I spoke with my friends this week about television. Not the latest plot developments in our favorite shows—although we do quite a bit of that, too. No, this was about the object itself: the television.
I explained that I have an uncle who enjoys restoring old radios and televisions—he particularly enjoys working on the ones that do not have transistors in them, but vacuum tubes. He will pick one up at a garage sale or salvage it from the garbage, and then spend the time to determine the make and model and find the parts necessary to repair it. Sometimes the research-oriented approach is not possible and he must experiment. His rate of success is relatively high. More often than not he can successfully resuscitate these devices. I have seen him collect several copies of the same item, each broken in its own peculiar way, in order to produce one working model.
My father has always had a strong interest in electronics, as well. Another uncle, my father’s other brother, works for IBM. All three of these brothers share a strong curiosity for tinkering. Cars, motorcycles, boats could commonly be found in various states of dismantling and reconstruction around our home growing up. When the three of them are together, the conversation often turns to gadgets and gizmos. This shared interest I do not find particularly curious; my experience has been that brothers often have more common traits and interests than they do differentiating ones. What grabs my interest is the speculation on the possible sources. I believe that I may have the germ of a theory. These three men all share the same father—my grandfather. And while I do not know the source of his fascination with tinkering electronics, I do have some anecdotes that may paint his fascination with some clarity.
I trust my faithful readers will forgive me that cumbersome allusion.
Grandpa grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. He left the farm shortly before he married and worked for forty years as a machinist. He served in the Navy at the end of World War II. He died earlier this year. He was ninety years old. Quiet, considerate, forthright, honest—these are romantic ways to describe him. They are accurate descriptions, true. But there is more to grandpa’s legacy than romanticism—time and sorrow have provided a clear platform where I am able to reflect on what has been lost. And what remains.
In my typical form I have meandered for several hundred words of preamble before arriving at the simple point of my essay. I will try and speed things along:
Grandpa was the first person on his street to buy a television. He did this in a town that did not have a broadcasting television station. He did this while working hard to provide for a wife and four children. I remember talking to Grandpa about his first television just a few years ago, about its relative cost—weighed against his income and responsibilities. He detailed how he knew he had to have one. With great care he explained the pragmatic steps he took to work and save to see it happen. This was important to him. He designed and built and extensive antenna off the top of the house so he could pull in the broadcast signal from Chicago 150 miles to the northeast. Grandpa explained that it was nearly three years before anyone else on their block bought a television. He did not buy it to be the first one in the neighborhood. That thought did not cross his mind; it just turned out that way.
Listening to Grandpa tell of this time, I tried to put myself with him, at that time and place. To me television had always been a fact of life. I remember first seeing cable TV and watching my first movie on a VCR. But those technologies seem more like extensions of the fundamental icon that is the television. Cable provided more and different programs, but television was essentially still television. The VCR allowed for the ability to record a program and watch it at a different time—but again the essential idea of television remained the same. Television was just happening at a different time: a difference of convenience rather than kind.
So I had tried to imagine what that change must have been like for Grandpa. So much of our culture comes across as vision oriented: seeing is believing. We measure truth by what we see. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We speak of visions, of seeing our dreams come true. The television is a device that literally brought those thoughts into the living room. Twenty years later—one generation—and the television is a commodity. Common. Simple. Expected. It defines so much of our cultural identity: from politics, to sports, to news, to music, to education. There may be a case to be made for describing “reality television” as a post-modern attempt to deconstruct the device’s influence. – Flawed and failing, certainly, but an attempt.
I thought of this while talking with my friends and finally asked: Will something like “the television” ever happen again? What is “the television” of our generation? Does it exist?
We talked a lot about the personal computer and the Internet. But both of those we found wanting. I opined the personal computer arrived at a time in my life I likely would have discovered it were I born twenty years later. The Internet, to me, is much like cable television—it is an extension of the computer, but not a fundamentally different concept. Like cable, the Internet is a difference of convenience rather than kind.
The strongest contender—the one that resonated with me as the best answer—is the cellular phone. And immediately I cleaved to why I hate them so. The Greatest Generation got the television. Generation X gets the fucking cellphone.
“If I bleat when I speak, that’s because I just got fuckin’ fleeced.”