Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dipping into the stream of media

From The Daily Star:

After writing last week about my secret longing to stumble upon the occasional Christmas program, I started thinking about intentional versus unintentional consumption.

I don't mean "unintentional consumption" like realizing you've eaten an entire box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. I mean leaving the TV on after your favorite program is over and watching whatever comes next, or putting the radio on just to have a little background noise. This is the cultural experience I still associate with TV and radio: an ongoing stream of content I can dip into at will.

My current experiment with on-demand viewing has made me realize, however, that this is an increasingly archaic idea. Thanks to the Internet and devices such as digital video recorders, fewer people are dipping into this ongoing stream of content. Instead, like myself, they are siphoning off their own selective streams that contain only the content that interests them.

I can't deny that the ability to self- select media has distinct advantages. I love being able to watch episodes of "Perry Mason" or the original "Star Trek" (thanks, CBS Classics) whenever I want. But I sincerely miss the thrill of accidental discovery. I miss flipping channels and finding PBS' "American Experience" documentaries on the lives of the presidents, or watching MTV and hearing a new song that knocks my socks off.

In some ways, I feel like these happy accidents give broadcast media its reason for existing. As a teenager, I drove around town with friends, trying to catch the shaky AM signal of a nearby alternative-music radio station. If I managed to stumble upon a re-run of the Canadian sketch comedy TV show "Kids in the Hall," I would call my friends at once to let them know.

These cultural offerings were not at my fingertips: they flitted in and out of my life unpredictably. As such, they were a highly prized quarry. Not to sound too much like an old curmudgeon, but "kids these days," I suspect, don't drive around trying to tune in obscure radio stations, or scour the TV dial in search of a program that may or may not be on. I know I don't. I can seek out what I want effortlessly, with certainty of finding what I seek in the vast landscape of the Internet.

Google searches return results too quickly to invoke the thrill of the chase. There is a certain loneliness in my solitary viewing of "Perry Mason and the Case of the Rolling Bones." Can I re-hash the episode with my mother, my husband, my friends? Not likely. Pundits and scholars have bemoaned the loss of shared cultural experiences inherent to this type of personalized, rather than shared, consumption.

Writing about the BBC program "Doctor Who" in April for The Guardian, Mark Lawson wrote that "the biggest defining feature that TV has had, in comparison with other art forms such as theatre, film and literature, is that millions of people watched the programmes at precisely the same moment _ in the way they still do for a football match or news of a terrorist attack."

In the 2006 debut issue of "Critical Studies in Television," a biannual journal of critical studies in television, Deborah Jermyn and Su Holmes wrote about how the field of television studies has had to adapt to the changing existence of the theoretical "TV audience."

"As we settle into the twenty-first century," Jermyn and Holmes wrote, "this perception, and the concomitant notion of a �mass' audience, has become increasingly fragile and problematic."

Yet we do experience the communality of television and other media, even if there are gaps in the time line. I can still discuss episodes of "Project Runway" with my sister and my friend, despite the fact that one of us watched the show live, another through Netflix and a third via the Internet. Jermyn and Holmes speak of a "fragile" mass audience that is "splintered across the Internet." Just as this splintering may alienate us from our next-door neighbors, it also connects us to a vast and virtual online universe of fans, critics and commentators who flock around any program, no matter how esoteric.

We still don't know where this new frontier of TV viewing will take us, but I remain hopeful that, as long as there are compelling programs, people will continue coming together over these shared experiences, both virtually and face-to-face. As for me, I'm relying on family and friends to steer me toward new and exciting TV shows, movies and music, and accepting the fact that the chase I once found so thrilling is, at least for now, called off.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book review: "The Greenwich Time Lady"


With its brusque opening lines ("What time is it? It’s a simple question and this book looks at some of the ways we have tried to answer it over the last couple of hundred years"), Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history—one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell.

The book’s eponymous heroine was the last in a short line of Belvilles who made their living in a unique manner: they literally brought time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to a London subscriber base that included shopkeepers, shipping firms and clockmakers. Through a tenuous and complex arrangement with the observatory’s Astronomer General, the Belvilles were granted weekly entry to the observatory, where a clerk would adjust their steadfast watch (nicknamed “Arnold” after its maker, John Arnold) to the correct time and provide a certificate denoting the same.
cover art

The Belvilles then carried this corrected watch around London to the diverse group of businessmen willing to pay money to find out exactly what time it was. This arrangement lasted from the 1830s, nearly half a century before Greenwich Mean Time officially existed, until the 1940s, when technologies such as radio and telephone service finally became perfected enough to render the service obsolete.

Through the story of the Belvilles—father John, his wife Maria and their daughter Ruth—Rooney introduces the reader to a singular epoch in England’s history, when technological progress both responded to and created a new demand for the accurate and consistent dissemination of the correct time according to Greenwich. Along the way, we learn who gave voice to the “speaking clock” that gives out time signals by telephone; what a marine chronometer is; where the Unabomber got some of his ideas about bombs; when the BBC came up with its characteristic “six pips” time signal; and why daylight-saving time exists, along with quite a bit more.

At a terse 192 pages, The Greenwich Time Lady carries no dead weight and reads as an exemplar of the principles set forth in Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language...Omit needless words. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Yet Rooney’s prose is not skimpy or spare; rather, it breathes life into the characters and events that form this unusual story.

Rooney’s plain language does great service to his subject. His concise description of the marine chronometer fills about one page, but leaves the reader with no doubt about how such devices worked and why they are significant to the matter at hand. The book reads as a lively lecture delivered by a practiced instructor, one who foresees his audience’s questions before they arise and smoothly steers his narrative accordingly. Rooney also drops in the occasional humorous aside, as when he describes a newspaper advertisement to illustrate how the concept of uniformly synchronized time had captured the public consciousness: “Readers of the Manchester Guardian on 8 May 1908...were faced with an extraordinary advertisement for Beecham’s Pills. ‘You will have noticed that a clock left to itself is rarely right; it requires to be regulated carefully.’....Go on then, thinks the reader, tell me why Beecham’s Pills and unregulated clocks go together.”

There are a very few occasions when Rooney’s story seems to come in a bit fast and furious. In chapter one, the reader is introduced to 24 characters within ten pages, few of whom stick around to do anything of significance as the book progresses. For the most part, however, Rooney keeps the promise made in his introduction, delivering “a book written for a wide readership and, in particular, for those with no detailed knowledge of timekeeping history”.

Writing about the end of the “remarkable decade” that was the 1920s, which saw Ruth Belville’s career as the Greenwich Time Lady drawing to a close, Rooney reminds us that “New technology doesn’t just sweep aside old systems. They co-exist for far longer than one might expect. Even in the 1930s, for instance, market workers in east London received a daily time signal from knockers-up blowing dried peas through pea-shooters at their bedroom windows. Whatever worked remained appropriate.”

Throughout this brief but intriguing tale, Rooney emphasizes again and again the complex relationships between old and new, between man and machine, reminding the reader that such cultural interstices neither happen in a predictable fashion, nor do they follow linear paths. As Rooney puts it, “Stuff endures”, especially when there’s sufficient demand for it. The “stuff” of The Greenwich Time Lady will no doubt endure in its own right as a charming and thoughtful history of a subject that fascinates eternally: time.

Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.
Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), "Mansfield Park"