Vladimir Zworykin, the electrical engineer who was sometimes called "the father of television" -- he patented the first kinescopic tube -- died recently, at 92, as full of doubts about his invention as Dr. Frankenstein was of his monster. "He often dismayed his RCA colleagues," reports The New York Times, "by denouncing the entertainment medium that television had spawned. 'Awful' was the way he described (its contents) . . . in a birthday interview a year ago."
It is not among the American virtues to doubt the benefits of gadgets, as Henry David Thoreau did. When told that Maine and Texas were to be linked by telegraph, the sage of Walden asked: "Who knows whether Maine and Texas have anything to communicate?" But to most people it seemed marvelous that people half a continent apart might be linked by dots and dashes. If they had nothing in particular to say to one another, they soon would find it. Gadgets dictate their own indispensability.
Dr. Zworykin's invention, by the same inadvertent process, has become the greatest homogenizer of American life and values since Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles. Television brought a random, unplanned assault on manners and morals, speech, politics and sport. Maine and Texas need no longer "communicate" because both (give or take a quirk of regional speech) are pretty much alike. If you can tell the difference between the suburbs (or the local TV news programs) of Kennebunkport and Houston, I'll eat your ten-gallon hat.
By the time he graduates from high school, the average American child has watched 15,000 hours of television -- several dozen for every hour he has spent in the classroom, not to mention Sunday school. His manners, habits of thought and behavior show it. Television has created in our children the expectation that learning will (or should) be a branch of entertainment. It has reduced political campaigning to a trivial affair of 30-second spots, facile slogans and "photo opportunities." It has reduced "news" for millions to what can be framed by a camera.
But not to worry, the optimists say. Cultural Tories are always behind the progress curve. Richard Reeves, a political pundit who has recently told us "how television has improved America," must be classified as the optimist to end all optimists. After following in the footsteps of the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 came to the United States to study prisons and later wrote a classic book, "Democracy in America," Reeves found himself bubbling with hope. He was "surprised," he wrote in TV Guide, "that my views of the medium were so positive."
"If you believe in democracy," he explains, "in the wisdom of most of the people most of the time, it's hard to argue against those people having more and more information, faster and faster."
From Thoreau to Reeves is a long jump -- from what might be communicated to how much and how fast; from the qualitative view of democracy to the quantitative view. Democracy by the boxcar load.
Not long before he died, Dr. Zworykin recalled the day he first demonstrated the possibilities of television to his superiors at Westinghouse: "I was informed, very politely, that . . . it might be better if I were to spend my time on something a little more useful." It's a heresy, I know, and a stuffy one. But let it be recorded here that some of us wish he'd taken their advice.