IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Affiliate Scholar > Patrick Hopkins
The DVR and the Manufacture of Discontent
Patrick Hopkins   Jun 30, 2011   Ethical Technology  

Not too long ago I decided to add on a digital video recording unit to my home cable system. I don’t watch all that much television, but for the few programs that did interest me, or that I at least wanted to try out, having to be home at a certain time or programming my clumsy old VCR was wearying. DVR seemed the way to go.

dvrAt first, the DVR was merely useful. Not only was I able to record what I wanted to watch and view at any time, but it also became simple and easy to try out new shows, or revisit reruns of old programs I had always liked. I could also effortlessly and time-efficiently fast-forward through commercials and out-of-date weather reports. A 30-minute program could be zipped through in 18 minutes, an hour show in 40, a movie in 75. Sometimes, even bothersome parts of the show itself was chopped—the cliché romantic pronouncements of love between characters, the “idiot speeches” that plague sci-fi, fight scenes rehashed from a thousand other action flicks, the main character’s obligatory suspended moment of peril from which you knew he would be saved. Tossing out chaff like this saved time. Consumption of movies, sitcoms, and science programs became more efficient—taking just the time I wanted and sparing me the annoying bits.

It wasn’t until a couple of months after I got the DVR, however, that I noticed something more profound and surprising was going on. During Christmas holidays I visited my parents for about a week. In addition to holiday festivities and catching up on family and friends, I sank into the enormously comfortable routine of eating dinner with my family in front of the television at night—a ritual shared by millions and perfectly suited for a nostalgic vacation. Now, my parents don’t have a DVR, but they do have satellite television with a huge number of channels to watch (though admittedly a dearth of interesting or edifying ones). So, we sat down to enjoy our shared taste in programs about news, science, home improvement, weird animals, and bizarre medical problems. For the first time in months, I had a DVR-less viewing experience.

What I discovered was striking. Having mostly avoided commercials for months, I was almost shocked at how they now entered my world. They were loud. They were intrusive. They were sudden. They were garish. They were insistent. Above all, they were constant. But why did I notice them so much now? Obviously, I grew up in the modern world and so it isn’t as if I hadn’t seen commercials before. I have seen many, many commercials and they were always loud, intrusive, sudden, etc. This wasn’t novel. Nothing should have struck me as remarkable. But it did.

Stranger in a Strange Land

There is a wonderful French word that captures something useful here: dépaysement. While rather literally meaning a kind of disorientation occurring as a result of a change of scenery, it is used to refer to the feeling that comes from being a foreigner or an exile in a society, so that one experiences their surroundings as alien and as a result, notices the culturally specific way in which things are done. Anthropologists and cultural critics have used this word to describe not only the feeling you might get from actually being in another culture, but as well the feeling you sometime get from returning to your own culture and seeing it anew.

This experience of feeling “de-countrified”—being an outside observer even within your own culture—allows you to see elements of society that were previously just background and ordinary as odd and very particular phenomena. Seeing your old world in this new alien way lets you see that things are no longer just givens. They do not have to be this way. They have specific causes and effects and exhibit specific values. That is the feeling I experienced, unexpectedly, in seeing commercials again for the first time.

tvRaised into relief by the DVR, what I saw was the ubiquitous presence of a vast social force—whose nature and effect are usually masked precisely by its ubiquity and vastness. Every few minutes a loud, flashy, emotional, beautiful, or funny message interrupts our lives to demand something of us.

But commercials don’t operate only by demanding that we pay attention or buy things. They demand that we believe something, that we feel something.

Namely, they demand that we believe we are currently incomplete, missing out, dissatisfied, unhappy, even inadequate. What we need to take care of this lack is some consumer object, something that will make our lives better off, make us comfortable, make us satisfied. Whether through humor, sex, pathos, fear, or shame, commercials demand that we be discontent.

This is most certainly not just a matter of informing us about options or giving us data on comparative shopping for things we already need or desire. It is far more than that.

Whether telling us that a particular brand of yogurt or soda is happiness, or making an ordinary daily task like stirring a pot of soup seem so crushingly onerous we simply must buy an automatic stirring machine, whether telling us that our old luxury car is old-fashioned and uncool in light of the “new luxury” or insisting that the way for a teen girl to stand up for herself and become an empowered individual is to purchase individually wrapped tampons in new psychedelically colored foil packages, commercials do not simply present option—they generate the very discontent that they insist their product will eliminate.

Of course they do this. No one will find their basic need for happiness satisfied by sugar water, no one needs a soup stirring machine, nothing about the objective world makes one color leather seat “old luxury” and another “new luxury,” no girl becomes a hero for her choice of tampon packaging. This is all made up by marketing itself. We are taught to feel unhappiness and inadequacy and lack.

You are missing out! Buy.

You are in danger! Buy.

You should be embarrassed by what you currently have! Buy. Buy. Buy.


I look around my culture anew and see how an industry of experts in my species’ behavior and emotion produces a constant stream of input to my cognitive system that instructs me to feel uneasy, unsafe, and permanently discontent. And this is not just a little message here or there. It is constant. It is a primary psychological experience of my life.
I had certainly known the rough data before. A quick Internet search tells me the average American watches 4.5 hours of television per day. The average child sees 20,000 commercials in a year. The average person by age 65 has spent nine years watching television and seen over two million commercials.

But these numbers aren’t that meaningful immediately because we mostly think about the amount of time taken up by advertising. What I had not really experienced before (because before DVR there was no simple technological way to watch television but NOT watch commercials) was the message of advertising, the demand it made on me to be discontent.

Now, I wonder. If a Betelgeusian anthropologist were to observe Earth, what might it think? What might it make ethically or psychologically of the fact that our species immerses itself in messages that makes us feel incomplete and inadequate?

Our largest group of applied behavioral and cognitive specialists work for organizations that surround us with the flashing, chirping, bleeping, luscious, or weepy insistence that we should be discontent without their product. What’s more, even their product won’t really make us content, because those same applied psychologists will then come up with new ways to generate cravings for the unnecessary.

I can only assume that this hypothetical Betelgeusian observer would conclude we are an oddity—a species that continuously, systematically, and deliberately induces in itself a pathology of discontent. Self-harm raised to the level of economic policy.

Information and communication technologies can change the way we look at the world and even more basically the way we experience the world. Sometimes, we might even discover that one technologically-mediated mode of engaging the world can save us from another. Fortunately, I can edit out some of the anti-therapy beamed into my brain day after day. Ironically, I can now even fast-forward through the messages from my cable company telling me that—although I didn’t know it before—I am desperately lacking something in my life and really should purchase the next level of 100 channels.

Patrick D. Hopkins, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a philosopher and ethicist who combines a life-long love of science fiction with academic scholarship on very real-world issues of science and technology.


I am glad somebody noticed! I arrived in the US 13 years ago and I was shocked to discover what American TV was, and even more shocked that people would actually spend time watching it, and even pay for it. At that time, in France where I lived, there were a total of 4 or 5 channels available, all were trying to have some quality programs, and every evening there was a choice between at least 2 or 3 full-featured movies, either totally uninterrupted or interrupted only once by a single commercial break.
Arriving in the US, I was expected to be impressed by all the wonders that the US was supposed to be about. When I discovered that you can not watch TV for 5 minutes without being exposed to loud and stupid commercials, I could not believe it. Why would anyone accept that? Why would anyone want to pay for that? And what’s the point in having hundreds of channels if they all show nonsense crap?
As you can understand, I have lived the last 13 years without TV, and I will certainly continue doing so. Occasionally, while visiting friends, I am reminded of this oddity that US TV is, and I still have the same reaction of incomprehension at how can people tolerate such a thing…

Please checkout this short video message, (advert), from Greenpeace international (90 secs). Please use it on your website, blog etc. if you can – spread the message!

Give Earth a Hand
“This fragile Earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs you.”

I’ve had the same experience. Ever since starting university four years ago, I’ve only streamed/downloaded my shows, and I didn’t really notice all that much change.

That is, until I visited home. It’s unsettling.

At least many of the internet sites I access have ads directed toward me, so, while they may be more enticing (and thus more valuable for the company), they are also far more interesting and don’t seem to be as intrusive as the shouting tampon ads about which I couldn’t care less.

Would be interesting if we could, perhaps, specify our interests and have the ads filtered according to such interests.  Maybe a future for GoogleTV after all? 😊

Apologies! - the above video is no longer available on YouTube due to copyright issues..

However, It is available on Vimeo below - please use it on your blog, website if you can - thanks.

Give Earth a Hand
“This fragile Earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs you.”


I have noticed this as well!  After Battlestar Galactica finished its run, we didn’t turn on the tv for two months because there was nothing on that we wanted to watch.  We cancelled the satellite bill and just got Netflix to watch movies after realizing we’d just wasted a big chunk of change for nothing.  We have not regretted it.  I don’t notice the lack of commercials until I visit someone else’s home while the tv is on.  The reality shows and the “noise noise noise” (to quote The Grinch) are almost enough to drive me out of the house. It’s like moving to a different planet at that point.  The divisiveness and competition and the tearing down of other people on these shows disrupts my chi!  But I don’t notice the lack of this noise until I happen to see them again somewhere else.  It does make it awkward to have conversations at times, though, when I haven’t watched anything that others around me have watched on the tube.  But it’s a small price to pay, I think.

My favorite is the incredibly sad picture of before compared or beside the mega-elated after “product use,” picture.  But its not just tv..most newspapers are just ads or coupons now.  I can remember getting the Sunday paper and there would be a large amount of coupons and sales circulars but now they dwarf the paper itself…at least in this area.  Magazines….and I especially notice this with the women’s magazines…are virtually 700pages of ads. And sometimes most of the articles are about what is “best,” to buy.  Its insane.

I remember seeing this clip about a “future VR display”.

I involved a guy waking up, starting his coffee maker, toaster, and making breakfast, interfacing with his appliances through virtual control panels…

And every single surface of every single item was covered with virtual ads. He actually had to wave all the floating ads out of his face to even see the coffee pot, and the toaster, and the moment he stopped using them, the ads popped back up to completely obscure the appliances.

This madness must end.

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