By Amien Essif
The wealthy cannot afford to support the economy of the rest because that gives them performance anxiety and throws the whole show off, but the poor should definitely test-drive the new Chevy Impala because it is made to love.
I’m sitting on a United Airlines flight out of Chicago and the screens behind every head rest are lit up. It resembles the insect-vision effect of the TV shelves at Best Buy where a grid of images cells agitates in internal concert. I thought for a while that television would go extinct around five years ago, but I see now that this won’t happen. Radio neither. People like to be a part of that grid. Once the TVs are disbursed in private homes, each viewer knows that they are watching the same thing at the same time as everyone else.
When Jack Kerouac described the “middle-class non-identity” in the 1950s as “television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time” he wasn’t aware that in 2013 television would represent a hanger-on, an outdated device that remains as the alternative to this scenario: each family member holed up in their rooms watching obscure videos online that they can only discuss online because no one at work has seen them.
So it is unfortunate that American television is more or less only advertisement. Really well-funded, high-quality advertisement, created by a generation of free-lancing graduates, but an exercise in reversing art itself: turning meaning into meaninglessness, flattening the deepest human emotions into a one-dimensional message.
What is miraculous is how Americans have integrated advertisement into their time. Or maybe it’s obvious. On the United flight, it takes me a few minutes to find the tiny button on the arm rest that will turn the screen off (there’s no off button—you have to press the fade button a dozen times until the screen goes black). Once it’s off, I pull my novel out of the seat pouch and, naturally, turn to look at the screen in front of my neighbor’s face. In ten minutes, I’ve seen all four advertisements in rotation, plus a short message about the in-flight television feature itself. Five dollars and you can watch DirecTV for the duration of the flight.
My neighbor, slouching idly without any apparent intention to swipe her credit card, watches an ad for Capital One credit cards which repeats every ten minutes. In fact, based on the sample of about fifty screens I can see from my wing-seat, most passengers—if they are not toying with iPads—are watching this same numbing carousel of stimulation. A minority have purchased access to programming. But of course they too are now watching advertising. Only, they have the luxury to choose which advertisement they want to watch. This choice is meant to flatter, like the Hulu.com ads that ask you “Is this advertisement relevant to you?” or the Google pop-up that talks in your voice: “Why am I seeing this ad?” Google scans all of your personal communications to discover your soul, and it is your right to solicit requests to know you better. The freedom to choose which private interest has access to your mind is the kind of privilege America is keen on preserving.
Who is to blame? What entity is the source of absurdity? Don’t believe for a second that there aren’t some few hundred people who have access to an Excel document that harvests info on “inflight entertainment.” Likely numbers of interest: How many passengers watch the free ads, and for how long. How is flight anxiety correlated with the proclivity of passengers to fixate on the same four ads, hours on end. Measurements on the inability to look away.
Because of this data, United Airlines can pass the savings on to you. In an age of austerity, we deserve to choose our luxuries. Tickets, I imagine, cost five dollars less because passengers can opt-out of getting their face entertained. Such is the colloquial version of the story, though nothing is that straightforward in this economy. My guess is that DirecTV probably pays to have it’s programming offered on head rests (I’m still waiting to hear back from them on this one).
This is what austerity looks like in our country: the freedom to opt-out, to sit in a small chair watching a digital image of a Capital One credit card angle in across a screen twenty-one inches from your lashes. At least we’re all watching together.