24 January 2013

TV and the Irreproducibility of Reality

Time for a swim. I ease myself down from the rocks into the chilly water, feeling the mud between my toes. I stand for a minute, aware of the line on my calves between the cold of water and warmth of sun, and then dive in a taut stretch. I can feel the water rushing past my head, smoothing back my hair. As I stroke out to the middle, I'm conscious of the strength and pull of my shoulder blades. I haul myself out onto a rock in the middle of the pond, and sit there dripping. A breeze comes up, and lifts the hairs on my back, each one giving a nearly imperceptible tug at my skin. Under hand and thigh I can feel the roughness and the hardness of the rock. If I listen, I can hear the birds singing from several trees around the shore, and a frog now and again, and from the outlet stream a few hundred yards away a faint burbling - always changing and always the same. If I listen without concentrating, it's mainly the wind that I hear, a steady slight pressure on the leaves. I can see a hundred things - the sun reflects off the ripples from my passage and casts a moving line of shadow and sparkle on the rocks that rise up at the water's edge. I can smell the water. I can taste the water too - not the neutral beverage you drink because there's nothing in the fridge, but wet, rich, complete. As it drops into the corner of my mouth there's the slightest tang of salt from the trail sweat in the afternoon. I can feel my weight - feel it disappear as I slip into the water, feel it cling to me again as I drag myself back onto the rock.

TV restricts the use of our senses - that's one of the ways it robs us of information. It asks us to use our eyes and ears, and only our eyes and ears. If it is doing it's job 'correctly,' you lose consciousness of your body, at least until a sort of achy torpor begins to assert itself, and maybe after some hours a dull headache, and of course the insatiable hunger that you never really notice but that somehow demands a constant stream of chips and soda. If you cut of your nose to spite your face, or for any other reason, it wouldn't impair your ability to watch television. You could make these same objection about other media, too - about writing, maybe. You can't smell words on a page. But you can summon a sense of smell. I hope the first paragraph of this essay, however dimly, triggered your sense memory; it is not, I think, reproducible on television.

Even the senses that TV caters to, sight and hearing, it limits. It rarely provides a vista, not unless the Goodyear blimp is on hand. (My family gathered around the TV each New Year's Day for the opening seconds of the Rose Bowl coverage because the camera would briefly pan around the Los Angeles mountains where we once lived.) Its instinct is for the close-up. In the three or four years between the time I stopped watching TV and the time I began this project, the camera had tightened in dramatically on people's faces, especially during commercials - a man would be selling  you financial services and you cold count the worry lines around his eyes. But this tight shot demands one center of attention. If you're shooting Nova, you can get a nifty shot of an ant mating, but you can't, say, lie on your stomach and observe one square foot of ground. Here's a big spidery thing waving back and forth on improbably legs, and a line of ants, and the wind dropping needles from the bottom bough of a small pine. TV can't deal with faint noise, either; even 'background' music is in the foreground, and only one sound at a time is permitted. When people shout, the decibel level doesn't really rise much - you knew Crazy Eddie was screaming because of his hand gestures, not his volume, which was certainly a blessing, but it all contributes to the sense of living in a muffled, shrunken world.

TV chops away perspective, too. On the mountain, even if your eye is drawn to something in particular, your peripheral vision fills in all sorts of detail, constantly. When you watch TV your peripheral vision ceases to function - you stare at the screen like a pitcher staring at the catcher's mitt. You no longer even notice the set - the frame, the knobs, the antenna (if you're still backward enough to need an antenna). Your vision is cut down to maybe 10 degrees of the horizon - on a large screen maybe 15 degrees. What we see, we see sharply - the images have been edited so that peripheral vision is unnecessary. In the Cosby living room there is a staircase, and in front of it a sofa, and the family is sitting on the sofa. No one is off in the corner making faces - it's fantastically stripped down, uncomplicated, and as a consequence whoever is in the foreground assumes vaster importance than he'd be granted under an open sky.

Any art, of course, does this to one degree or another - the artist wants you to focus on something he or she has chosen, picked out from the world. But the experience of watching, say, a play in the theater differs vastly from the experience of watching a television drama. The curtain comes up and down, lights shift on and off, the volume goes up and down - if you are sitting front row left you may see action quite different from what you would fifteen seats to the right or thirty behind. Most of all, you can choose what to watch. There is more than the eye can take in, far more. You may spend the whole scene looking at what the TV director would call the reaction shot, or you may let yourself get caught up in the background. Sometimes the actors come right out among you - they may touch you. In any case, your absorption is of an entirely different character. Movies move in the direction of television, but even they have much more periphery - even on HDTV  with Dolby stereo it's hard to imagine a television epic, a spectacle. No one's ever shot a scene for television with a case of thousands.

Or consider the difference between watching a baseball game on TV and watching one at the park. Technology enriches the TV version with close-up and slow motion and instant replay, but at a great price. It deprives you of the enormous perspective available to anyone in the stadium, the incredible choice of what to look at. TV looks at pretty women on occasion but never at the fight in the stands or the man selling beer or the outfielder hitching his pants. TV filters out most of the familiar sound of the ballpark, too - the sourceless, undifferentiated babble that comes from forty thousand people talking, laughing, rustling sacks of popcorn, a sound that the crack of the bat breaks so cleanly through, refocusing everyone's attention. TV systems are planning to introduce new interactive technology that that will allow you to select between, say, three or four camera angles during the course of a game. But this sort of choice only underlines how much TV amputates your senses. What is there at a circus that can't be topped by a hundred spectacles a night on television? And yet circuses survive - what TV picture can compete with the humid excitement? And three rings! A delicious overload of the senses, starved on television's visual Pritikin regimen. Still, the time may be coming when this overload seems like too much - when we prefer our baseball on TV. When it begins to seem more real on TV. At the beginning of And So It Goes, Linda Ellerbee's book about her TV career, she recalls a conversation with colleagues about whether her new show should be live or on tape. Her son Josh overheard the argument and interrupted: 'This is live,' he said. 'You , me, everybody in this room. This is live. That, Mom,' he said pointing to the box, 'that's television.'

During the 1990-91 war in the Persian Gulf, people said we were seeing things as they happened, live, with gut-wrenching immediacy. In truth, we were seeing what television was able to show us - the lights of tracer fire flashing over Baghdad were in some way impressive, but if I'd been told they were a laser show commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Iraqi electric utility I'd have nodded my head. The shudder, the concussion, the dust, the smell, all the things that even a moderately competent writer would express, TV can't. Most of all, the confusion - the camera and the small screen can't cope with confusion because they search relentlessly for a center, a focus. 'Does TV "bring the war into your living room"?' asked Mark Crispin Miller in his book Boxed-In. 'In fact, the experience is fundamentally absurd. Most obviously there is an incongruity of scale, the radical disjunction of locations. While a war is among the biggest things that can ever happen to a nation or a person, devastating families, blasting away the roofs and walls, we see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household.' If you wanted even the slightest sense of what the war in Iraq was like, how it felt, you'd be far better off hiring someone to come at some random hour in the night and toss a brick through your window.

[Bill McKibben watched every minute of American TV programming available on nearly 100 cable channels in Fairfax, Virginia, over a 24-hour period in May 1990 and compared that to spending 24-hours camping out on a mountain. He wrote about the experience in The Age of Missing Information (Plume Books, 1992), from which this essay is extracted (pp. 188-193).]

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