Reference cleanser time: in George Orwell’s absolutely brilliant novel 1984, the totalitarian government that controls the nation of Oceania employs devices called telescreens throughout society to eternally monitor the captive citizens and ensure their unwavering obedience. Right, now that I’ve demonstrated that I’ve been through a high school English writing course, it’s time to get to point-making: I think we have something rather like telescreens in the real world. Now, I am not referring to household television sets nor am I suggesting such direct means of control are in use. Hold back on those sprouting thoughts you’re having about public security cameras and other surveillance issues, because that isn’t my point either.
I want to go over what I call, interestingly enough, “telescreens”. (Now that the audience “huh?”s in confusion, I’ve successfully hooked them in, you see; another little writing trick I learned back in high school)
Specifically, think about public television screens. The moderately short list of places we have them now includes restaurants, sports bars, gas stations, grocery store waiting lines, medical and dental waiting rooms, airports, theme park lines, and even community college cafeterias. Several of these places are also complimented with the audio invasion of radio, just to make sure that as many avenues of advertising and entertainment are being pumped out as widely as possible.
Oh, and that’s neverminding that plenty of SUVs are equipped with flip-down screens, but it does fill in an interesting gap. 11-year old Jimmy can be lazing on his couch after two hours of SpongeBob, but his precious third hour is being interrupted by mom going to the store. Boo. Luckily, he can watch half the episode on the way over to Ralph’s and the other half on the way back. The grocery shopping itself will be a bore, but at least the checkout line has flashy, rapid-fire advertisements keeping him comfortably distracted.
So, this complaint does come right out of a much older decade, but honestly… why the fuck do we have this much television? Remember, I don’t mean the actual quantity of material on TV, I simply mean the omnipresence of access to TV.
This telescreen boom does seem like a recent phenomenon, something that has grown alongside the explosion of mobile media. (To clarify, I use “telescreens” from here only in reference to these public TV sets.) It is hardly a society-changing thing, as we’ve gotten used to radio being in every corner of the public for decades now. And hey, maybe it is a convenience for those who do not yet have smart pones and want to check the weather while filling up their Ford Focus. Great.
I think telescreens are fucking awful.
I need not name the vast list of media we all know in order to give you a sense of just how much information the average American processes in a day. Even the surface problem of the raw data glut is ridiculous, and that’s before you factor in the madness of advertising and the siren song of constant entertainment. So, let’s just touch bases on each point before I lose your precarious interest.
We all know these telescreens are there. We see them even if we’re not watching. But look carefully at just what the hell it is we’re really getting on these public screens. At the gas stations near me, it’s nearly always bite-sized flashes of celebrity news, a trend dreadful enough for its own future article. In Wal-Mart, it’s advertisements for shit IN Wal-Mart! You know, advertisements for stuff that is already IN your goddamned cart! If you want to hang out with your friends at the college cafeteria, be prepared to grapple attentions with the bloody MTV videos along the far wall. Stop by Wendy’s and be inundated with ads for pop musicians and… Carl’s Jr.??? And so on likewise.
The information we’re actually getting from telescreens is superfluous right off the bat. It’s cut into vacuous attention-grabbing bites so as to ensure our retention of their jingles, slogans, and logos. When I went to Comic-Con in 2009, I’ll never forget what Joss Whedon described as the kind of mind control he sees in the world. At first, I thought him conspiratorial, but I listened carefully and realized exactly what he meant: that the world is full of forces trying to affect the rationale of the individual and trying to think for us.
To bring it full circle, it is not direct mind control. We have an active choice whether to look or not, yes. But then the catch: almost anywhere we look, there are telescreens and a means for insubstantial news and thought-corrupting advertising to have their way. As long as there are telescreens all over the places where we attain our food, clothes, and services, the dark side of public media has the power to tell us what to think, say, and do.
To say we don’t need them is too passive a suggestion; I say we need to be rid of them. We need be liberated from the sheer noise mortaring our public space. The trick is, again, not to rebel in the face of a tyrannical big brother, but to ignore what Cocoa-Cola, Fox News, and Wal-Mart are yelling at us and think for ourselves.