LJ Archive

The End of the Tube

Doc Searls

Issue #80, December 2000

I remember the day I learned that television was a narcotic.

To put the matter abruptly, the advertising industry is a crude attempt
to extend the principle of automation to every aspect of society.
     —Marshall McLuhan

We are, as an energy source, easily renewable and completely recyclable.
All they needed to control this new battery was something to occupy our mind
     —Morpheus, in The Matrix

In the garage of life there are mechanics and there are drivers.
Mechanics wanted.
     —Sign in a auto repair shop

I remember the day I learned that television was a narcotic. It was in the spring of 1985. I arrived home from work one evening, and in the living room my teenage daughter and son were staring, green-skinned and slack-jawed, at our crummy 14-inch Toshiba TV. I stepped in front of it, reached behind me and turned the sound down.

“Just curious”, I said. “What are you watching?”

They both wore the facial expressions of fish in a tank. I could see the blank thought balloons over their heads, popping like bubbles in the air.


“Do you know what you're watching?”


They didn't know. Really. They had no idea.


“Man...can you, like, move?”

In fact, we did move—across the country to Palo Alto, which mercifully lacked a cable system. Suddenly, we were back to watching what came in through the roof antenna, which was the video equivalent of outdoor plumbing. No more MTV. No more HBO. No more TNT, A&E or CNN.

Then the Toshiba TV died, and I replaced it with an old 21-inch RCA that I bought for $10 at a garage sale. The thing came with a perfect snooze alarm in the form of an unintentional screen-saving feature: it progressively darkened until you slapped it hard. Since it took about five minutes to go from bright to black, there was a built-in limit to its sedating powers.

So we went cold turkey. Sure, we'd watch a movie on the VCR every once in a while, or the occasional PBS special. But sedation wasn't part of the package any-more. No more staring at advertising bait for hours on end.

Soon enough, both kids started doing better in school. Between her junior and senior year, my daughter cranked her SATs up by hundreds of points. She eventually graduated from Berkeley with a 3.9-something. My son followed a similar path.

Since then, I have waited for snooze-averse boxes to deliver the same salvation to the rest of Consumer culture.

And now it's here. The bait-and-hook business we call commercial TV is ready for the hospice, thanks to a modern—and far more intentional—version of our $10 de-snoozing television.

It's called TiVo. Or RePlayTV. Both are boxes that constantly spool everything you watch, and then give you a choice about how and when you want to watch it. At a basic level, they improve on the VCR by recording to disk instead of tape (and far more simply). They also give you a way to pause a program while you answer the phone or go to the bathroom. But the real killer is that these products let you skip over ads in an instant. That's the one that blows away commercial TV.

In an excellent article for The New York Times Magazine, that can be viewed at www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000813mag--boombox.html, Michael Lewis reports that TiVo and RePlayTV customers don't watch 88% of the advertising they spool on their boxes. They probably edit out a lot of other crap, too, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that, in Lewis' words, “If no one watches commercials, then there is no commercial television.”

Say ding-dong for that witch.

And when you run the credits, notice the operating system in the TiVo box. It's Linux, the same OS that hosts the smarts in set-top boxes from Intel and various OEM customers of the embedded Linux suppliers, all of whom see a huge business in what amounts to device drivers for television—and for whatever succeeds the television industry, once its passive consumers morph into active customers.

The irony here is that commercial television has always been conceived as a device driver for consumers. What we call “consumerism” is actually a kind of producerism. It's defined entirely on the production side of the shipping system that terminates at the wide end of the tube in our living rooms.

To some degree, all of us are still part of that system. We still think and talk about business in shipping terms. Our goods are “content” that we “address”, “package” and “deliver” to a “consumer” or an “end user”. We even speak of “delivering” services. We think inside the tube. Business isn't a handshake or a relationship, it's a conduit. We do business to people, not with them.

For proof, look at the shipping assumptions in the preposition abbreviated by the number 2 in acronyms like B2B and B2C. There's a huge difference between doing business to people and doing business with them. Talking in 2s puts us as deep in the tube as any record company or TV network executive.

And don't exclude the relatively enlightened creators of TiVo and RePlayTV. Their ultimate business model involves shipping extremely personal advertising straight to your choosy brain. That's why they have a user-spying system that makes DoubleClick look like the FSF. These boxes watch every choice you make and record it in what Lewis calls “atomic” detail. The ostensible reason is to make the box a knowing servant that can make educated guesses about other shows you might like. But the obvious economic reason is to draw a smaller and smaller bull's-eye on the back of your head.

When you read about these new boxes and their expected effects on society, watch the point of view. Notice that it almost always locates itself at the producer's end of the tube. It still abstracts “the market” as something remote: a force, a demographic, a category or a synonym for demand. Never a real place where communities meet to do business and make culture, which is what it was until industry won the Industrial Revolution. We find a good example of this unconscious point of view in this passage from Lewis' piece:

Many things will change when television is able to whisper finely tuned messages to like-minded consumers rather than hollering crude messages through a bullhorn at millions. One thing that will change is the price of the messages. If they are to become more valuable, the targets must shrink, and as the targets shrink, the tools used to hit them must shrink as well.

We are “them”, the third person plural.

Well, let's look at them. Are they just staring back at production from the consumption end of the business tube, from the wide end of the bullhorn? Oh, no. Out here it's a real market. This is the bazaar. The bullhorn people can't understand it, because they never had a financial relationship with it. For the supply side of the commercial television business, viewers were never customers. They were consumers. Or, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, “gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash”. The real customers were advertisers.

Out here in the bazaar, commercial TV is as lost as the man who walks down the street in Paul Simon's “You Can Call Me Al” It's a street in a strange world:

Maybe it's the Third World. Maybe it's his first time around.He doesn't speak the language. He holds no currency. He is a foreign man. He is surrounded by the sound, sound.... Cattle in the marketplace. Scatterlings and orphanages....

Markets have always been about interactions between customers and craftspeople. The craftspeople who matter here are the same ones who like to take commodity PCs and make them into everything else. These guys are in a movement that isn't organized by large producers, but by countless conversations about inventing products, solving problems, and enabling both by building new infrastructure that works for everybody because it's owned by nobody—just like they did with the Net and with Linux.

Both the Net and Linux are cheaply and easily put to use, all over the place. The threshold of invention and connection are both extremely low, and not just for converting PCs into Linux boxes. Now, it's getting easier and easier for small teams of designers and programmers to invent and embed intelligent control into pretty much anything. The range and scope of stuff for which we need Big Manufacturing is getting smaller and smaller. The big manufacturers that matter are the silicon fabricators—the Intels, Motorolas, Samsungs and Hitachis of the world. Embedded Linux can only improve the cost, efficiency and time-to-market for small, custom manufacturing that puts commodity silicon (and other discrete parts) to work.

A few weeks ago, Don Marti and I were talking with a programmer who had recently left one of the Linux boxhardware companies and went to work for Kerbango, which makes a Linux-based radio for tuning audio streams on the Web. He had grown bored with working on server clusters and the rest of “the usual”. “That stuff was nice”, he said, “but this is really cool sh--.”

That guy was just one of the first. There are thousands, maybe millions, more of us out here in the real world, itching to invent all kinds of cool sh--. Thanks to embedded Linux, that's only going to get easier and easier.

As a cure for consumption, it's pretty hard to beat.

Doc Searls (info@linuxjournal.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto. His opinions are his alone and do not express those of Linux Journal or SSC.

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