Tuesday, April 23, 2013

television | a small idea from Raising Adults


As the 40s ended, young Americans were sucked into a vortex of change that made their heads spin. Geographical and social displacement; a gender crisis almost nobody talked about; babies everywhere; exploding college enrollment; a religious revival on the West Coast; labor disputes in the cities; globalization and a heavy tax burden driven by the Marshall Plan’s massive foreign aid; high-tech innovation; economic growth and work, work, work! 
Good Golly Miss Molly those people could work! They threw themselves into the race, steering the engines of war down an economic fast track unmatched on earth. And they relished the fruit of their labors, forsaking their waste-not-want-not past with giddy pleasure. In the 30s, their parents gathered ’round the radio to hear promises of a chicken in every pot and hope for a better day. But these new parents worked overtime to put two cars in the driveway, four pots on the electric range and a television in the living room.
Television—wonder of wonders! It was the Saturday Matinee—minus the Milk Duds but with all the comforts of home. Even in the beginning, when the square screens displayed test patterns much of the day, television delivered access to sights and sounds most human beings never expected to see in their own homes. Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody for the kiddies. Live comedy on Your Show of Shows. Broadway and Hollywood actors on Playhouse 90. And perhaps most wondrous of all, the news.

They were the first human beings to get the news in sounds and pictures. Who would’ve thought it! 15 minutes of today’s news with Douglas Edwards? Unprecedented! To watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and sneak out to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea? Mind-boggling! Following Edward R. Murrow right into the homes and offices of celebrities and politicians for realtime, unedited, question-and-answer sessions; watching Murrow smoke that cigarette and ask Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy the questions every American wanted to ask. And this was no glossed-over Movie Tone News Reel! Viewers knew Murrow would hold people’s feet to the fire until they gave him an answer or flat-out refused him. Nothing like it, ever, in the history of the world!
The generations just before us were there when it happened. Boomers happened to be there too, born into the moment. But our parents were there when everything changed.
Television was the great equalizer. Television was the fire circle—the place where the tribe gathered to hear stories about the world. Anyone could know anything, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, education or age. Anyone could know anything! This was why they fought the war and they hadn’t even known it. This was the world made safe for democracy—freedom of information right now, without leaving home.
And the pictures didn’t lie. Paul and Joanne were fabulously happy—anyone could see it. Joseph McCarthy was hard and ambitious—who could miss it? And Richard Nixon looked, frankly, shifty. 
Much has been made of the fact that Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow up with television. But that doesn’t mean television’s impact is unique to Boomers. In fact, television is a transparent technology to Boomers. Turn it on and it works, much as it always has. Boomers hardly ever thought about television; it was a given. Oh, the NBC Peacock in living color was a nice upgrade. And remote control. And cable. But these are extensions to television; improvements on the design. It was the parents and grandparents of Boomers who had the singular experience of seeing TV for the first time.

In the early 1950’s, Japan’s leading electronics executive said…“the Japanese simply do not have the money to buy television sets.” Two years later television penetration in Japan was almost as high as it was in the U.S. …They simply moved more and more of their disposable income to TV because it gave them access to a world from which they had been isolated for centuries. It was not a product but a whole new way of life. ~ Peter Drucker in Forbes, 10.5.98, p. 170

Innovation and technology are like that: wonderful for quite a while before becoming ordinary and then transparent. Electric lights and telephones have been transparent for a century. But light switches extended my grandfather’s productive hours into the night and changed his life. Telephones extended my grandmother’s capacity to talk with relatives a hundred miles away when a hundred miles really meant something. By the time my parents came along, electric lights and telephones were no big deal; they just were. But television! It was a long time before television became transparent.
Among other things, TV raised the bar for keeping up with the Joneses. With a flicker of phosphorescent light, the Joneses weren’t just next door. They were also in Omaha and San Francisco. Or maybe it’s more useful to say the Joneses of Omaha and San Francisco were suddenly as close as the ones next door.
It was a big deal; seeing all those Joneses—how they lived, what they drove and wore; hearing what they thought and how they voted. In a snap, our parents entered a national conversation on everything from dish soap to Cold War politics with equal intensity. Actually, that may not be true. Sometimes the dish soap discussion was considerably more shrill.
Technology ... global trade ... these days we hold these things to be self-evident. We take them for granted and always have because, for us, they’ve always been there. Getting our attention these days is not easy. We’ve seen and heard so much. But not that long ago television was the biggest thing anybody ever saw—a space-age miracle, a window on the world, a time machine. Television stopped American adults in their tracks. TV changed everything. 
Meanwhile the kids were starting to get in trouble and no one even noticed.

— from Raising Adults

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