Sit Down and Be Counted: Do Your TV Choices Matter?

The programmers out there, behind the flat screen, present us with a contrived version of 'reality,' which in reality is nothing but.

Michael Handelzalts
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The finger is our main instrument of conduit: to press on the remote control.
The finger is our main instrument of conduit: to press on the remote control.Credit: Getty Images
Michael Handelzalts

Every once in a while, the eye and the ear hit upon a saw that sounds too true to be true, and the mind asks who said it first, and when. One of those is “the eyes are windows to the soul,” which has been attributed to many. On the source of that visionary adage the best comment, in my eyes (and therefore my soul), was by the Victorian writer, cartoonist and theater critic Max Beerbohm, to wit (and he was one): “I need no dictionary of quotations to remind me that the eyes are the windows of the soul.”

But if the eyes serve – metaphorically, of course – as windows, one should not forget that a window is a two-way “frame.” I was going to write “two-way street,” but it occurred to me that that would be stretching the metaphor a bit too far. Anyway, the point is that one can indeed look into my soul through my eyes (at the peril of the onlooker), and the soul can look at the world through the same windows, whether they have rose-colored glasses or not.

And what the soul mostly sees – in the context of this TV column – is a rectangular screen. Once it used to be an opaque, usually black screen in front of a big box we had named “a TV set.” The fact that it was a box allowed us to enjoy the silly illusion that there are things that actually happen within that box, behind that screen, and we can peek at them when we turn the set on. The feeling – a false one, I admit, but still – was like the one I have whenever I want to withdraw some banknotes from an ATM, and see the message on the screen “your money is being collected,” and in my mind’s eye I see miniature tellers collecting the bills for me.

Nowadays, as we all know, a TV set is as obsolete as a matchbox (try to get one at a moment’s notice; you’ll be offered a lighter). We all carry our flat small screen in the palm of our hands. And those flat screens are also windows, and it remains to be seen – or decided – whose soul we see when our soul looks at them out of the windows which are our eyes.

But before we put our finger on the things we see there with our eyes (and soul, of course) we have to give credit where it’s due, to the finger. It is our main instrument of conduit between the wishes and urges of our soul regarding what we want to see with our eyes, through two sets of windows: by pressing on the remote control, which does wonders to a TV set, be it in a shape of a bulky box or a flat screen, or by touching the screen itself.

The manner in which we deliver our message (what we want to see) to the medium is called, in our digital age, an “interface.” On the face of it, an apt name, especially as we mostly need our personal flat screens (called smartphones or tablets, which can serve as TV screens at will) to see what is going on on Facebook. But truth be told, it should have been renamed, based on experience and usage, “interfinger.” There is a measure of poetic justice here, as the age is a digital one, and we vote in it using a finger, aka a digit. In other words, we give the age, the TV and its screen, the finger.

Having said that, I have to admit that it is somewhat beside my main point, which is to draw your attention to the fact that the screen – that other window to the wide world out there – is flat. It may be convenient, since it takes up less space, fitting on the wall of the room in the case of a TV set (counting as a picture, not a piece of furniture), or in our hands and pockets, but it is, nevertheless, flat. And as such, and I know that I’m being tautologically redundant here, a flat screen lacks depth.

It is a dimensional matter, really. Once we thought the earth was flat, pure and simple. Then some of us got used to the idea that it is round (and revolves around the sun, not the reverse; btw, it took me a lot of time to get used to the fact that I’m not the center of the universe I inhabit). E. M. Forster, in his “Aspects of the Novel” distinguishes between characters that are “round” (and it is implied that they merit more of our attention), and those that are “flat.” One of the definitions of “flat” as an adjective in the OED is “Wanting in points of attraction and interest; prosaic, dull, uninteresting, lifeless, monotonous, insipid. Sometimes with allusion to sense.”

So, let’s recap: We look at the world through the windows of our soul and through the window of the flat screen. We fool ourselves that we are opening that other window by fingering the remote or the screen, to decide which window we want to look through. What we see there is not really our choice: rather it is the choice of the souls of the programmers out (or rather in) there, behind the flat (i.e. insipid) screen. They present us with a contrived version of “reality,” which in reality is nothing but.

What remains for us to do is to sit down and give all of it the finger. But do not harbor any illusions: you may be expressing your preference by choosing a program, or channel or network, but your taste does not really count. You have to sit down to be counted, but your soul’s taste is taken into account only if you vote with the majority. It’s called “ratings,” dummy.