Back in the olden days, when I was growing up, we had three TV channels and none of them broadcast all day. In fact, for a child growing up in the 70s, the pickings were so slim that they would make a 19 year old Kate Moss look positively chunky. There were a couple of hours of children’s telly on weekday afternoons and the occasional family drama like Dr Who or Black Beauty over the weekend but that was your lot. Best not to mention Jim’ll Fix It but, for the record, EVERYONE thought Savile was creepy and nobody of my generation was the least bit surprised when his malfeasances were uncovered.
Inevitably, we spent a lot less time in front of a screen than today’s youngsters, but we still loved TV. But because there was so little on that was aimed specifically at us and with catch-up and even video recorders yet to enhance our viewing pleasure, you ended up watching what happened to be on at the time. For me, I gained a love of American films of the 30s, 40s and 50s which still persists today, was introduced to boxing which I continue to enjoy (watching, obvs.) and – coming from a slightly bohemian household with little or no acknowledgement of the nine o’clock watershed – for a time I became something of a horror aficionado.
Had, by some time-bending miracle, multi-channel TV arrived in my suburban home in 1975 I would have greeted the eye-popping choice of kids’ channels with joyous incredulity: Nickelodeon, Boomerang, the Cartoon Channel, CBBC, Disney and the rest of them would all have been vying for my attention and I don’t suppose I would have given a moment’s thought to black and white movies or boxing on Grandstand.
I have no doubt that much of what I am today comes from those formative years when I was exposed to films, sports and documentaries that I would never have chosen to watch if the alternative was one of twenty channels aimed specifically at children. If I am in any way “well rounded” much of the credit has to go to those long, dark afternoons spent with Billy Wilder and David Coleman.
And there we have the paradox of choice. You might intuit that, with hundreds of television channels, young people today would find themselves exposed to so many more influences than those of us who grew up in the analogue age that they could not fail to have a wider sphere of knowledge. But the opposite has come to pass: rather than expanding the younger generation’s purview, limitless choice has meant that children do not feel the need to stray out of the kids’ TV lane and, albeit unintentionally, acquaint themselves with ideas, influences and inspiration which could be truly life changing.
Sadly, this narrowing of outlook is not restricted to children’s television. Returning for a moment to when I was a boy, you got your news from TV bulletins (no rolling news back then), local and national papers and one of four BBC radio stations (at least until, in London, LBC and Capital came along in 1973).
Nowadays, news, current affairs and analysis are everywhere: not just on broadcast media but on millions of websites offering everything from measured commentary to bonkers conspiracy theorising. As with children’s television, you might have thought that we would absorb as much as we could from as wide a range of outlets as possible, allowing us to balance conflicting views and come to an informed and measured conclusion about the issues of the day.
But we’re doing exactly the same as the 11 year old faced with a choice between Spongebob Squarepants and a black and white movie made in 1950: we go with the familiar which, in the case of politics and current affairs, means that we tend to seek out those outlets which confirm our existing opinions. Social media algorithms don’t help in the slightest: they are specifically designed to deliver content which the algorithm thinks we will click on which, in turn, means that our feeds are populated by advertisements and posts which corroborate what we already believe. Nobody ever got cleverer or better informed by avoiding conflicting opinions and arguments but the paradox of choice has led to more and more of us seldom leaving our echo chambers and learning to compromise our views.
Those on the political right might find it useful to read opinion pieces in The Guardian or even the Morning Star – they might learn something. Similarly, even the most dyed-in-the-wool socialist might find themselves illuminated by a comment piece in The Spectator.
We all hope that as we get older we’ll become wiser, not just through life experience but also through decades of absorbing and perhaps being won over by disparate philosophies and viewpoints. Fail and we risk intellectual stagnation, unchallenged ignorance and a society divided by dogma and prejudice.