Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ubiquitube: Television as Muzak

Published as "Television Sets Are Invading Public Spaces," New Haven Register, June 30, 1998

There were five people in the doctor's waiting room, all of us occupied: some reading, some talking, some just sitting and thinking. Nobody was paying any attention to the television. The television, however, was paying plenty of attention to us. It blared on about various health issues. I don't know if the program was canned or cable; I do know it was annoying.

So I asked those assembled if anyone would mind my turning it off. No one did. But when I hit the power button, nothing happened. Then I tried the volume control, to no avail. I approached the receptionist in her glassed-in enclosure. She had been watching me. When she slid open the window, I asked, "Could you please turn off the television? Nobody's watching it." Her reply: "I'm sorry, Sir, we have no control over it."

Have you noticed how television has become the new Muzak? For many years the public has been warned about the encroachment of videocameras on our privacy: the Big Brother phenomenon. But meantime there has been another kind of intrusion: The importuning tube has become ubiquitous. So television is not only watching us; it demands that we watch it. Call it the Baby Brother phenomenon.

The most irritating instance I've experienced to date was on a long-distance airplane flight. Shoehorned into my seat, I faced a small video screen on the back of the seat in front of mine, which kept up a continual display of ever-changing advertisements. I could not simply sit and stare ahead of me without having my mind filled with repetitive trivia. The stewardess informed us that there was no way to stop it except to watch a regular program instead, but I didn't want to do that either. So I tried to read. But at the top of my visual field the screen would flicker to a new image every few seconds, intent upon seizing my attention once more. This was high-tech water torture.

My main dread of going to a hospital someday is that I will have to share a room with a videophile. But what if it's simply a TV that can't be turned off? Should I even anticipate one over my death bed? Perhaps it will be showing an educational video about the stages of dying. Or maybe a toothpaste commercial will carry me to the hereafter.

Talk about a toothpaste tube: Television is even in your mouth. On my last visit to the dentist the hygienist proudly directed my gaze to a new monitor hanging from the ceiling of the examination room. She then aimed a pencil-shaped device into my mouth, and on the tube appeared a giant image of my tongue and teeth. She was sure I would love to watch as a way to distract or entertain myself while the dental work proceeded. YECH! The saliva-filled cavity made me think of the drooling monster in Alien. I requested to be denied the pleasure of observing this fascinating spectacle.

Students stare at little screens in darkened classrooms, taking the place of people speaking and conversing. Videos are shown on school bus trips; so much for chatting with your friend, or gazing out the window. Televisions entice in restaurants, interfering with attention to your companion or your food. Where will it end? What public space will permit us any degree of privacy anymore, any peace or autonomy, any place for human interaction or focused observation or thoughtful reading or pure contemplation, any opportunity to hone the skills of articulation, response, awareness, or reflection? I try to imagine the limits, but I cannot. It is only a matter of time before rest room stalls are television equipped. What advertiser could resist such a captive audience? Stamp out even this sanctum for reading or thought!

And just add all of these hours to the time Americans already spend watching TV in their homes. This isn't The Truman Show. This is the viewer as 24-hour-a-day prisoner of the medium. While I am still master of my own house, there shall be no television here. This is the last refuge.

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