I grew up in an era when things were simple. We had confidence in our understanding of basic facts. The United States had the world's best public schools. Anything labeled "Made in Japan" was cheap junk. And rocket scientists were so smart that they never made mistakes. Now we know so much but understand so little. Everything seems convoluted, confusing, and complicated. And it all depends on microprocessors, menus, and remote controls. Why we even need instructions to open an envelope.
There must be plenty of dazed and befuddled souls like me who seek a safe harbor in this sea of confusion by turning to the mass media. Too often we encounter so many choices that we must assimilate new technologies like web pages, on-screen displays, programmable devices, and other interactive gadgets that accelerate our activity. What we crave from the media, however, is just the opposite. We want to slow down. The media should foster deceleration.
There are plenty of good models for deceleration, but most of them involve old media. Books are perfect for unwinding. Perhaps their utility as deceleration media explains their continuing popularity. Newspapers and magazines can serve a similar function, but books are usually superior when it comes to stimulating the imagination, a relaxing and rewarding pastime.
Lately I've encountered decelerating media content in a surprising place -- on television. We've always used TV as a time filler, or to some critics a time killer. There seems to be something inherently captivating about that glowing little box in the corner of the room. Maybe it's gadget fascination.
But I'm not talking about traditional programming -- the soaps, sitcoms, news magazines, live events, and the latest craze, vicarious participation in the lives of really stupid people. The decelerating content is elsewhere, on the narrowly focused cable networks devoted to instruction, education, and general edification. Some of these, like A&E and Discovery, have been around for a while. Others like Animal Planet and the History Channel are recent spin-offs from established networks. Still others like Home and Garden and the TV Food Network started from scratch.
What makes these networks different is that you can actually use your brains and learn a little something as you watch. Every time I watch Emeril Lagasse or Sara Moulton or any of the stars at the TV Food Network whip up a dish, I imagine what how it smells and tastes. The Crocodile Hunter on Animal Planet introduces me to the textures and sensations of the world of large reptiles. And the History Channel documentaries can transport me to the time of the Crusades, or help me understand why the world of my youth wasn't so simple after all. All these networks have web pages, but they are complementary rather than required media -- places to get sources of more information or a recipe if you wish.
Individually, none of these informational networks has a large audience, but collectively their numbers of viewers are impressive. Most of these ventures have succeeded, while other cable TV network schemes, like the Cowboy Channel and the Military Channel, bit the dust. It's one of the great blunders of television history that Public TV had the franchise on this sort of programming 30 years ago but never developed it.
So tonight, I'll tune in History's Mysteries, Biography, Emeril Live, or some other soothing fare. That is, if I can figure out which of these four remote controls turns on the TV set.