You think you watch television too much? Bill McKibben watches television a lot more — or he did for almost a year. Eight hours a day, five days a week, the 30-year-old author watched videotapes of everything on TV during one 24-hour period in the spring of 1990.
He wasn’t gunning for Guinness, and he swears he’s not a masochist. Instead the author of 1989’s best-selling ecological warning cry, The End of Nature, was conducting an experiment in what he calls ”cultural environmentalism”: If TV is, as he points out, ”the central access to information most people have,” what do people learn from it? The test results will appear as his next book, The Age of Missing Information, to be published by Random House next spring.
Ironically, McKibben lives deep in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, beyond the reach of most TV signals. For his experiment, he picked the system with the most channels — Media General Cable of Fairfax County, Va. — and had friends tape 24 hours of each of the 96 channels offered. In the book, McKibben compares what he saw on the tube with another sort of viewing: ”I spent a single day camped on the mountain behind my house, and said, What would you know about the world if this was your main source of information?”
He’s not out to heap scorn on the idiot box. He says his book aims to explain the way TV determines how ”we see everything from time, to our idea of what the divine is, to how we view the physical world, to how we think about how much stuff we need to lead a decent life.” McKibben sees television’s overwhelming message as More Is Better.
Not to mention surreal: Low points on the author’s video odyssey included the arrivals-and-departures screens from nearby Dulles Airport and the ads for a dishwasher rinse agent that removes ”invisible residue.” The real weirdness remains unspoken, though. It’s not that Bill McKibben watched five shopping channels and turned it into a book. It’s that someone, somewhere, is watching five shopping channels — and not turning it into a book.