Will there ever be a better invention than television?
Of course I hear all the young Internet dudes instantly reply, sex. Really, and how many hours have you spent humping compared to boob tube dazing? And by the way, I count video games and porn as byproducts of the invention of television. Television is powerful. It’s one hell of an addiction. After air, water and food, I think I’d have to list television as the next necessity for life.
I want to do a quick look back at the history of television, but then move onto using my science fiction vision to see if I can picture something better than TV. For the purposes of this essay I define television as a visual 2D screen with audio, so it doesn’t matter if the actual gadget is a Sears Roebuck cabinet with CRT from 1955, or iPhone from 2009, it’s still television to me. If you can watch a live or recorded TV show on it, then I call it television, so something like the Kindle ebook doesn’t count, but an Asus netbook does.
What did people do before television? I was born in 1951 and grew up with the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison named it. As a child all the adults told me stories about life before television. My mother’s mother, Nanny, was born in 1881. She told me about life before cars, airplanes, radio and television. The only way I could relate to my Nanny’s tales of old America, was through the westerns I grew up watching on TV – those shows showed life with no radios, cars, airplanes or televisions, like Dodge City, in Gunsmoke. It hurt my little head to try imagine life without TV.
Last night I watched, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode from the first season of Star Trek, which I first viewed on September 29, 1966. Because I grew up thinking television was a new invention, it’s hard to believe that was 43 years ago, and that the first shows I remember seeing at age four, were 54 years ago. That generation that raised me, the ones who knew a time before television, are dead now, or sleeping in line waiting to get into heaven. I imagine rugrats today believing that television existed in the time of Jesus. Television has so perfectly integrated into our minds, culture and life, that it’s almost impossible to imagine life without the TV screen, or its daddy, the movie screen.
Now, I’ve got to ask: Is there a better invention than television waiting to be invented? Some people are going to point to the computer, but I’m going to claim that what we love about the computer is the CRT/LCD screen, so that the Internet is really just a different kind of television show. Ditto for video games. I used computers before they were connected to TV screens, and although I found them fun, most people would have considered them boring with a capital B.
Television is a gestalt experience. Forget about all that damn ESP mumbo-jumbo, television screens are our real sixth sense. Until we get a neural jack in the back of the head, like Neo in The Matrix, the television screen is our information pie hole. Up until the advent of the Internet, the screen was one-way. Now, the screen is a two-way street to the hive mind. As I type this, I’ve got Lala.com open in another window playing “Boom” by P.o.d. If I wanted, I could open Netflix, Amazon Unbox or Hulu, and watch old-style TV shows. Also, I wanted, I could use my webcam and send video back into the system.
But my question still remains: Will there ever be a better invention than television as a communication’s tool? When my Nanny was little, the newspaper was the only form of mass communication. News from around the world was slow and sparse. And it had no immediacy.
By the time my mother was born in 1916, radio was beginning to replace the newspaper as the media of mass communication. To obtain a glimmer of this mind-blowing this transformation was, I can only recommend watching Empire of the Air, a Ken Burns documentary, which is easily found on Netflix. But if you want a much deeper insight, find the out-of-print book by Tom Lewis that the show is based on. The effort will be worth it. Radio is really the audio portion of television, and network the world in the first half of the 20th century.
Television is older than most people think – the technology begun to emerge in the 1920s and 1930s, slowly gained success in the late 1940s, and then blasted-off into the Leave it to Beaver world of the 1950s. Many people think of life before the 1960s as black and white, because of old movies and TV shows, and think it was the psychedelic sixties when reality took on Technicolor hues. Now that we spy on reality in 1080p, I bet future writers will look on the second half of the 20th century as being the fuzzy years.
Radio allowed millions of people to have a shared experience. Now that’s leaving Kansas for Oz. Television expanded on the power of radio, so routinely tens of millions, and on extreme occasions, hundreds of millions, have shared a single historical event. What next invention can top that?
Cell phones are having their impact, now that they are becoming universal, and Apple and its iPhone are pushing the envelope by evolving its invention into a pocket television, because the iPhone is only another form of a TV screen. And as humanity evolves towards those higher beings in WALL-E, sitting on their moving recliners with their faces glued to TV screens, seeing the world not with their eyes, but their television, I can imagine it as the ultimate addiction.
Writing, and its descendent, the book, was the asynchronous form of mass communication that took over the world. Radio synchronized people’s lives. Television brought that synchronized communication to our major sense organ, the eyes, and it has dominated the communication landscape ever since. Can it be topped? I suppose scientists could invent some kind of machine that could broadcast reality directly into our brains, bypassing the screen, but I tend to doubt it. If they could, we could live like the billions in The Matrix, never knowing if we’d taken the red or blue pill.
Such inventions are a long way off, so what could geek science invent before then? TV eye-glasses already exist. The goal is to fool the eyes, but despite fantasy shows like Caprica, there are some major limitations to virtual reality. As long as the viewer just watches we can create better and better ways to view distant reality. But if the viewer wants to interact with virtual reality they quickly face limitations. It’s like waking dreams, if you try to manipulate them, they fall apart.
We can create virtual worlds like Second Life, but no matter how sophisticated such worlds get, will they ever be better than televised views of our reality? Think of the difference between ABC World News Tonight, the latest Star Trek film and Up, a current animated film. One shows scenes from around the world, one shows real actors mixed into CGI scenery, and the last is total animation. Cartoons have always been a staple of TV, but would you want to live inside one. Well, hell yes, for short times. So virtual reality is one candidate to supplant TV.
This means, in the decades to come, there will be kids growing up with virtual reality as part of their lives, and old farts like me will be telling them stories about life without virtual reality. How significant will be their cultural paradigm shift? What if every day you could walk through a different art museum from cities all over the world, but without taking any flights? How close could virtual reality get at showing the details of each painting? What if we had the technology to scan each canvas so it was equal to looking at it from 2 inches away with our eyes, with the choices of various wavelengths of light, and the choice of having the light source come from 8 different directions. Would that beat standing in front of the actual masterpiece?
I’ve always wanted to see Paris, but a phobia against claustrophobic transatlantic flights keeps me from going. What if I could wear a helmet, recline in my La-Z-Boy, and walk the streets of Paris every night for an hour. That would be television too, unless I got beyond the sense of viewing reality through a 2D screen.
We have to think about the holistic nature of television. Television means vision at a distance, with the implied implication we’ll also get sound. Writing and books, were information at a distance too. Photograph and movies were the precursor to television. All are based on 2D transmission. Something better than television will have to be 3D. Thus if I use this new invention and feel like I’m sitting in a room at MIT hearing a lecture or walking on Mars, then that will be a major step forward over 2D television at a distance.
Science fiction has been exploring such ideas for decades, and it has taken that speculation even further with the concept of downloading, which is recording our minds and putting them into computers. How far will reality ever get to catching up with science fiction is open to debate, but I do think VR goggles or helmets will probably be common in the near future, maybe before I die, and I will play the role of Nanny when talking to children who spend most of their time with their heads in VR helmets.
But at a personal level, what do I want from television and its possible replacements? This is where things get philosophically interesting. We use television for entertainment, vicarious thrills and gathering information. What that implies is our brains are bored with our existing location in time and space and we want to fool them into believing we are located in a different time and space. For centuries books were the technology we applied to this simple quest. Intellectuals will claim that reading Pride and Prejudice is superior to watching one of the many 2D screen versions, but the details of a televised version are so vastly richer to our senses.
I know lots of people who shun TV screens, either the broadcast kind or the computer kind. They live among family, friends and pets, pursuing hobbies and enjoying nature. They live in the now, like all good Zen monks teach, but I’m not one of those kinds of people. I grew up on television that has conditioned my mind to want to constantly teleport via 2D screens to distant places, real and imaginary. Is that good or bad? A world without television is like being an ant and not knowing how big reality really is compared to the little environment in which I crawl. Does knowing matter? I think so.
Thus, I’m sure if a better invention than television came around, I’d jump on it, if it allowed me to teleport with more details. But there are other things to consider. I’ll put this into an analogy that horny young men will understand so clearly, and be just as obvious to people who aren’t horny young men. Which is better, a real live naked woman, or a naked woman on HBO?
JWH – 6/13/9