No one cares about books anymore, but what screen now holds the highest value?
Caressed by the Glow of Screens
by Mark Jack
I have walked two blocks up from my house and made lefts and rights. I turn here and there with no discernable plan, wondering now and then if some “other” might be able to connect my stupid meanderings into a pattern or purpose. And through it all, I have wondered whether if it was that I wanted to go somewhere but had not yet decided where that destination might be, or if it was that I was attempting to go somewhere but temporarily forgot where that place was.
Many of the houses in the Bay Area have beautiful, huge windows that bulge out into the sidewalk and it is nearly impossible to not look in. My own ground floor apartment has such a window and, as it is particularly close to the street, privacy is almost nonexistent when in the windowed room. As I have grown comfortable with random pedestrians glancing into my life—and often making perfectly audible comments about myself or my roommates or our way of life—generally, I have grown more comfortable doing the same to others.
Once, my two roommates and I were all sitting together reading. We sat in the living room with the curtains on the big protruding window thrown wide to the ridiculously clear, California night, and listened as two people stopped and said, “Shit. They’re all reading in there. They don’t even have a TV.” Then they walked on, discussing our strange lifestyle, saying things like, “I couldn’t live without a TV.” Of course, they were wrong. We do have a TV. It is a crappy old one, sitting crookedly on an old redwood stump, and we only have it set up with an equally old and shitty VCR, which cuts the sound out if you walk too violently in its vicinity. However, we generally, like most Americans today I assume, watch our “way too much goddamn TV” on our computers.
As I continue my walk, now deciding to drift towards the park to sit calmly in the grass, then, remembering that it is night and the grass will be wet, deciding on the bar near the park; but I didn’t bring money and the quiet night is too nice, so I make a left away from it all. And during all this, I glance in to the Berkeley and Oakland homes, with the big windows and the tendency towards displayed bookshelves, and notice, in most that appear occupied, the flickering blue of TVs spreading on the titles of the books. And I think, perhaps optimistically, maybe they are reading e-books.
As I view the homes across a narrow street, the steady blue flickers into a more brilliant white that fades evenly for a second in all three at once. They must be watching the same thing. An action movie? Maybe a spoof on a buddy cop movie? Those seem to be popular.
David Foster Wallace wrote a great piece on T.V. (Editor's Note: the previous link opens a PDF of Foster Wallace's article on your computer.) in the early nineties called, “E Unibus Plurum,” but I wonder how our random viewing has changed since then into what has now become a seemingly “targeted” viewing experience. The simultaneous whites and blues and flickers and fades of the three houses actually seems somewhat odd now—at least to me. When there were only a handful of channels to choose from, the possibility that whole blocks would exhibit the same flickering glow made sense. Everyone was watching the network premiere of Lethal Weapon 2, and shit, what was I doing on the street?! Now, our choice of movies old and new, and whole seasons of once forgotten shows comes back to our fingertips. I like this very much. I’d be liar if I said otherwise, and if you think all I do is go for walks and contemplate streetlights, then you are wrong. I watch a lot of TV on my computer. I watch some crap, but, because of the presence of so much choice, I feel strange obligations to both watch the most decadent programming and, at the same time, to exclusively watch clips of famous intellectuals, or documentaries on ecology or something. It has been almost two years since I sat and flipped dully through the channels to see what T.V had to offer at any given moment. The worry about cultural degradations caused by T.V., which is, in part, what DFW confronts in his essay, seems less applicable now. I’m not saying television is essentially better or less degrading, or that it ever really was, but it does seem that we watch it in different ways.
Perhaps I’m wrong, though. I can think, even now, of all the various ways that we can think of Netflix recommendations and such as similar to the old programming acculturation of T.V. I don’t have to rush home to see Lethal Weapon 2. I can watch at my leisure, on my computer, and then, if I desire, and I probably will, immerse myself in the action comedy buddy cop flick genre for days and days.
I’m not sure how television works on us now. I can direct you to David Foster Wallace’s essay, or to an interview with him speaking on the same subject with equal ease. What’s the difference? From outside, will I be able to tell? Can someone tell, from outside my big California windows, whether I’m watching an old episode of Seinfeld or reading the script on a Kindle or iPad? Is there a difference?
Everyday, people walk into the bookstore where I work and ask me with concern, “How’s business?” “Fine!” I always say, which really isn’t completely accurate. Sure people buy books, but what I have gleaned is that people want less and less paper; however they still place value on the words. Well shit, if they want to buy a digital file from me instead of a book, that’s OK with me.
Is the computer screen finally the thing that has collapsed high and low culture? I have no fucking clue. But I’ll keep turning it over as I walk along the edges of all those glowing homes.