The End of Television – Anticipating the Future in 1997

by rthieme on November 2, 1997

The End of Television

by Richard Thieme

published online by Freed November 1997

A funny thing happened on the way to this article about television.

Television disappeared.

I don’t say that lightly. I was the last kid on my block to get black-and-white television and the first to have color. We won a huge RCA color television with a tiny screen in a raffle. We set up folding chairs in the living room and all the kids came over to watch Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows.

There must have been thirty people jammed into the living room. We took turns playing with “HUE” and “COLOR,” turning pink faces green, and when the title words for the program turned bright yellow, everybody cheered.

So when I say television disappeared, I say it with some regret. My world was defined by the miracle tube that hypnotized the peoples of the earth, turning us all into stone.

When I looked for the category called “television” in my mind, there was … nothing there. Television as a singular thing, a bracketed experience, a discreet category, had morphed.

Once information becomes digital, it can be reconstituted in any form. The interfaces are as arbitrary as the names we give them. That’s what “convergence” means. Simple one-way transmission of sound and image is no longer a useful distinction.

Emergent realities ought to be named with verbs instead of nouns, they change so quickly into something else. We started with “television,” then used modifiers to distinguish different kinds — color, cable, public access. Then, like American colonies turning the edge into a new center, a modifier becomes a noun and a new thing.

“Convergence” points toward that new thing.

It’s hard to talk about at first.

Internet cars, for example. The automobile is becoming an electronic artifact riding on a mechanical platform. Using GPS, the car will be an extension or unit of the Intelligent Highway, resembling a mobile office, playroom, or home more than a self-guided vehicle. Spam in a can, we’ll be passengers in a moving room, connected through wireless technology.

The auto, the home, the office will be modular constructs distinguished by function. Each will be able to morph into the other.

I was talking about this at a conference on technology and education. On a platform next to a split screen, I repeated questions from a live audience for a Texan who talked on one screen while he showed slides on the other. A question about wiring the campus for distance learning caused him to smile.

“We don’t build campuses any more, then add a computer interface,” he said. “The campus. the buildings individually and collectively, are a digital construct built from the inside out.

“All learning is distance learning.”

Old categories of thinking slip and slide with imprecision. The digital campus, the digital house, the digital office, the digital car mesh in a seamless web of energy.

Spacetime contracts like someone pulling a drawstring. The names — “office” or “home” — blur. We define spaces by what we do in them while we’re there. Some will be mobile, some anchored.

Digital humans are vortices of intentionality determining by our momentary focus the names of the spaces around us. We are like transparencies turning in a kaleidoscope, our identities and even our selves as protean as the courses of our digital lives.

Television … television … television … a one-way transmission of images and sound … the word is already … losing its meaning.

“Web TV” is a word for simply using a digital interface in two ways. But every digital interface will both send and receive. How do you want to reconstitute the data? In what form and for what purpose? Plug-ins will add sensory enhancements, virtual reality, multiple dimensions.

It’s all a matter of marketing.

“Interactive television,” like “distance learning,” will become an oxymoron. When every classroom has a tracking camera and questions of accreditation and economics have been resolved, it will no longer be a question of, ‘who is accepted at Stanford?’ but ‘who has taken that course and passed it?’ Why should the benefits of a course be restricted to those inside the confines of a lecture hall? Why shouldn’t courses be modular and ubiquitous, a mix-and-match opportunity for self-directed life-long learning?

All television will be interactive, but it will take a while to figure out how to get it right.

We use new technologies as if they’re old ones. Then as we interact with them the technologies teach us how to use them, as networked computers are training humans to work in partnership with them.

The first motion picture cameras were pointed at stage plays. Over time we moved the camera, zoomed in, changed lightning, and — bingo! — Pulp Fiction.

Alexander Graham Bell, asked about a use for the telephone, said we might call the next town to tell them a telegram was coming.

The telephone was not understood to be a means of personal communication until it taught us that it was, any more than main-frame computers were seen as the network into which they evolved.

The first attempts at interactive television are predictably poor. We’re just adding button-pushing or telephone calls to a medium we still think of as one-way. Over time the real possibilities of group interaction in virtual spaces will emerge.

It will not be space that determines the primary uses of “interactive television” but time — rhythm, frequency, modulation — the ways we engage as actors and reactors in the context of the medium.

Take sex, for example, always the first big content for any new technology (VCRs, photographs, printed books — and words?).

A still photo elicits one kind of response. The looker turns the photo over and picks up another. Flash those photos faster and faster until they become motion pictures, and a different kind of interaction happens.

The Internet enabled people to download images in relative privacy. Then came slow jerky video and users paid megabucks per minute for a simulated strip tease, the user typing commands to the tiny figure on the screen. Then came full-screen two-way interactive video sex.

As intervals between action and reaction decrease — as the “space” contracts between the actor and a simulated response — the essence of the medium shifts until it becomes something entirely else. Television using a remote control is not the same as a television you had to approach to change channels. So the question is not, are television and PCs merging? Stand-alone PCs will be as obsolete as TVs. The question is, what names shall we invent for the arbitrary interface du jour?

Television is a box out of which, alas, new life forms have already crawled, and we’ll never convince them to go back.

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