If you ever want a quaint look at the not-so-distant past, spend some time watching or reading old warnings about our culture’s obsession with TV. A few years ago, I did a short write-up about a 1994 Washington Post feature about a family’s addiction to television. It features all four members of the family and their dutifully-followed TV schedules, interspersed with school programs to get kids to watch less TV:
“It is now 9:10 a.m. in the Delmar house. Fifty minutes have gone by since the alarm. Four TVs have been turned on. It will be another 16 hours before all the TVs are off and the house is once again quiet.
By the sink, Bonnie continues to watch “Regis & Kathie Lee.”
At the table, Ashley and Steven watch Speedy Gonzales in “Here Today, Gone Tamale.”
Looking at them, it’s hard to imagine three happier people.
The reason I see the treatment of such a lifestyle for its novelty (or even its dangers) as “quaint” is they were warning about the low levels of inactivity and the social alienation a TV addiction can cause. While not entirely wrong, these warnings for parents and kids seem like people using sandbags to fight a coming tsunami. The Internet has created an overwhelming cavalcade of content that also creates inactivity and social alienation, but it is beyond accepted. In fact, TV itself has largely undergone a re-creation as the most challenging art form of the past decade, with some deeming it “the new novel”.
It’s with this in mind that I found the 1996 Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick movie The Cable Guy all the more absurd. Its central plot follows a deranged and lonely cable worker (Carrey) going full stalker on an unassuming customer (Broderick). Through deception and an undying devotion to make friends, the titular guy ruins the life of his target.
Near the beginning, when Carrey invites Broderick to see a massive TV satellite dish, he somewhat surprisingly predicts the future of our content addiction (this scene is from the end of the film but Carrey simply repeats the speech he gives earlier):
It’s funny, of course, to find an oddly prescient narrative in what by all accounts is a simple 90s comedy not so out-of-league with other Jim Carrey features like Dumb and Dumber or the Ace Ventura films.
The central point of the film, however, is this nameless cable guy–who only gives TV character names in lieu of his own–is yearning for companionship because he received none as a child. In flashbacks, we see him left by his alcoholic mother in front of the boob tube (would provide clip if I could find it; the film is available on Netflix Instant). So instead of being raised by a caring matriarch, he’s raised by I Love Lucy and Bonanza.
Not exactly a unique narrative; the idea of TV as babysitter has been around since the latchkey days of the 1980’s. However, TV has transformed itself from something to distract your kids with into something to actively do with your kids. It has functionally replaced going to the movies as a family event. Of course, what even The Cable Guy could never predict is the forward market of using apps to pacify children. Whatever the warnings of the 1990s looked like, they simply could not have anticipated tablet holsters for baby seats and the ever-growing market of children’s games on the App store.
Much less could they have known this addiction would spread to adults. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Candy Crush, starving hysterical Flappy Bird, dragging themselves through the Kim Kardashian Hollywood tips and tricks at dawn.
I say all of this not as some prurient elitist; I myself find my smartphone as addicting as anyone finds their’s. Nor do I even see this as inherently a negative thing: The most popular apps on any major app store are messenging services, meaning we’re connecting now more than ever.
But what does it say that with each method of disconnection presented to us we become more and more comfortable? The future, if Mark Zuckerberg is to be believed, lies with us strapping on VR headsets and immersing ourselves even deeper into realities either completely fantastical (TV, movies, video games) or so distant from our own lives as to be de facto fictional (sports, award shows, news events).
(Note: That last parenthetical got me thinking. Could you imagine being able to strap on a VR headset and be immersed on the streets of Ferguson or the hills of Mosul?)
With every technological development, we find that what “convenience” actually means is being more and more removed from the physical spaces we inhabit and the people we inhabit them with. In his speech, Carrey’s character lists off shopping and Mortal Kombat as two things we in the future can do from the privacy of our own home. But at the time–1996, when the Internet was just about to burst from its nerddom trappings and into mainstream ubiquity–these were things we had to do IRL. There were no other options. Sitting around and playing an SNES with friends was a hallmark of a 90s childhood. Now millions of kids can play Battlefield or Titanfall with each other whilst remaining completely alone. Malls, formerly the center of social life for American adolescents, are dying at record rates as kids find it more comfortable to buy clothes on Amazon and talk to friends on Snapchat, Facebook, or whatever else may come.
Why, after hundreds of thousands of years of cognitive expansion by our ancestors accomplished largely by socializing, is our priority now dealing with as few people as possible? It is a common trope of sci-fi movies that alien invade Earth and find we are killing our planet, that we are the disease to be cured. It almost appears as if we realize that ourselves presently.
Of course, as I hinted at before, most of the technology at hand is actually meant to remove the static of socializing. The text of a conversation on WhatsApp or Kik is direct and clear, free of the trappings of a face-to-face conversation (although also free of the clues physical language can bring). We have found our physical existences to be tiresome and want simply the ego to come across. While the invention of writing and telecommunications made us figuratively closer as a species and culture, it is simultaneously and literally driving us apart.
At the end of The Cable Guy, Carrey’s mad man dangles himself over the same antenna we see earlier in the film. As police choppers surround him, he confronts the cause of his inner need to socialize:
Having realized his intense loneliness is driven by his longing for his mother’s attention, he plunges himself towards the satellite dish.
Broderick grabs a hold of him mid-fall, as Carrey gives the ludicrously well-delivered line “somebody has to kill the baby sitter.” Broderick drops him, and Carrey’s body cuts the feed just as the nameless town learns the verdict of a widely-watched televised trial (presumably meant to echo the then-relevant OJ Simpson trial).
The “babysitter”, as Carrey calls it, has expanded in ways no one has ever imagined. Even the remotest among us are cradled in the embrace of escapism and digital love. Ben Smith, chief news editor at Buzzfeed (itself a warlord for digital consumption) once said “technology is no longer a section in the newspaper. It’s the entire culture.”
And we don’t really seem to mind. In fact, we all seem quite delighted with the prospect of driverless cars, VR adventures, and same-day drone delivery. But much like unattended children, we find ourselves fighting stress and alienation with things that can often enough cause both to force the question: From what are we, all of us in the 21st century maelstrom of voided humanity, hiding? What is all this for?