Or, How Infinite Jest Explains Our Commitment to the Linear TV
As a fan of digital video recorders and on-demand technologies and an active manager of my Netflix queue, I've pondered the relative lack of attention that these alternate modes of television viewing garner. Both Nielsen's Three-Screen and the Video Consumer Mapping studies mark time-shifted and actively selected content viewing as a sliver of the attention that goes to traditional linear television.
What is it about the linear television viewing experience that is so compelling that people forego the increased control and time-efficiency afforded them by their DVRs and on-demand offerings? In its near-future portrayal of viewers' willingness to pay the ultimate price for the perfect video entertainment, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest contains insights to this question.
Published in 1996, Infinite Jest is set after the extinction of all broadcast television and the advertising it carried. Televisions have been replaced by teleputers, or TPs, high-definition video displays with Internet connectivity and built-in read-only cartridge players. It's as if Netflix has taken over the entertainment world. Video content consumption is almost entirely on demand. Linear TV programming – or, in the parlance of Infinite Jest, "spontaneous dissemination" - is marginalized, preferred only for major sporting events and lower-rent fitness shows.
Lurking in the background of the 1,000-page plus tome is a video of such potent entertainment value that its viewers, both accidental and active, are immediately enraptured and enslaved. The viewers will literally choose catatonia and death over turning away from the video.
Intrigued by the challenge posed by the virtual book club Infinite Summer, I picked up Infinite Jest as a summer reading project. Though I had read it not long after its original publication, I wanted to review the text through a lens focused by my experience at Simulmedia, and to experience the online community built around the book club.
In the passage below, Orin Incandenza, a tennis prodigy turned pro football punter, responds to a wheelchair-bound, Quebecois assassin posing as a survey-taker while another female assassin hides under his, Orin's, hotel room bed covers.
On page 599, the fake survey-taker asks, in French-Canadian-accented English, what Orin misses.
"Orin's gaze now was up at the ceiling's acoustic tile, the little blinking disk of the hall's smoke detector, as if memories were always lighter than air. The seated man stared blandly up at the throb of Orin's internal jugular vein. Orin's face changed a little. Behind him, under the blankets, the non-Swiss woman lay very calmly and patiently on her side, breathing silently into the portable O2-mask w/ canister from the purse beside her, one hand in the purse on the Schmeisser GBF miniature machine pistol.
'I miss TV,' Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.
'The former television of commercial broadcast.'
'Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,' displaying the board.
'Oh, man.' Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandibular's much tinier and more vulnerable throb. 'Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases "Order before midnight tonight" and "Save up to fifty percent and more." I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss "Sermonette" and "Evensong" and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something's transmitter was broadcasting at.' He felt his face. 'I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.'
'Vapid ditty,' pretending to notate.
'I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say.'
'Emotions of mastery and control and superiority. And pleasure.'
'You can say that again, boy. I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers' strikes, Actors' Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.'
The man tended to look up at him like people with legs look up at buildings and planes. 'You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval.'
Orin's way of looking up as he remembered was nothing like the seated guy's way of looking up. 'But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.'
'I don't think I exactly know,' Orin said, suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside. The terrible sense as in dreams of something vital you've forgotten to do. The inclined head's bald spot was freckled and tan. 'Is there a next item?'"
In describing what he misses about TV, Orin describes exposure to and participation in a framework of which he feels he has a complete understanding. He likes that his responses to "low-denominator" programming are prescribed and predictable. He states a preference for the familiar over the new.
When the fake survey-taker reminds Orin that he can access those familiar programs and commune with his "syndicated airwave-haunters" whenever he pleases through his entertainment subscription service, Orin remarks that the fact of his actively choosing the familiar disrupts his enjoyment of it. Similar to his taking pleasure in the bad grammar and volume modulating tricks of direct response advertising, he would rather be "subjected to repetition" and uses the word "inflicted," connotative of pain and torture, to mark the source of his preference.
To understand why people prefer the linear feed over their DVRs and on-demand content, I think about those "emotions of mastery and control and superiority" that broadcast TV enables in its viewers.
Jeff Storan is a digital marketing veteran and product strategist for Simulmedia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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