Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke is a science fiction novel published in 1953. It is about aliens coming to Earth and taking over in a completely non-violent way. Basically, they see what an utter mess we’re making of everything – all the war, bigotry, cruelty to animals, and so forth – and they step in to ‘supervise’. They usher in a utopian age of peace and prosperity.
The old names of the old countries were still used, but they were no more than convenient postal divisions. There was no-one on earth who could not speak English, who could not read, who was not within range of a television set, who could not visit the other side of the planet within twenty-four hours.
Seems like a very particular type of utopia to me. I mean, it’s great that everyone can read and travel but why does everyone speak English? And that sounds like an awful lot of TV sets. There are also questions raised about whether this version of utopia is crushing creativity and human cultures; certainly not everyone is content.
Some people start up a small new society called New Athens. The idea is to build up an independent, stable cultural group with its own artistic traditions but when someone from this new colony is explaining the idea, they give one very specific example about why they think it’s necessary:
Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges – absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!
This part of the book is set in the early 21st century (around 2035) and this particular bit hits rather close to home. According to Ofcom, in April 2020 people in the UK consumed an average of nearly six and a half hours of ‘audiovisual content’ per person per day. But it was the height of lockdown, we don’t usually watch nearly so much, right? Well, the same survey done in 2019 shows an hour and a half less per person per day, but that’s still higher than the numbers worrying the New Athens advocate.
And while I can’t find exact figures, I am pretty sure I would consume significantly less than a twentieth of the available entertainment per day even if I went without sleep and did nothing else but watch TV.
And we don’t even live in a utopia created by aliens!
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