500 Channels, Programmed Lives

The communications wave of the future is about to crest: interactive media. We hear of 500 channels, total interactive connection between the viewer and screen along a superhighway of unparalleled program choices.

500 Channels And Nothing To WatchProponents of the new technologies see nothing but bounty for the viewer: more control over what one watches, and when; true interaction with what’s on screen, to the point of altering it to taste; education and travel with an intimacy and immediacy previously unheard of; push-button voting on political and social issues, viewer talk-back during candidate debates.

I offer, however, three concerns that might invite further debate.

The first has its roots in my college days in the late 1960s, when every communications class was being taught that with the coming of cable, programming as we understood it would change forever. Cable would at last decentralize the media, and more diverse (non-dominant culture) opinions and programming would be available. With a multitude of channels, advertisers would have to split their media budgets into many different small-market pieces, thus shaking the capitalist stranglehold on national communications. (This was the ’60s, remember.)

Well, this didn’t happen. We have cable now, and the promise of 500 channels in the future, but communications are no more decentralized than before. In fact, media are more corporate and centralized than ever, with a passive audience. A handful of conglomerates controls the technology and its distribution in a way similar to 30 years ago. Whether a new channel is all-sports, all-rap, all-Republican, all-Spanish or all-evangelical, the parent company will be one of that handful.

But, wait a minute, won’t interactive media make us less passive? Only in a phantom sense because we’ll be primarily interacting conditionally and competitively, among a schematic of predetermined options.

Which brings me to my second point: Real art–or real entertainment–already interacts with us, and in a much deeper way. It engages our feelings, intellect and aesthetic. Moreover, the particularity of the artist’s inner world is what resonates with us, often at levels outside of our conscious awareness.

Interactive programming, as currently proposed, robs us of the primacy of the artist’s unconscious–in the case of TV and film, the experience of that special, private space between viewer and viewed. This is a profound loss. The more specific and personal a detail in character or story, the more powerfully its impact generalizes out to the audience. (The specifics of Rocky Balboa’s life in the first “Rocky” film were shared by few in the audience, I’m sure, but everyone understood what he meant by “going the distance.”

Admittedly, my feelings about this are influenced by my own career as a writer and my belief in the personal, unalloyed vision necessary for the writer to speak to the audience’s issues.

(Or, put another way: If a camel is a horse designed by committee, watching a program co-created by its own viewers will be a particularly bumpy ride.)

My final concern is grounded in the belief that, if nothing else, we all have a shared history based on the TV pictures of the past years common to all Americans. A national memory shadowed by the same video images of Lucille Ball and Edward R. Murrow, the moon landing and the Mod Squad, Melrose Place and the nightmare-in-slow-motion that was Dallas in ’63.

With the advent of these new technologies, this shared history is threatened. If we all control our screens, if we can program what we watch and when for the sake of convenience, we lose this common experience in our culture.

The great danger of the 500-channel, interactive superhighway of the communications web is that the community of the culture goes underground. And therefore, our sense of fragmentation is augmented even more; our sense of remove from the greater whole is enhanced. Ultimately, the more connected by screens–and only by screen–we become, the more fictionalized our experience. Already I know people having love affairs through e-mail, spared the messiness of real human contact.

The interactive promise, whether you’re a big-game hunter in the virtual reality of Africa or just an average Joe in the throes of a torrid affair with Madonna, is that such fantasies can be explored while being controlled. A real relationship–whether with a rhino or a pop star–cannot. From this perspective, a controlled experience, rather than being limitless, can be seen to be limited. In the final analysis, “a planned world,” writes John Fowles, “is a dead world.”

Like most people, I’m as much intrigued and awed by the communications technology to come as I am dismayed and suspicious. And as a therapist, many of whose clients are and will be in the vanguard of the new media, I’m curious as to what effect these interactive technologies will have on the ways families communicate, children are educated and people see themselves as citizens.

But, in the end, I hope we’ll cling more to the raw materials of authentic experience, to the interactive technique known as a human encounter. As poet Gary Snyder wrote, “A hand that can push a button will never know what else a hand can do.”

Article by Dennis Palumbo. Reprinted from the L.A. Times, July 25, 1994.

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