; I never conversed with him or got such a letter. I also worked closely with a person who lies like other people breathe. I could go on at great length about sheer dishonour and mendacity. I think it is interesting and important, but it adds nothing to the sorts of insights that are common in reflections on TV and film (see, for example, John Boorman's Money into Light and Stephen Bach's The Final Cut). I sometimes think that making promises and ’commitments’ is a way some people have of trying - in an experimental way - to find out what they think. If economic, ideological and career forces line up in a way that does not support that path forward, they have no sense of betrayal. Such shifts and ’revisions’ are part of the given reality in the culture industries, just as they are in other forms of highly political business. That doesn't make it less awful, though.

It is even more troubling when such things happen in one's own team. Here, I think, three factors are illuminating. First: the ambient climate of patronage. Channel 4 was a compromise between a grand vision from the Annan Report and the pressures from traditional ways of making television. Lord Annan pointed out that the comfortable consensus of British broadcast culture had been stretched in the late 1960s and early 70s .- Vietnam, May 68 - until it broke up. He conceived of an open Broadcasting Authority to accommodate the voices which were not being heard. Channel 4 was brought into reality with a dimmed version of this vision. It was to be a ’publisher’ (their term), not an originator, of programmes. All very well until you ask about the editors' role. It became more and more active, interventionist, and finally censoring. Then there arose the sort of self-censorship that is common in BBC 1 and 2 and ITV 1. By the time one is a producer or director senior enough to be in charge of the budget of an hour-long documentary, self-censorship is in most cases another word for one's skills, abilities and ’vision’. (These financial pressures are very palpable realities. I once said I needed a couple of days to think about something, and was told at the end of the second day how many thousands of pounds had been spent paying the salaries of people on standby.)

Our series was commissioned in the days of a Labour government and presented as part of a bid for renewal of a franchise - to be very innovative, a flagship of ITV science broadcasting, radical. I recall a senior IBA executive saying that the scientists had had it their own way for too long and that it was about time that a questioning and critical series was done. But by the time we were on the air, comments from BBC and ‘Horizon’ people and senior scientists were regularly being relayed to us from Channel 4 via our boss. The coldest of winds blew straight away. At renewal time we were assessed by a new editor whose last job had been as speechwriter for Mrs Thatcher. He wanted programmes on ’wealth creation and the vital importance of technology’. We didn't have a chance. We started out as an avowedly radical series, but this was firmly denied at the end. Indeed, when another series which survived by bowdlerization tried to say what our original brief was, their self-censoring producer dropped the item in consultation with our Channel 4 editor. Climates change; ours changed from a sunny welcome to being frozen out, with history neatly rewritten by the senior commissioning people. At the outset we were told that our series would ’balance’ the others on television. Next we were told that there should be ’balance’ within our series. Finally, we were told that there had to be ’balance’ within each programme.

A much more distressing aspect was the effect of the division of labour and careerism in television. We were extremely careful in picking people and set out to work as collectively as possible. But the norms were just too strong. All the TV professionals were thinking of how their work - film by film - would look on their curriculum vitae. This meant that researchers were almost inevitably loyal to the directors, while the directors were either jetting in with this project as part of a series of tightly-scheduled commitments, or they were rather more junior and worried about getting their next job.

There was no way we could forge a team with a coherent point of view. We tried to have regular meetings, but we managed this only in the early days. After filming began people were - quite properly - away researching, filming or editing. The directors who weren't on our staff couldn't see why they should turn up for a series of meetings about matters which only threatened their position as auteurs.

Again and again the perspectives and imperatives of television professionalism won out over the groping and uncertain effort to find a new way of thinking about science. We were neither celebrating or debunking. We wanted to do critique - to examine the assumptions, concepts, frameworks, connections - the articulations and forces at work at a number of levels. This was usually seen as too complicated or un-visual. ’Where are the pictures?’ often put us in our place. The process of finding a way to do critique on television was thereby frustrated. We never evolved a language for our project, although we set out to do so in a most serious way (I have a number of tapes of our deliberations which I still find inspiring). Most of the consultants felt badly treated, though there were some notable and noble exceptions among the directors.

So we were never a team. To spell out who was what and at what stage would be libellous, but here are some roles. Of the directors, one was mad, two famous (therefore with clout), two muddled, one liberal (not to be radicalized), one trendy (main chance), one authentic (but a seeker), one good (but rather too intellectual), one keeping his job. Of the researchers we had ’I know what I'm doing’ and ’I go where the power is’; one authentic but patchy; one authentic but arrogant; one authentic but not up to it.

All of this was occurring in the midst of shifting power relations between the television companies and Channel 4, and between Channel 4 and the government. Inside our own unit there were shifting power relations and shifting alliances between producers and producer-directors, researchers, consultants and me. My contract said I had all sorts of powers which I couldn't exercise. When I tried I came up against incomprehension, people's concern for their jobs and careers, and higher-ups who simply said different things to different people and reverted to the norms of the established hierarchies in the pinch. This meant that the people with radical perspectives on science were in most cases relegated to the role of ’resource’ in films made by directors and researchers. This was ‘Horizon’s’ way, with science relatively unquestioned at a deep level, and when questioned, done as a scandal. Not critique.

Another - and helpful - way of saying what I have about the division of labour, careers and power, is to say that television is a technology. It is a medium and has its own density. With the printed word, you write it, it gets typed, typeset, proof-read, printed. There are mediations, but if what you write is changed, there has to be a negotiation, and if it comes back saying something different, it's either bad typesetting or there is hell to pay. Television is nothing like this, and the publishing analogy is very misleading. This is true in so many ways that it would take a book I haven't the heart to write to convey it, even if I could get it straight in my mind. But I'm still trying to figure out all the ways I was outmanoeuvred. The most obvious is that there are a number of people with legitimate inputs who played no part in our efforts to arrive at a shared approach. The two most obvious are the camera-person (plus sound, sparks, production assistant, and other ’technical’ people - in a series which was to be a critique of the technical-as-politics) and the editor.

Many fundamental matters get settled on the shoot. If it wasn't researched, it doesn't get shot and if it's not shot, it's not in the can. If you don't see all the rushes, you don't know what there is to make into the film. Once it's in the can, the mystical world of the editing room takes over. It has its own rules, rituals and protocols. If anyone has any illusions about neutrality, facts, or documentaries being an objective form, they will soon lose them in the cutting room. All of the philosophy of science is there to be learned very quickly indeed.

In the early days we were on the whole left in peace to edit our films, but even so there is a long list of people who come in at different stages and have, as I've said, legitimate inputs, sanctioned by custom, practice, prestige and the sheer weight of their opinions. And one can't be everywhere all the time. Even if one acted in good faith most of the time (they didn't) much would get shaped without the approach of the series being there by the sheer momentum of the process.

It all makes for normalization, and it makes against innovative ways of thinking. All of these people are experts and are in implicit and explicit ways - intentionally or not - defending the very expertise we set out to scrutinize. They are also experts in a highly competitive, freelance, expensive and technological medium.

I started out believing that television was the way toward the solution and ended up seeing its apparent transparency as a very significant part of the problem. In addition, I and a lot of people I care about and respect and to whom I gave my word, were badly hurt, lied to, cheated, humiliated, betrayed and trashed. The moment of truth for me was after I had taken my name off the series but left it on particular programmes, a director simply excluded me and the other main consultant from something we had worked on for three years. When I insisted that my name be removed from something, the final stages of which I had not even seen, I was told that that would be too expensive - an unjustifiable cost - and that I would have to pay Ł500 if I wanted it taken off. So much for my good name. My pen is poised to spell out the errors of fact and interpretation and the subversion of the original intention behind this film - and others. That is, I still seem not to have learned my lesson.

We set out to question science and lost out to the professional experts, trench by trench. Meanwhile, an urgent set of questions about nature, human nature and the social process of innovation - the very stuff of the future (if any) - continued to be begged.

I append a list of the films and the books published with the series.

And what happened to me? I went into psychotherapy for depression, and into publishing in the hope of being able to bring these issues to a wider audience without having them undermined by the very forces which I set out critically to examine.

FILMS

1. ‘I’m Not Ill, I’m pregnant’ — a look at the new technologies of pregnancy.

2. ‘Portraits of Newton’ — a critical iconography of Newton, showing how each age reconstructs him to suit their view of themselves.

3. ‘A History of Nature’ — based on a text from Lukács — nature as a societal category.

4. ‘Funfare’ — on the Taylorization of leisure, focusing on the history of fairs, amusement parks and fun parks.

5. ‘Behaving Ourselves’ — on the ideological determinants of ideas of human nature.

6. ‘The Struggle for Health’ — on the framework of medical ideas in Zimbabwe.

7. ‘A Question of Power’ — on the public enquiry at Sizewell on pressurized water reactors — assessing the value of public enquiries.

8. ‘The Gene Business’ — on various aspects of biotechnology including genetic engineering and the green revolution.

9. ‘Stealing the Sun’ — an attempt to outflank the nuclear debate by stressing the virtues of various aspects of solar power.

10. ‘’The Nuclear State’ — an attempt to explore the gap between what we know and what we feel about nuclear weapons, using the technique of co-operative enquiry.

11. ‘The Box’ — a look at the implications of cable for serious documentary making in television.

BOOKS

 

The Gene Business: Who Should Control Biotechnology? by Edward Yoxen, Pan, 1983, reissued by Free Association Books, 1986.

 

Against the State of Nuclear Terror by Joel Kovel, Pan, 1983, reissued by Free Associations Books, 1986.

 

Science or Society? The Politics of the Work of Scientists by Mike Hales, Pan, 1982, reissued by Free Association Books, 1986.

 

Out of Our Hands: What Technology Does to Pregnancy by Jill Rakusen and Nick Davidson, Pan, 1982.

3065 words

Reprinted from Political Papers No. 13: Science and Technology, 1986, pp. 3-5.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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