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Rant #461
(published November 19, 2009)
The End of Static
by Patrick May
Being an unabashed technophobe, I wasn't thrilled when Big Brother forced me to modernize my circa-1985 rabbit-eared paperweight-television for the digital age. But there came a time when I couldn't ignore the patronizing commercials anymore, or block out their smug 50's dads warning me that unlike the switch to color, digitization was both inevitable and irreversible. It was time to face the future, so I used my government-issued coupons to buy a converter box. Now when I change channels there is a short but poignant delay between each flip. We technophobes have been bribed with a new free channel that plays reruns of The Bold Ones and Adam 12 and the same Carol Burnett infomercial after midnight, camp as old and forgotten as we are. Drink deep the soma of nostalgic prime time, this channel seems to command; forget away the digital now.

What I find I miss most in this post-analog world is static. The driving metaphor of all MFA-grad novels, static has always connected us to the existential loneliness of our technology-driven lives. Static is the product of cosmic rays sent from distant, empty space, from eons ago, from the primordial Big Bang. We are a lonely planet lost in static.

But digitization has altered our perception of static. Where once fuzzy waves attacked the screen now lurks the glitch. The glitch of a weak digital signal looks like grainy squares or the melting edges of a radioactive Coke can. It lacks the texture of static; it seems, and is, a malfunction entirely man-made. When reception is lost, voice and picture loop monotonously like a scratched record before transitioning finally to a frozen screen. The glitch is but a heavy-handed reminder that TV land is a fleeting mirage, simulacra.

When my area made the digital switch, when static went the way of the dial tone, I recorded the transition on my VCR. I thought something catastrophic might happen. But there was no fanfare, no playing of the national anthem, no montage of patriotic images: the picture simply cut out in the middle of an ad for STI medication, two twenty-somethings riding bicycles down a street, then nothing but static.

But that was when I realized it was static that had won. I had ended up witnessing not its death, but its victory. The converter box, digital television in general, is an oasis from that desert of static that borders us on all sides of transmission. Turn the box off and all you get is static, dispersed occasionally by an analog-broadcast infomercial for converter boxes and antennas, usually in Spanish. The reception we receive naturally now, the mad magician behind the screen, is static.

There are, of course, less radical concerns. In the future, for example, when people get On Demand movies sent directly to their brain, when they download Poltergeist, will the premise of the movie even make sense? Or will it be like watching telegrams used in old movies, will we become detached from the story because we won't understand the technology?

We are being weeded out, us technophobes: the digital conversion is merely the first step in a transition away from television. And in a few years when television itself disappears, unlike radio it will be totally inaccessible to the change-resistant. I expect it to go not with a Big Bang, but with a million rabbit-eared television sets tuned in to static before they are finally turned off.

Patrick May is a nightwatchman and debt collector living in Pawtucket, RI. He co-produced and starred in the 2007 low-budget grunge movie The Grateful Undead.

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