Peer Review: Too Clear for Comfort

The increased detail of HDTV may decrease our viewing pleasure.

By Douglas Rushkoff|Monday, October 09, 2006

Like much of America, I, too, wanted my HDTV. Who wouldn't? In a society where bigger is better and seeing is believing, 42 inches of high-definition plasma should be about all any of us needs to make sense of the world from the safety of our living rooms.

Indeed, HD is a whole new viewing experience. Now we can see the stubble on a baseball player's cheeks. It's a level of reality and closeness we can't even get by going to a game: sweat, pores, tensing jawbone. That's because HDTV isn't just a better picture tube but an entirely different medium. With resolution up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (compared with analog TV's 400 or so horizontal lines), a color palette increased by a factor of two, and an aspect ratio that can cover my whole field of vision instead of just a little square, high definition turns the TV set from a flickering box into razor-sharp hyperreality.

Once we try it, most of us never turn back. Although HDTV sets can cost as much as a used car, they will have outsold their predecessors by 89 percent this year, dollar for dollar. But what does this mean for TV, the medium? Is clearer always better?

It's certainly different. In fact, according to neuroscientists, HDTV offers more information than the brain can process, allowing us to scan for changes the way we do when processing a real-life visual field. We're no longer inferring an image from a self-contained flashing tube; we're picking out the relevant details as if encountering a real world.

The first program I watched in HiDef was The Sopranos, which represents everything we've come to demand of a drama: believably foul language, authentic locations, and that all-important "gritty realism." But watching my favorite gangsters bloody one another on HDTV no longer felt quite the same. I could see the seams in their suits, the smudges on their sunglasses, and the wrinkles in their car seats.

I felt like a scientist observing humans under a microscope. These fictional mafiosi looked like real people, capable of fear, anger, and sadism. Tony Soprano was no longer a stand-in for everyman, but a sociopath. The screen wasn't a symbolic mirror to my own life; it was a detailed portrait of a violent world I didn't belong in and didn't want to.

It's no surprise that members of a technology-driven age would yearn for clearer images in all media. This trend began when microscopes revealed that disease-causing "humours" were actually microbes and telescopes deconstructed the constellations of astrology to reveal the galaxies of astronomy. But what happens when we bring the highest-resolution technologies into worlds best left in the realm of myth? This tendency to apply scientific accuracy of observation to literature and even religion may actually strip them of their greater power. Mel Gibson's computer-generated depiction of Jesus' every bleeding wound in The Passion of the Christ turned a universal gospel into the literal story of one man's mutilation and death.

While such realistic simulations might be valuable for ambulance-training videos, their application across the full spectrum of human storytelling may be a symptom of our society's continuing devaluation of anything that can't be understood on a literal level. It's the same trend that's replacing fictional television with "reality" programming, interfaith dialogue with intolerant fundamentalism, feel-good patriotism with strident nationalism. There are no symbols, just real things.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan always saw TV's role as one of making us "cooler" people. Its low resolution invited active interpretation from its viewers. Yes, we were watching—but we were also aware of ourselves watching and capable of engaging on our own terms. As TV gains resolution, it becomes what McLuhan would call a hot medium: one that captivates us, stokes our emotions, and offers less room for interpretation. Cool media are better for educating a population. Hot media are better for getting them angry enough to fight a war.

That's why I see HDTV breeding an even less intelligent, less scientific culture than we already have. While sophisticated technologies like this might let us see nature, observe the stars, and even watch the news more clearly, we mustn't let them deprive us of the icons and metaphors we use to describe the things in our lives that are less tangible and more allegorical, less a reality and more a model. For without the ability to model, we don't have any science at all.

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