The Television Has Disintegrated. All That’s Left Is the Viewer.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a high-definition, flat-screen television. Don’t ask me how big or how much. I feel bad enough about it as it is. Something about a television still says to me, “Shouldn’t you be working?” This one apparently said, “Buy me,” as well.
I have purchased three TV’s in my life so far, and I’ve loved only one of them, an old Sony Trinitron — but that was in the days when Thurman Munson was still catching for the Yankees. This time around, a friend showed me his new LCD TV, one of the many new sets purchased around the globe for the World Cup earlier this summer. The next day, I was immersed in buyer’s research, which is meant to be a prophylactic for buyer’s remorse. Life is like that. Sometimes you find yourself trying to make a rational choice based on an irrational decision.
This was a thoroughly contemporary purchase. I bought the set online, but only after reading many reviews and downloading the user’s manual and studying it carefully. A few days later the box came. I carried it upstairs and opened it. It was like letting induced obsolescence loose in the house. I moved our former television — 21 inches, 12 years old — out of the way. What a squat, toadlike object it had become over the years! What a perfectly cubelike concentration of gravity! The old DVD player? Toast. The VCR? A laughably analog apparatus for dragging magnetized videotape along its sorry, bleary path. And as for TiVo, time for yet another upgrade.
It seemed, in fact, as though the very idea of television itself was disintegrating. Televisions have always contained two devices: an apparatus for displaying the picture and a tuner for receiving the broadcast signal. And yet they have always seemed like single things, as unitary as a light bulb. You plug them in, turn them on, and there is the old familiar glow of “Laverne and Shirley” beaming down out of the skies. But this new television is nothing like that. It is a town square, an ecumenical gathering place for signals of all kinds. There are all the usual connections, of course, plus ports for a computer (which plays DVD’s), a game controller (which plays DVD’s too), a video iPod (which plays downloaded videos), and a separate port for something I have never heard of called “Service.” There’s a tuner in the TV and also two in the TiVo box. So where, exactly, is “the television”?
I think the answer is that we are now the television. Think of all the devices we carry that snatch signal out of the air or intercept it as it streams past over cable of some kind or another. Think of all the possible sources of signal — not merely network and cable but Youtube and iTunes and a million more as broadband broadens. A device like TiVo used to seem remarkable: sitting at home, watching television all day long, saving what we asked it to save or what it thought we might like to have saved. But there is no such thing as cosmic TiVo, dialed in to all the signals that pass through our lives, coordinating and saving Web sources and air sources and cable sources and personal sources, like home videos and digital photos. We ourselves are the tuner in the television set, modulating all these inputs, carrying them to the new flat-screen panel for viewing, one by one. The idea of sitting down in front of “the television” and watching “what’s on” seems almost romantically archaic. Until you try it. Then it just seems archaic.
These are my thoughts now. I have not even begun to think about the coming battle between the two new high-definition DVD formats — Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. I’m like a lot of people with a new flat-screen television — like anyone who bought a television in the early 1950’s, for that matter. It’s hard to care much what you are watching when the picture is so good. But this is a temporary state of satisfaction. I suspect it will last only a weekend.
The real problem is living with the choice I’ve made, which means living with all the choices I didn’t make. One manufacturer has just announced a new LCD that is lighted with light-emitting diodes — L.E.D.’s. That means lower energy consumption and brighter screens. I’m going to try not to wish I had waited. Last week, a friend told me he uses a high-tech digital projector, connected to his laptop, to watch DVD’s on a blank wall in his apartment. I envied him for a minute. And then I remembered. All of our blank walls are covered with books.