Unnecessary Nostalgia for the Idiot Box

Almost a year ago, the New Yorker published a piece by Adam Gropnik digesting various tomes about what the Internet was doing to us as a culture, ranging from the folks who saw it as the coming of paradise to the coming of the end times. One recurring theme with those who saw the Internet as a net negative, and indeed with historical treatises that feared the emergence of any new technology (polemics against the radio, the printing press, etc.), was how whatever technology that immediately preceded the one in question was always the benign, rightful one to which we owed our allegiance.

And what’s shocking to me about that is how some in Gropnik’s survey of the literature have bestowed this current honor on the television set. He writes, with an implied shake of the head:

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user.

I say that this is shocking because not only is this view somewhat risible (as indeed Gropnik find it), but that it ignores the enormous sway television still has. The implication of this neo-Luddite view is that these days television is the wholesome-yet-forgotten technology versus the Internet, which is the wicked-and-ever-present one. Yes, our attentions are more fragmented, but the TV has hardly been removed from its central location in family life. Indeed, if anything, TV is as fragmented as other “screens,” what with the avalanche of channel and on-demand selections and the fact that most families have several sets with very few watching the same set at the same time.

And this sway the TV retains is also, I think, far worse than whatever defects are engendered by the Internet. Think first of the poor quality of almost all televised content, think of the low common denominators to which it must aspire to reach maximum potential audience sizes. Then, remember that TV is passive. It is something one consumes, something that washes over the viewer, while the computer, the Internet, at least has the capability of being participatory. It isn’t always, and maybe it isn’t usually, but the potential is there. With television, one can only watch.

So earlier tirades about how TV was ruining what was good about radio and how radio was ruining what was good about books, etc., at least had a grain of truth to them, whether or not they were overblown. But today, citing the television as the superior and more culturally benign medium over the Internet is absurd. The sooner what we now know as TV is killed by the Web or Apple or whomever, the better.

“Once it is not everything, it can be merely something,” Gropnik writes, but so far, TV is still close enough to “everything” that it need not be mourned.

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