By Jerry Mander Lois M. Scheel 1993  Published in:  Section 3 Newsletter, March 1993, No. 111 


For 15 years Jerry Mander worked in public relations as an advertising executive. He led the good life, keeping company with prominent people in high-class places, traveling to foreign countries, making money, everything he had ever hoped for.

And then events began to change his way of thinking. During the turbulent 60s he noticed that the news media played up protest demonstrations as violent, ignoring the concerns of the protesters. These concerned citizens had to use extreme exposure to be heard at all and then their story, often distorted on TV, rated the back pages of the newspapers while those who had money, many he had dealt with in his line of work, could buy media exposure to their heart’s content and use it to advertise to make more money.

The glut of information the media can produce dulls our senses, says Mander. Although 80 million people can be watching television at the same time, and 30 million can be watching the same program, there is no way these people can know what it is like to walk through a forest and watch nature at work; see wild creatures foraging for food; or experience cold, clear streams moving to some destination, nurturing the earth, fish and wildlife on their way by watching someone else’s experience on television. Television’s invasion of the mind alters people’s behavior. They continually take in images of whatever the media puts out, so eventually they lose the will to use their own imagination to be creative themselves.

Although much of what is said above is true, and although there is nothing like experience to realize an adventure’s full potential, the author at times speaks in generalities. There are millions of people whose only contact with the workings of the environment is through television: the handicapped, those trapped in cities by poverty, etc. As a brief educational experience outside the real thing, television is difficult to beat.

Mander sees human beings as no longer trusting their own perception or observations unless these are proven by science and technological factions. He sees many children coming to believe that everything is manufactured, even mountains. And children aren’t the only ones who are so attuned to the homogenized world they live in that they don’t know the difference between the taste of orange juice made from fresh oranges or that made from juice concentrate.

He seems to be anti-technology, everything, even cars. They entrap us. We drive for hundreds of miles, staring at asphalt, not seeing the beauty of the land, trees, sky, wild flowers or rivers because we have to watch the road. High speeds obliterate our perception.

Offices are technologically designed to keep employees concentrating on their paperwork:

“…spaces are square, flat and small, eliminating a sense of height, depth and irregularity.

The decor is rigidly controlled to a bland uniformity from room to room and floor to floor. The effect is to dampen all interest in the space one inhabits. Most offices have hermetically sealed windows, processed air, regulated temperature…always the same. Muzak homogenizes the sound environment. Some buildings even use ‘white noise’, a deliberate mix of electronic sounds that merge into a hum. Seemingly innocuous, it fills the ears with an even background tone, obscuring random noises or passing conversations that might arouse interest or create a diversion.”

But aren’t we seeing the misuse of technology here where extreme work efficiency relates to the bottom line? Of course the above description is not a healthy environment, but since when, except in rare cases, have businesses put the comfort of their employees over the comfortable margin of their bank accounts?

Mander continues his accusations against technology: “If you accept nuclear power plants, you also accept a techno- scientific-industrial-military elite. The common people could not put together a nuclear power plant. Nor could they handle or store the radioactive waste products that remain dangerous to life for thousands of years. The wastes, in turn, determine that future societies will have to maintain a technological capacity to deal with the problem, and the military capability to protect the wastes. So the existence of the technology determines many aspects of the society.”

Mander comments on mass production. If we accept it, we accept that a small number of people will control a large number of people. We accept the fact that this large number of people will spend long, tedious hours at repetitive work, losing all desire for a life outside of this work. “The workers’ behavior becomes subject to the machine.” We also accept that mass production means getting a lot of the same items to a lot of people through advertising.

Mander ponders the mysterious insight of the early Indians who centuries ago successfully used herbs and roots as natural cure for disease, and he marvels that they discovered these cures without “grants from the National Science Foundation.” And 7000 years ago the Egyptians discovered the beneficial effect of sunlight and herbs on jaundice without a scientific grant. How come?

He further accuses scientists and technologists of usurping this valuable knowledge and harvesting the medicinal resources for their own profit, forcing the Indians who discovered the cures to buy them back.

Most of what the author points out is only too true, but we can hardly blame scientists and technologists for his sad state of affairs. Scientists are merely servants to business cartels, including the military that confiscate their discoveries and use them for their own evil purposes. War, for instance. And scientists like to eat and have a roof over their head, too. But we can and should concentrate on a system that by its nature spawns these discrepancies in its attempts to operate by ancient rules that should have gone out with the last century, an important point that Mander seems to have overlooked.

The author realizes that we can’t get rid of all technology. But he claims that we are entrapped by it, that because of it we’ve had to conform, to change our ways in order to live in a technological environment: we must compete; we must change our personality, our attitude, become as handsome or as beautiful as possible in order to progress; we must become business savvy in a capitalist society, even rob the environment to pave our own way to success…And many people cannot conform to all this technology. They drop out, take to the streets, shoot each other, abuse their children, and succumb to addictive substances…

But these people would have no trouble conforming to this technology if it were used to solve our distribution problems. Advertising commodities for the big sell is just about the most inequitable and inane way to get them distributed, except for the big bucks gang. As Mander points out, advertising does assist our acceptance of unnecessary technology. He uses the electric carving knife as an example. We didn’t know we needed one until strong advertisements convinced us that we couldn’t get along without it.

And, of course, we can’t advertise without some form of technology. Advertisements strive-and succeed–to create a perpetual “need”. Evidently we are sheep that must be led by our leader–technology. No longer can we think for ourselves, and our greatest leader is television. It, alone, can infiltrate millions of minds at the same time. Orwell’s big brother has arrived.

This book is quite an education. It is not just about the adverse effects of technology and eliminating television. It is about many things that should be of interest to many people. It is about our money system; no goods and services are worth offering without a price attached, although the author doesn’t realize that he is talking about our Price System. He blames everything on technology and, unfortunately, most of those who read this book will quite possibly agree.

Mander laments the fact that friends, who seemed receptive to his idea of eliminating television would then say, “You don’t expect to succeed, do you?” How receptive would Mander be to an idea that promotes the intelligent use of technology for human needs? Probably not very. In his latest book: In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (1991), he offers more arguments, this time for the elimination of technology. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television came out in 1977. At that time he said, “…the idea of outlawing whole technologies is virtually unthinkable.” Fourteen years later he offers arguments for its demise, using terminology such as technopian, techno ideology, mega technology, utopian police state, techno-fantasy of immortality–“the removal of the mind from the brain, where a computer-surgeon ‘downloads’ the contents of the human brain into a robot…”

He believes that we should become more of a democracy where “all human beings should have a say about technological developments that may profoundly change, even threaten, their lives…” Isn’t a democracy what most human beings think we have now? He admits that to be knowledgeable on technical developments, the people should have more education.

And because they don’t, most of the discussions involving technology take place between “unelected surrogates, professionals and experts.” If this were only true.]

And yet it is the tragedy of our times that those who have this education and the knowledge to perform intelligently in a technological age–our technologists from every field of endeavor–do not have the power, while those who have the power- -our politicians (a composite of businessmen and lawyers)–do not have the scientific knowledge to perform adequately or intelligently. It is only natural that with their education on how to succeed in the business world, money, not technology, rules their decisions.

Jerry Mander believes that those TV personnel who line up people for documentaries or to promote their book most often attempt to adjust the personality to match the machine. Undoubtedly he is partly correct; but rather than adjust personalities to match the machine, these personalities are more likely to be adjusted to present the best attention catchers to those who will be the most likely to adhere to the sponsors’ advertisements. To purchase their products. To win high in the ratings so their show can go on. What does the mindless machine care about such frivolities? It’s only there to do its master’s bidding.

The author is most perceptive in defining our social ills, but eliminating TV and all technology is not the answer. Only the intelligent use of technology can undo what years of its misuse have wrought. It is long past time that scientists are given an exemplary place in society. Even science fiction takes precedence over science, but without the ingenuity of scientists’ inventions and engineers to carry out these inventions, science fiction would be relegated to a less exciting form of entertainment. People might have to go back to reading again.

In the Northwest spotted owl/old growth forest controversy, the four scientists who laid out the survival rules for both owl and forest are referred to as the “gang of four.” The politicians who want to overthrow these decisions egotistically call themselves the “god squad.”

When President Bush honored 10 people for their achievements for 1992, not one scientist was included. Yet without scientific expertise, the entertainers who were most prominent on the list couldn’t have performed for millions of people on television or on the stage.

Jerry Mander unwittingly revealed one of the problems facing this continent today regarding our environment when he said: “In 1974 I was one of 30 leading environmental educators invited to attend a conference at Ann Arbor, Michigan, jointly sponsored by the Environmental Education Program of the School of Natural Resources of the University of Michigan and the Division of Technology and Environmental Education of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

“The goal of this conference was to provide guidelines to the government on how to grant ‘money’ for environmental education projects. We 30 people would decide what good and effective environmental education is and what is not. We had four days to do this…” Only four days?

Where were the biologists, geologists, anthropologists, meteorologists, chemists and other scientists who understand our ecological systems best because they are educated to understand them ? Apparently left out, as is often the case, being blamed for the technological ills that beset us instead of putting the blame for the misuse of our technology where it belongs: most notably on the military, business enterprise and politics.