Except for the invention of movable type and the printing presses that it spawned, no medium has had as dramatic an effect on popular culture as the television. From its humble start half a century ago to the sophisticated array of images it presents today, television's impact has been felt by almost every civilization worldwide. More and more, our collective memory is shaped by television images.
What I remember about growing up with television: The orange glow of vacuum tubes. The mysterious white dot that lingered when the set was switched off. My family's first color set, into the house far after most of the neighbors had made the change. A set of rabbit-ear antennas that looked like a prop from a B-grade sci-fi flick and did nothing for reception. Only two channels, the local NBC and CBS affiliates.
Though it should've been a wonder, and I suppose it was to my parents and grandparents, the TV quickly became just another thing that had always been there, no stranger than the radio or the phonograph. Television in the sixties, fueled by millions of baby-boomer eyes, framed the cusp of a new American culture, one set apart from previous generations by its reliance on the moving image as an essential, if not primary, communications medium.
Almost since its inception, TV has been reviled as an enemy to literacy and critical thinking, a vulgar device of endless chatter and images, bubble gum for the eyes. Looking at television's emphasis on entertainment (even in its presentation of the "news"), it's difficult to argue against that view. But with the advent of personal computers and the inventive fusion that's already taking place between that technology and television, the future of television may yet dismiss those arguments as shortsighted. Television provides a commonality of experience and is the cornerstone of what Marshall McLuhan called the global village, a phrase that takes on added meaning in the age of the personal computer.
As a multifaceted communications device, TV has surpassed all but the most outlandish predictions. And even those predictions considered too far out (or bad financial risks, like videotex) may eventually come to pass as technologies such as HDTV and fiber optics become common-place. Even so, TV remains the Rodney Dangerfield of communications, a technological marvel taken for granted and given no respect. No one calls the TV the visually enhanced audio information unit; everyone calls it the tube.
Computer technology may change all of that. Televisions have for some time now embraced silicon-based circuitry at the expense of tubes, solder, and wire. The line that separates a television from a computer is blurring. Entertainment centers across the country bristle with TVs that look and act more like computer monitors than traditional television sets. Hard-wired and cable-ready, the latest generation of sets represents the first step in digital-information delivery for all consumers. That delivery, from a variety of sources, is the next logical step for TV and for consumer computing.
In its ability to process information, the home computer exceeds the capability of the most advanced television. Television, by comparison, excels in its ability to disseminate information. It can be argued which capability is the more powerful—the one that promotes an individual's access to and mastery of information or the one that carries a message to more people faster and with more impact than any other single device on the planet.
Either way, the development of the personal computer and the evolution of the TV are proceeding along paths of ultimate intersection. Where they will meet, sometime in the mid to late nineties, is a digital world of customized information delivery and manipulation. Smart TVs, customized news services, personalized entertainment venues—all coming through your door by wire. Information for the video age.