Giving America the Digital Salute

(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Someday everything will be digital, including your toaster, your wallet, your shoes and your under-garments. All toilets in the house will have their own individual Internet address, and they'll be e-mailing one another promiscuously. The march toward this technological utopia will reach a milestone in less than two years, on February 17, 2009, when all television stations must go entirely digital. D-day for TV.

This is going to complicate life for many people. More than 20 million American households still rely entirely on analog TV. There are tens of millions more second and third TVs that are analog-only. I have such a set, a tiny thing that I drag from the kitchen to the porch to the garage, watching sports on a screen so small that I would no sooner be able to spot a hockey puck than perceive an individual atom of hydrogen.

Forgotten in the lore of America is that not everyone set out for the frontier in a wagon. Many thought the wagons had gotten too fancy. They didn't like the new trend in mules. They were content to stay home with their fellow Late Adopters, sticking with pewter rather than making the switch to porcelain, and sharpening the old plow rather than buying one of the fancy new ones with the curved blade. Naturally, they spent a lot of time fiddling with the rabbit ears to find that CBS station out of Jacksonville.

There is much to be said for the old ways. When you aim the rabbit ears correctly and get a clear picture and good sound, you feel not only clever but triumphant. You say to yourself: Yes! Right there! And then when you step away, the signal goes sketchy again, forcing you to move back, adjust some more, do this whole little dance with the antennae and the set, and thus integrate yourself into the electromagnetic fabric of space-time. You become, in a sense, one with television.

But on D-day, your trusty old analog TV sets must be trashed. Either that, or you can buy a "converter" box, though that will surely be seen as the equivalent of repairing broken eyeglasses with duct tape. What the capitalists prefer is that you purchase a brand-new $7,000 103-inch, LCD, high-def, flat-screen Jumbotron with a picture so crisp that when you watch the fight scenes in "Rocky" you get sprayed with sweat.

Of course, the one challenge with such a fancy TV is figuring out how to turn it on. A truly advanced household has at least eight remote-control devices, or perhaps 30, each associated with a different consumer electronics apparatus, at least in theory. Most are utterly useless, surviving the clutter purge only because we all carry a special gene that makes us afraid to throw away remotes.

The owner of all this technology has to struggle to recall the protocol for doing something as specific as finding the channel showing the Super Bowl. If the home has a satellite dish, you usually have to resort, at some point, to prayer. Many a time you'll just give up and start switching back and forth between The Laundry Network on Channel 787 (the national stain-elimination championship) and The Lawn Darts Network on Channel 923 (the regional semifinals of an obscure sport played in an unknown Anglophone country that is possibly New Zealand).

In a pinch, the owner may call his or her personal Technology Adviser. Usually this is not a paid professional but a friend who has willingly offered assistance in exchange for the right to be acknowledged as technologically superior. The Technology Adviser switched to digital in 1950, owns a communications satellite and has transferred all personal data, snapshots, financial information and memorabilia onto a pinkie-size flash drive that the Technology Adviser carries around in a breast pocket.

But here's the headline: Even the most technologically savvy members of society do not know what's happening with consumer electronics. Corporations stand to rake in billions or go bankrupt. Everyone wants to own the new platform, the new standard, the new Chosen Gizmo. Steve Jobs regularly short-sheets Bill Gates's bed. No one knows if we'll carry our data (iPod-like) or get it wireless. And TV is part of the confusion: Will that be the 1080i standard or the 720p standard? Cable, wireless, phone line?

Wireless is worth rooting for. Over-the-air digital TV means that, even in a high-tech culture, you'll still have to fiddle with some kind of antennae -- with all the attendant triumphs and tragedies.

Only one thing is for sure: Whatever becomes the new standard will itself become obsolete, eventually. The ultimate goal in capitalist society is not the creation of a technological utopia but the creation of technological obsolescence. Novelty is a technological and biological imperative. Life needs fresh blood and new gadgets.

But in the meantime, I'll be back in the garage, searching for a ballgame on an old TV and telling anyone who will listen that football hasn't been as good since they legalized the forward pass.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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