Television Eye, hypnotizing me in my bed.
I got no time for thinking, my eyes are turning bloodshot red.
You've got me in your eye, staring at your many-channeled head.
Television Eye, before you got me hooked I used to read.
Now you're by my bedside, shining empty lights on me.
'Round the clock commercials, trying to sell me things I'll never need.
Frankenstein or Einstein?
Television. It permeates our lives and has shaped our culture more than any single invention in the 20th century. As a new millennium begins and we awaken from our broadcast-induced slumber, we curse the glare of the
television eye and bemoan the amount of our misspent youth that was caught in its hypnotic stare. We ferociously defend our new medium, the Internet, as the means to set things right; an opportunity
to pick up the pieces and repair the damage that television broadcasting, mass media and consumer culture has done to our society.
The ironic twist to our hip new age enlightenment is that the song we are currently singing
is not new. Not even close. As a matter of fact, if one of the inventors of electronic television were still with us today, he would no doubt be leading the chorus.
Philo T. Farnsworth was one of the greatest inventors of our century, and his story is suitably dramatic and uniquely befitting to the patron saint of teevee.
However, few can pair him up with his ubiquitous claim to fame, let alone recognize his name, without doing a search on the Internet first.
His story begins in 1922, when some of the most recognizable inventors of the day were financed by the biggest corporations in the radio industry in a high-stakes race for the holy grail: transmitting pictures
that fly through the air as one of the sensationalist magazines of the day put it. A young Philo Farnsworth read the article one day at school and rushed home to
think about how the big boys were tackling radio vision. Problem was, they were applying existing technology and old-school thinking to an entirely new problem and medium.
Like all groundbreaking discoveries throughout history, it took a fundamental vision and blind leap of faith and theory to derive a solution.
Philo threw the establishment for a proverbial loop when he conceived the missing link at the tender age of 14.
The Power Of One
Of course, his story doesn't stop there. As if Nielsen were rating his life, the plot unfolds week after cliff-hanging week like a modern-day Silicon Valley dot-com soap opera. Boy makes invention. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl.
Boy meets financial backers. Boy marries financial backers. Boy gets screwed by financial backers and the almighty evil corporation. Boy grows older and wiser (with girl, thank goodness), disillusioned, disgruntled and
discontented with the medium he helped create. After a lifetime of battling a host of internal demons, Boy ultimately dies in obscurity.
Now it's called television, but in the 1920's, the medium was
called visual listening, audiovision, telectroscopy, telephonoscope,
hear-seeing, raduo, electric vision, and radiovision.
At least four
people made substantial enough contributions
that they gained the monikers of Father of Television. Like
Farnsworth, these people were driven by their own private
visions, including an eccentric Scotsman,
John Logie Baird.
One of the best histories of the emerging medium is
Tube: The Invention of Television
by David and Marshall Fisher.
Or did he? It would all be such a tragic tale (and to read the full account, be sure to absorb the life of Philo Farnsworth at the excellent Farnsworth Chronicles)
if it didn't symbolize such incredible inspiration for the genius, independent spirit and contributions of a single man. Could it be that Philo Farnsworth's enduring legacy is not only the battle over the controversial mantle of
Father of Television, but forerunner for standing up for his ideas and principles against Corporate America in the Information Age?
His dogged dedication to his ideals is legendary. In May of 1928, in what must surely be the first culture jam on record (preceding the great Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast by a decade), Philo unveiled his great invention to his investors by transmitting the image of a dollar sign, sardonically proclaiming that it was something the bankers would understand.
He passionately believed that the advancement of ideas and our collective knowledge pool was far more important than the gold rush race for riches, hence his prolific portfolio of domestic and foreign patents.
When his investors repeatedly insisted that he pare back his staff (affectionately known as the lab gang) due to mounting expenses,
Philo staunchly defended his team, knowing full well that people were infinitely more valuable than the immediate bottom line.
Farnsworth clung to these fundamental truths, because he truly believed that the future of media (television, in his minds eye) was a bright one,
and it would ultimately belong to the masses, not the Almighty Corporation.
Later in life, his enthusiasm for the medium he dedicated himself to waned as he battled corporate communication giants over patents involving his inventions.
He watched as television progressively diminished over the years thanks to clueless corporations and lowest-common-denominator broadcasting.
According to his wife, Pem, he guarded his own children from the mind-numbing effects of the tube, turning off the set in mid-program if they felt they had
been watching too long. This was a far cry from the man who told his wife on his honeymoon night: There's another woman in my life, and her name is television.
So, does all this idealism, creativity and David vs. Goliath rhetoric sound familiar? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to draw parallels between the life of Philo Farnsworth (and others like him),
independent inventor during the heyday of technological invention, and the current plight of independent developers coping with a dot-commed Internet today.
We grow increasingly concerned about the state of evolution of the Internet at the hands of mega-corporate monoliths that just don't seem to get it.
We worry prematurely, and lament the fact that perhaps the Internet is destined to the same fate as television.
The fact of the matter is that we finally live in an era where the medium ultimately does belong to the masses as Philo
once hoped television would. So, now it
is up to us to bring the medium to its full potential,
lest we too will look back on the state of the medium in the future with disappointment.
Woe Is Me(dia)
The good news is that there are individuals on the Internet who actively engage themselves and their talents to make a difference, building spaces on the web that are useful to society-at-large.
One such artist carries the torch for Farnsworth's disillusionment for the medium he helped create.
Phil Patiris (otherwise known as the producer) is an independent video art, web producer and culture-jammer extraordinaire based out of San Francisco, which he duly notes as the place where Philo Farnsworth invented electronic television.
Patiris' web headquarters is Modern Television, a virtual tour de force of biting satire and commentary on the subject of modern media and pop culture.
Essentially, the Web site is an extension of Patiris' critically acclaimed video work, but this producer proves he is equally adept at articulating his vision be it in video, images or prose.
As a producer and artist, he pulls no punches. His goals are simple: to use his artistry to educate the establishment and the public on the effects that mass media has
on our society. His work has continually raised consciousness as well as controversy in a world where
mass media reduces most of us to a mere sound bite.
|A Poke In The Eye
Thus, any presumption that a corporate logo, despite all its owner-manipulated and managed representation,
must nonetheless remain some venerated, visually unassailable and completely untouchable icon is an absurd and
undemocratic contradiction, in a nation where it is still legally-protected free speech to burn the American flag...
itself a symbol of far loftier human ideals than the cult-inspired CBS 'Eye Device.'
One such instance of his controversial work involves a 1998 cease-and-desist brush with CBS.
The incident involved a satirical web page where Patiris outed the network for rehearsing pending Gulf War coverage, a practice the producer
felt was more than a bit odd. The ensuing threats and correspondence would be enough to make most back down, but Patiris defended, as he continues to defend, his ideals and methods, as he believes they are fundamental civil rights, such as free speech.
One of several maxims outlined on his Fair Use manifesto includes:
To the extent history is expediently rewritten or forgotten is the extent I will remind and set the record straight. To the extent the politics, philosophies, and fortunes of those in positions of power and greed are promoted, by the very media they own, against the better interests of those they deceive and delude, is the extent I will pollute the product of their capital investment.
This is one producer who takes his role as an active participant in the new medium very seriously, and it's refreshing to see.
Additional Patiris crusades include pointing a finger at Happy Talk, otherwise known as the origins of
soft journalism (which led to the fallout of meaningless dreck like Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition that assault our sensibilities and insult our intelligence daily).
He also tackles complex issues such as personal communication ethics and moral responsibility in the digital age and the eerie isolationist nature of a medium that ultimately interconnects the globe.
One visit to Modern Television will provide you plenty of fuel for thought to look at the media-saturated would around you just a little differently.
Philophiles and Philostines
Is Patiris an anomaly, or are there others? Looking around the modern Internet, one might be tempted to
think the spirit of Philo is dead, that the medium is dying,
commoditizing, homogenizing and all that
is left to do is virtually retreat to an isolation booth or hop on the latest bandwagon.
Everywhere you turn you can see the Philostines spreading
their gospel. On the one side are the nattering nablogs of
negativism, using the Internet for relentless self-promotion,
punctuated primarily by periodic logrolling and senseless
navel gazing. On the other side are the go-go DotCommers,
whose definition of revolution is Wal-Mart on-line or
pet food for the masses, alleviated only by a relentless
drive for self-worth defined as net worth.
|The Philophile Spirit
Organizations such as Adbusters rally professional creatives to use their talents to adopt and promote a worthy cause OUTSIDE of their industry, so SOCIETY can benefit. In doing so, we can do something meaningful with our talents, potentially make a difference in the lives of others, and begin to balance the onslaught of meaningless media in our daily lives.
Voiced at dreamless.org
But, there are still many people like Patiris of Modern Television who
have made a conscious decision to march to the beat of a different drummer, and for whom a
career is defined by what they create. These are not
the serial entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley puff pieces,
these are people driven by a sense that their place in
life is to do real things that make things better.
These are the Philophiles and they are all around us.
Take Karl Auerbach, known as the CaveBear. He may
not blog, and he happens to work for a large corporation,
though that's more an accident of a startup being
swallowed than any organization-man tendencies. By mainstream standards his
Web site is bare bones, adorned only by his story and personal style,
so he has no doubt escaped the notice
of the Cool Crowd.
But, take a look around his site and at what
he does. He doesn't like the way the domain
name system works, so he's trying to change it by
jamming the system. He builds network devices and
builds networks. He builds railroad cars and
Or consider Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters and the Adbusters Media Foundation. He believes that mass media has turned America, and other countries who emulate American culture,
into a nation of consumer drones. He believes the time has come for a media revolution, and focuses the crux of his activist campaign on advertising and media professionals, lobbying
them to join his movement to jam the system from within. One grassroots anecdote that Lasn prescribes
is for creatives to volunteer their services to promote ideas that are important to the future, such as environmental or cultural causes.
The Philophile Spirit is what made the Internet, and
it is what made the technologies and the media of
radio and television. From 1900 to 1940, radio and
television were built in large part by independent
people. Many of them had day jobs and tinkered at
night. Many of them made a living as independents,
consulting to bring in cash, but defining their
lives by their creations. There was no split
between artists and technologists: people built
what they could and the activities of the individuals
created a medium and an environment.
The Internet was built the same way. And, we maintain
it is still being built the same way. While the short-term
attention may go to those with the soul of a PR agent, the
long-term impact is made by the Philophiles. The Church
of the Philostines is a fad. The Conspiracy of the
Philophiles will last through the years.
Despite Philo Farnsworth's great battle with adversity and ongoing internal struggle, he seemed to rarely let personal setbacks completely defeat the passion to create that burned within him.
After his contributions to television, he went on to use his talents to develop other technologies beneficial to mankind: radar systems, the electron microscope, the first baby incubator and research on nuclear fusion.
His wife claims that despite his disappointment with television, his mind was always thinking forward: You can't change the past, and we have too much to do for the
future to worry about it. Perhaps we should all adopt this as our new mantra.
Fortunately, he was able to witness one defining moment in his lifetime that justified his trials and tribulations, and no doubt rekindled a bit of the optimism of the Boy who dreamed of pictures
that fly through the air. On July 20, 1969, he was among the 600 million people tuned into Walter Cronkite's coverage of Neil
Armstrong's giant leap for mankind. For a brief moment, the power of television realized its potential, unifying the world and giving it pause to reflect on how very far we all had come. This, he said to Pem, has made it all worthwhile.
There are still many skeptics who believe that television is far too complex an animal to credit the invention to only one man.
But remove the fire and the fury of that single individual from the equation and who knows how the saga would have panned out. As Johnny Carson eulogized him on the Tonight Show when Farnsworth left our frequency in 1971, If it weren't for
Philo T. Farnsworth ... we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners. His epitaph sums it up more succinctly: HE LOVED HIS FELLOW MAN.