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« The Century of Maximum Change | Main | End of Civilization? Episode 2 »

April 13, 2006

Attack of the Soul-Destroying Video Screens

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ah, the wonders of technology ... of progress ... of innovative financing ...

Still, is this something that many people really want? Let alone that anybody needs?

In case my snapshot is too murky: That's an image of a TV broadcasting the news in a public elevator. Gasp sputter fume rage ...

Are there people who are so unable to stand quietly during an elevator ride that they simply must be supplied with electronic distraction? People whose boredom and restlessness is so important an issue that the rest of us should be given no choice but to endure the presence of electronic twitchiness and noise where there once was no such thing? (And yes, that elevator-TV's sound was on.)

Cellphone-yakking has destroyed what used to be quiet periods in waiting rooms, and on trains and buses. Now video screens are chewing up some of life's restful moments too. In airports, it has become hard to find a place to sit and kill time without being surrounded by flickering, yammering TVs. In NY City, some poster-style public ad spots have been replaced by large video screens -- so very much better at snagging your attention and yanking you away from your own thoughts. I've even taken rides in cabs that had video screens doing their distracting thing in the passenger compartment.

I suppose these developments might be seen and experienced by some as welcome; not by me. I suppose someone could even go back to first principles and argue that my dislike of these invasions constitutes an attack on his "right" to have and enjoy them.

On the other hand, doesn't it sometimes seem that the main effect of certain innovations is to blow holes in what were once very pleasant and humane (if informal, underappreciated and underrecognized) social arrangements?

This Andy Rooney moment has been brought to you by

Michael Blowhard

posted by Michael at April 13, 2006


This example has been around for (all too long) a while. The TV screens in airport terminals.

Yes, they give otherwise bored people something to help pass time. But the sound feed just adds to the noise of the place which is bad enough with those periodic warnings about this or that and the necessary pagings and flight info bits.

Well, okay. I'll come clean. My biggest gripe is that at many of the airports I frequent, the TV sets are tuned to also-ran network CNN. Why not Fox News? Better yet, why not the Weather Channel (when they're doing actual weather reports instead of the other fluff they throw in). Or sports. Seattle-Tacoma sometimes feeds in sport broadcasting which is non-partisan at least, unlike CNN.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 13, 2006 12:56 PM

This is a pet peeve of mine. It can often be a challenge to find some part of the airport seating area that doesn't blast CNN in your ear. Am I the only one who reads anymore?

Posted by: CyndiF on April 13, 2006 12:57 PM

Don't get me started on that! I quit my fitness gym because I got so sick of 6 tvs relentlessly blaring Fox News (sorry Donald). Oh, for a world in which silence is treasured and practiced!

Posted by: citrus on April 13, 2006 1:10 PM

Are there people who are so unable to stand quietly during an elevator ride that they simply must be supplied with electronic distraction?

Perhaps not, but there are most certainly advertisers who recognize an elevator as another space in which You Cannot Run from their content as they pump it at you.

These screens have been in the elevators of downtown Los Angeles highrises for at least five years now. Here, at least, they are generally silent visual-only phenomena. If/when they add sound, I shudder to imagine how high the volume will need to be set so that it will penetrate the earpieces of passengers' iPods....

Posted by: George Wallace on April 13, 2006 1:13 PM

Donald -- If the tubes were tuned to the Food Network or History International I'd probably be less irked. I wonder how others would react, though.

CyndiF -- CNN overload, eh? Who needs that much news? And reading? Reading? What's with that?

Citrus -- I'm forever going to war at the gym about the damn TVs. I'd rather they just be removed. But if they're going to be there, can't they at least A) be quiet, and B) be tuned to a number of different channels? It's all news or sports. But the combo of TVs and bad pop music has got me thinking seriously about whether to let the membership lapse. Have you tried boutique "exercise studios," btw? I just discovered these a couple of years ago, and like them a lot. Small, quiet, usually oriented towards Pilates, yoga, Gyrotonics, etc. Very pleasant. Also usually a little more expensive than a gym. But I find that "pleasant to visit and use" equals "I get a lot more actual exercising done." So maybe it's worth the extra bucks. How are you getting your physical activity these days?

George -- That's a funny and apt way of describing the phenom. Scary, the idea of all those LA elevators filled with video. I wonder if young people are growing up assuming that video will be everywhere, always.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2006 1:19 PM

Shades of 1984! If you've read this book, this will come as no surprise. Big Brother was always on the air...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 13, 2006 1:59 PM

The TV show Max Headroom was prophetic.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 13, 2006 2:24 PM

We're beginning to inhabit a "1984"-meets-"Max Headroom" (meets "Brazil") universe. Scary.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2006 2:38 PM

It's funny---I think if they are going to have the TV on, then at least turn up the volume so you can hear it! It would be fine with me to get rid of the TV's, but I usually have the opposite problem in airports---they have the damn TV on, but the volume is so low that you can't hear a damn thing about the story. Which, to me, is even more irritating. However, I do agree that in elevators, it should be silent. Mostly, what I have seen is Wall Street stock market type updates on TV screens in elevators in professional buildings---gives people a chance to see what the market is doing. In a residential building---gosh, I can't imagine what would be necessary or interesting to see. Unless there is a terrorist attack or a tornado coming.

Posted by: annette on April 13, 2006 2:46 PM

Has anyone tried that little gizmo you keep in your pocket (like a channel changer) that turns OFF all television sets when you point and click? (Then, of course, you look innocent and express bewilderment.) I wonder if it really works.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 13, 2006 3:57 PM

Hard as this was to believe, the restrooms of my old job piped in CNN headline news in the restrooms. You couldn't help but hear about the latest scandal with Michael Jackson every time you wished to relieve yourself. It drove all of us crazy. The cafeterias always had the shows on all the screens, with volumes turned full blast. We could hardly hear ourselves talking.

Let's differentiate between CNN (which can be intelligible) and CNN Headline News (which is repetitive and just drones on mindlessly). The real issue is advertising: who gave public buildings the right to assault us with advertising.

If Big Media companies are going to grant themselves the right to imprint images and sounds of their latest media product on our brains, they also should forfeit any claims of ownership over this intellectual property.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 14, 2006 12:20 AM

The gym where I go has maybe 10 large-screen TV's, but usually they're showing a number of different channels. Most of the time two or three are showing ESPN and a equal number are turned to MTV. Then there's one each showing BET, Sci-Fi Network, ESPN2, and a Spanish network. The treadmills and elliptical trainers have their own TV screens with a wide variety of channels (called "cardio theaters"), so the cardio bunnies can keep themselves entertained. Meanwhile, the gym's sound system plays a fairly loud uptempo mix, which I believe is of a type specifically marketed as "gym mix."
As for me, I'm to the point where I focus on the particular things I'm doing and seldom pay any attention to the TV's or music.

Posted by: Peter on April 14, 2006 8:58 AM

I was at a hotel on a famous beach the other day, enjoying the air. The sun got a little hot, so I found a shady spot next to the bar. And the idiots running the bar had a TV screen embedded in a wall in an outside veranda area, with live sound! On the beach! If you wanted to sit in the shade, you had to choose between cheesy loud rock music and TV. No quiet space where you could hear the waves. The situation reminds me of NBA games, where every second of timeouts and half-times is flooded with terminally loud - and cheesy - rock music. People no longer want to hear themselves think. If they ever did.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 14, 2006 10:13 AM

Annette -- These days we get one-half of a cellphone conversation, TVs with no sound ... Very bizarre, all these split channels we have to contend with.

P. Mary-- I want one of those!

Robert -- Many good points. TV in the men's room is kinda funny and kinda scary. I tend to think electronics should be banned from men's rooms myself. Nothing hits me quite like the sound of a guy on the can in a men's room talking on his cellphone. I do not want to get to know him in this way. Do I laugh? Feel appalled? Tell him to show some class? As usual I tend to roll my eyes and shake my head ...

Peter -- "Gym mix" is too good. I'm pretty sure that's what they're playing at my gym too. You're a much better focuser than I am if you can tune all the buzz and chatter and boom-boom out. I find the whole pounding-warehouse/House-of-Rock quality of my gym harder and harder to take.

Robert -- Gack! That's really awful. I thought the point of time at the shore was to let go of the buzz and synch back up with larger rhythms, internal and external. And I'm with you on pro sports. Do people really want and need that level of jacked-up excitement? One reason I always liked watching tennis was that it was relatively quiet. Try as they might, the producers couldn't find very many ways to jazz it up.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2006 11:39 AM

Re TV at the beach: Ask them to turn it down?

Posted by: Jonathan on April 14, 2006 5:20 PM

From Kingsley Amis's "Stanley and the Women":

The pub was quiet as I had said in the sense that there were not yet many people in it, though of course it was noisy as well - I had forgotten about that, as I so often did after all these years, not as noisy as it could be, nor noisy absolutely all the time, but noisy. A fat ginger-haired fellow in - among other things - a whitish tee-shirt and a burgundy plastic anorak, which between them made him look amazingly undressed and dirty and dangerous as well as horrible, was playing the fruit machine, in this case a new improved model that broadcast at top volume an extract from a harmonium sonata every time anything happened and part of the soundtrack of a Battle of Britain movie in between. In case you were deaf and trying to think, it flashed different combinations of colored lights on and off like billy-ho."

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 14, 2006 9:09 PM

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