Thursday, November 04, 2004

Long Time TV-B-Gone 

Universal Remote or universe control?

Been busybusybusy working on the blog for work, but behind the scenes, the mind's still humming.

Though the rest of the bloggiverse has chewed it to bits, I've been especially interested in the social ramifications of the TV-B-Gone, a new keychain device that enables people to turn off TVs just about anywhere with a click of a button. The product, which hit both geek and mass awareness several weeks ago, has taken the consumer world by storm, selling so many of the tiny black boxes that distributor Cornfield Electronics now features an apology on their affectionately retro-redesigned website, for not being able to keep up with orders.

To inventor Mitch Altman, the TV-B-Gone is a power for good, "all about freeing people from the attention-sapping hold of omnipresent television programming." The early Wired article cites folks whose tube-watching was stymied by the device as generally blase, even tickled, by the whole thing.

But behind the one-button simplicity of the TV-B-Gone, there's something sinister about its basic premise that I just can't come to terms with.

Sure, most folks accept television-in-public (though not public-television-in-public, interestingly enough) as a natural part of the modern environment, one which fades in and out of the consciousness like so many billboards or park pigeons. But even if no one is watching, that's my social environment, bub. Who are you to decide that we didn't need that TV just then?

Why the heck are we all so happy about a tool that, fundamentally, gives every individual in our culture a right of total veto over the social environments of the group? Can't we see the problems inherent in the "I can turn you off" model of the world? Every movie, every book about invisibility tells us the power to manipulate the world unseen comes at a dangerous price. I recognize the basic human desire to be all-powerful -- I, too, dream of superpowers. But a world of superheroes is inherently a world of chaos (see any comic book for proof here). There's a reason why we work so hard to develop checks and balances over those with power in our societies -- keeping you out of my stuff is, ultimately, what keeps us a society.

(Not to mention the hacker potential for such a tool. Want to stymie the Principal's Monday Night Foodball? Just hide in the outside bushes with a TV-B-Gone, and let your detention-week frustration melt away! Don't like that loud TV on the other side of the apartment wall? Zap! What ever happened to talking out our problems -- why must we celebrate right-stealing as a solution to social infractions?)

I'm not the only one worried about this celebration of rampant anarchy. The week it came out the folks at were assaulting Altman for creating "...a device with the sole purpose of imposing his viewpoint on others." TV-B-Gone package designer Nina Paley offers the typical-flippant response (Funny, I thought television did that). But Paley and the rest of her ilk got this wrong twice.

First, two wrongs don't made a right.

And second, even if they did, this isn't about television. The owner of a public establishment has -- and should have -- an overwhelmingly powerful right to decide what constitues that environment for the patrons, especially as compared to the right of a single patron who just happened to walk in for a drink. And in collective spaces, commons spaces, even collaborative spaces within the private, this is always true. Even the collective passivity of the people in that bar should have more sway in determining that environment's parameters than any single patron.

So get TV-B-Gone if you want. It's a free country -- though, given the popularity, you'll have to wait a few weeks if you want one of your very own. But if you get one, stay the hell out of my public space, or there's going to be trouble. After all, it's my free country, too.

Alternately, I've got this neat device for you to use next time you're in a bar and you don't like hearing the TV.

It's called a doorknob. And it won't cost you a cent.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:08 PM |

Since when does a TV make up an entire social environment? Isn't the point of being in a social environment to INTERACT with each other rather than gaze at a box?

This remote doesn't turn people off, only machines, and they are machines that have been responsible for a significant amount of 'turning people off' themselves. TV's disengage the mind.
See, this is the kind of logic I'm used to from you- well reasoned, mentally balanced social commentary. Which is why I have been consistently been left scratching my head when you mention Bush's forign policy. The argument "Well, he may do it the wrong way, having a huy who'll really mess things up in a clear, steadfast way is better than electing a guy who isn't quite sure what he'll do" makes no sense to me on two levels. First, it doesn't make sense to me that doing a really fucked-up job is superior to not knowing how you want to accomplish something, particularly in areas where killing tens of thousands of people is involved. Secondly,it's true that unlike Bush, who's policy has been made clear in the Project for the New American Century mission statement, Kerry had no stated policy for what he's going to do to accomplish the goals he proposed. But I think you're way too reasonable to think Kerry would do nothing- which has been implied repeatedly by his opponents. So, as I said, I'm left scrtaching my head. The war in ahfganistan was a failure, the war on terrorism has all but come to a halt, Iraq is a quagmire, what weapons that were actually there weren't in Saddam's hands before and are now in the hands or terrorists, and Osama Bin Laden is doing just fucking great. Given all that, plus of course all the domestic bullshit that comes with a Bush administration (something you should think about with a daughter) what exactly worried you about Kerry that would make you stick with this president? (Who, it now seems, we are stuck with.)
1. I'm a teacher of media studies; you don't have to tell ME about the societal evils of TV. But this isn't about television. It's about means. I continue to maintain that, regardless of the problems television brings/has, the WAY to address that is not to celebrate anarchy. I am a believer in societies -- that a good society exists in the tension between individual needs and community needs. You may NOT sacrfice my society's basic foundation because you don't like one of our toys, and what YOU let it do to YOU.

Television needs changing as medium -- we need to demand better, accept less, be more active about all of it. We should not, however, sacrifice our intrinsic moral and ethical values as a society to address a single evil. How far until you can turn off my cell phone -- and my daughter dies because you didn't check to see if I had a good immediate reason to use it? How far before we accept tools that let you or anyone else turn of ME, because you believe I am intrinsically evil? The slipery slope, tempting as it may be, isn't worth it.

In other words: my call here is that your argument (and that of the TV-B--Gone celebrants) is predicated on a machiavellian worldview. You seem to be suggesting that the ends DO justify the means if the "problem" is bad enough. I disagree. But don't think that because I disagree I don't "get" your concern about television. I just think YOU don't see the stakes of doing so your way. Am I wrong?

2. On a surprisingly related note: Matt, my concern with Kery isn't that he hasn't decided about how to best deal with foreign policy. I don't buy the "flip flop" thing at all. My concern is that when Kery is asked what his policies and positions ARE, he doesn't say "we'll see." Instead, he responds TO questions about policy by speaking about implementation OF policy in ways that, while ideally great -- foreign allies, for example -- suggest to me that Kerry doesn't understand the difference between a policy and a straegy to implement policy at ALL.

In other words: he, too, confuses problems with solutions.

Bush's policies aren't always (or even mostly) what I believe in. His implementation is often based in faith, which I abhor. He has horrible ties to big business, and uses them inappropriately. But I can vote for him because I believe that social handling of specific issues is a historically temporary condition, period. These things change -- the world changes, all the time. One day I believe gay marriage will be there for everyone. And I believe this will be true, really true, when the world is ready. No one guy will make much of a difference to that long term goal -- not Kerry, not Bush -- because we're talking about when we, the collective we, are ready.

But we're talking about policy vs. implementation here. When you ask him Bush what his policy is, he tells you what his policy is. He knows the difference between implementation and policy, in other words (though I doubt he could articulate it). And Kerry doesn't.

And the bane of my existence is exactly that confusion, as we see in this post about TV-B-Gone. I believe that continued and growing societal-scale confusion about the difference between a) what somneone thinks should be, and b) how someone decides to make the world be what they think should be, is perhaps the most significant issue in the whole world right now.

Because I believe in Jon Stewart. Let's face it: we're broken. I believe Democrats cannot get out of their hole, the whole flawed mess cannot be fixed, Jon Stewart's dreams never be realized, until we as a culture can start thinking in ways which will allow us to fix the whole mess, and THEN -- and only then -- will we be able to look at HOW we want to fix things. And only Bush, to my immense regret and sadness, uses rhetoric which gets us there.

So I vote for Bush because, ironically, the way he leads will lead to better social and empowering literacy in the culture at large -- literacy being the ONLY platform for having any control over one's society, over deliberate change.

Yes, I vote for Bush because, though HE is a moron, he will make us smarter, and better able to control our destiny. Ironic, ain't it?

Now give me a Democratic challenger who can get us there, or a Republican with my kind of social ideals, and I'll be happy to vote for them.

Until then, I'll vote unhappily but honorably, for not the lesser evil, but the greater world-framer, that we might someday, in my lifetime or my daughter's lifetime, be able to look at getting whole again.

Stopgaps save a decade. I couldn't in good conscience vote for a good decade, knowing that in my heart I believed it would make the long-term survival of the race that much harder. I'm in this for the long term. I'm in this for all of us.

Dems: if you want to help, get a better candidate next time. And be willing to play the game to tear down the Republica candidate, too. I'll vote for anyone, any party, who I think will keep us on track to solve "the whole mess." But I will not pawn the future just to save the next four years.
I'll say this, man: It's a change to at least hear a Bush voter think this way as opposed to, say, "I hate queers!"
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