The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


July 3, 2006

After a long struggle with some undisclosed ailment that was producing an occasional greenish tint to the images displayed on it, our old 27″ Magnavox standard-definition TV finally gave up the ghost a couple of weeks ago. It was a long, slow death, so there wasn’t much mourning — just a couple of trips to electronics stores and some ‘Net browsing to find a replacement. What we quickly learned is that they just don’t make decent-quality affordable tube TVs any more, and that those that they do make are both gigantic (read: heavy) and affected by things like “geometry problems” (which are particularly annoying to this of us who are visually persnickety — guilty as charged). And then we found this lovely little number, a 32″ Samsung LCD, and were rather blown away by the clarity and sharpness of the image. So now it’s in our family room.

I suppose I’m a shallow person for being so enamoured of our new toy, and enamoured enough to write a quick blog post about it. My Marxian colleagues and students would probably just accuse me of commodity fetishism, and while I’m not entirely unhappy with the characterization, I do somewhat resent the implication that there’s something inherently wrong with deriving pleasure and utility from a product, particualrly a high-tech manufactured product. What I now have in my living room is a testament to the genius of numerous engineers and scientists in creating something this compact and this clear (trust me, a 4000:1 contrast ratio really makes a difference — do a side-by-side comparison in the store before you buy one) and I’m not sure how better to celebrate their accomplishment than by buying one of their products.

Of course, that’s not why we bought it. If one were looking for a causal account, I think one has to take into account at least two factors that concatenated in a particular way to produce the observed outcome:

1) the aforementioned dearth of good tube TVs on the market — indeed, the dearth of non-HDTVs on the market these days. With broadcast signals in the US shifting to digital formats in 2009, and the expectation that broadcasters will use the modified bandwidth allocation to start broadcasting their content in HD format, it seems that TV manufacturers are slowly abandoning tube TVs (except for bargain-basement, no-frills $99 specials) and moving into bigger-ticket items like LCD and plasma displays. Combine this with the technically inherent limitations of a tube TV (the bigger they are the heavier they get — so a 32″ tube TV weighs like 120 pounds and is about 22″ deep, compared to the 48 pound, 4″ thick TV we now own) and you have market disincentives aplenty — and a corresponding reduction in the space of possible purchases.

2) although my wife’s reaction when in the electronic store looking at TVs mirrored the predictable reaction of most people who haven’t already done comparisons and online research on the subject, and although my wife and I had followed a gender-stereotyped set of pathways in looking at TVs before this point (it’s the guy who is supposed to be into high tech, and the girl who is supposed to come along and simply say “ooh, pretty picture!” and then let the guy buy the unit), the purchase decision was definitely a communal one. We pondered for a couple of weeks, looked up things online, went to several electronics stores, read reviews, investigated HDTV signal options (an HDTV set isn’t much good without an HDTV signal, after all . . . okay, DVDs look amazing with an upconverting DVD player, but we also wanted the kids’ television shows and our Yankees broadcasts to come in as clearly as possible), pondered, discused, and eventually selected something that we were both happy with. Those discussions, and the commonplaces and rhetorical deployments that figured into them, are a critical part of the causal complex.

Along these lines, one cannot discount the importance of the fact that my kids were also blown away by the picture quality — particularly since the electronics store was showing, as part of its demonstration signal, the trailer from their new favorite movie Cars (which is a really good film, by the way). That was a big hit — almost as much as the World Cup telecast was for Mommy and Daddy. (I suppose this puts us in the well-known demographic of sports fans who buy HDTV sets to watch games, although for us it’s much less about the Super Bowl (blech) and more about baseball and real football.) I am not sure that we would have been able to justify the purchase were it not for those reactions, and as I am in fact in print as saying many times: no legitimation, no public policy.

[I thought about putting in another gratituitous, self-promoting link to my book in that last sentence. But that would be over the top a bit, wouldn’t it?]

So we made a rather large-sized purchase (don’t forget proper, high-quality cables when buying your HDTV — those add some to the purchase price but they are really worth it, believe me), did our patriotic duty by keeping the economy afloat for another day, and reinforced the culture of consumerism. But we did get a really sweet TV out of the process.

And I think that we’re self-aware enough not to confuse the pleasure of watching a nice TV with joy.

[By the way, for anyone connecting an HDTV to a Comcast cable HDTV conversion box, here’s a little tech-geeky tip I finally figured out after a few hours of ‘Net searching and fiddling around with the device: Comcast does transmit its HD signals in widescreen format, but the cable box is set to 480i resolution by default, at least for the component video output. No, this makes no sense whatsoever for an HD cable box. No, your Comcast installer — let alone the customer support people on the phone — have no idea about this. Solution: turn on the TV and turn off the cable box, then press the “Menu” button on the cable box to bring up the device configuration menu. Use the arrow buttons to select the component video output, and then to change the resolution to 1080i or 720p. Problem solved, and true widescreen HD signals for important things like World Cup matches are yours for the viewing. I’ve used the Technorati tags at the bottom of this post to incrase the likelihood that someone searching the ‘Net for a solution to this problem will find their way here — hopefully in less time than it took me to find the solution on my own.]

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.