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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Television’s Sunset: Thinking outside the Box

Sometimes I think the human mind is like a train in being limited to the tracks that have already been laid. We are habituated to think it sufficient that we can turn off the main line on to another at the next signal. We think this is change because it involves turning onto a different track, but is it really change if the train is still on track?

A while back, someone thinking outside the box suggested  to me that because many watches and clocks were already computerized as of 2012, we could have sunrise pegged at 7am and sunset at 7pm every day of the year. The number of seconds in a minute would be adjusted accordingly. During the winter, a minute during daylight would have less than sixty seconds and a minute at night would have more. During summer, it would be the reverse. The inventive mind behind this idea was trying to obviate the problems involved with when to go on and off daylight savings time. As it stood in 2012 in the United States, the two dates were not symmetrical with regard to the amount of daylight (going on daylight savings time during the second week in February would match the first week of November). Of course, there is nothing magical about 7, except perhaps in Judaism. Under the inventive scheme, the time of sunset could be extended even to 10pm during the summer (each minute during daylight would have less than sixty seconds), going back to 7pm during the fall, winter and early spring.

Besides the fact that time itself does not change, at least as experienced by us, one problem with “fixing” the times of sunrise and sunset as envisioned by the inventive mind is, as one critic said, “the power of television.” We are habituated to TV Guide, and thus would not want to see 60 Minutes scheduled for fifty minutes one week in one season and seventy-five in another season. Being of a certain length of time, a given television show would be scheduled for different durations, as per the number of seconds in a minute. “Television would never stand for that,” so said one detractor. Absolving myself of responsibility, I replied, “It was all his idea, not mine.” Even though I thought of the idea as a thought experiment having value in stretching the human mind beyond the existing tracks, it occurred to me that the assumption that television has too much power is too narrow. The thought experiment can have value in getting us off the tracks (rather than off track) of our usual way of circumscribed thinking.

                                             Larry King, formerly of CNN, embraced online programming.      CNN

On March 12, 2012, Ora.tv was announced. Financed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú and co-founded by Larry King of New York, the planned internet television network “will have a slate of television shows of varying lengths and will stream them via the Internet to computers, phones, and television sets . . . by bypassing traditional television distribution systems,” according to the New York Times (which was itself contending with online competition). Viewable on laptops, ipods, ipads, and smartphones, “television” shows could bypass the overpriced cable systems.

Even without Ora.tv, TV Guide was being relegated by the existence of video on demand, available on a laptop, ipad, or phone. Beyond video on demand, Ora.tv could only have an “irregular” schedule, given the differing lengths of the various programs. Having programs taped at varying lengths, it would not matter how long they run in real time even if there is a schedule (i.e., were the number of seconds in a minute changed so sunset would occur at 7pm year-round). So much for the power of television.

As early as 2010, people had told me they had disconnected their cable and were using their television screens to watch movies on DVD from Netflix or an already-antiquated video store. Television programs, like that which Larry King had on CNN and was planning for Ora.tv in 2012, do not benefit from a big screen as much as does a film like Avatar or Titanic. Hence Larry decided to discontinue his series of specials at CNN so he could turn to the internet venture that he had co-founded. Regarding his decision to depart CNN, King said, “When the train gets to the last station, you know to get off.”

What if technological change itself can outstrip even going onto another existing track? What if we have reached the last station with tracks? Might the human mind be able to travel trackless? Absent a way to rid Earth of its tilt, we are stuck with changing lengths of daylight. I mention proposal as a thought experiment to show how unnecessarily limited our way of thinking typically is (e.g., “television would never allow it.”). The context or paradigm itself can be thought of as variable in nature, rather than static. The human mind can indeed think up changes within a paradigm while simultaneously shifting the paradigm itself. We need not think only in terms of whether to shift the track ahead. Remember the train in one of the Back to the Future films taking off from the track? The human mind can do likewise, if we do not hold ourselves back out of sheer habit. We have only ourselves to blame if we don’t start thinking outside the box, or over yonder from the rusty tracks. It might be that the twenty-first century will be known as the century when weeds started growing through the tracks. We have only ourselves holding us back from getting off track.

Brian Stelter, “New Internet TV Network to Feature Larry King,” The New York Times, March 12, 2012.