Aaron Sorkin appears to be fascinated with inventor Philo Farnsworth, and over the years he's tinkered with different media to tell the Farnsworth story, none taking off in much of a way. He's just intrigued by the story, I think.
Philo Farnsworth invented television, or at least in the same sense that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lamp, or Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. These were the guys who got the ideas to work. The ideas were already out there.
Farnsworth's story is appealing to Sorkin (and hey, to me) because of its theatrical aspects, mostly the lack of relative credit given to this man for an invention that changed everything. I haven't read any of Sorkin's work on the inventor (I think these were all plays; there's a nice Farnsworth monologue by William H. Macy in an episode of Sorkin's Sports Night, probably others), but I can see the attraction. Tweak history a little and you can get a little David-and-Goliath thing going, but it's not necessarily a tragedy. Farnsworth was a prodigious inventor, with over 300 patents to his name, and it doesn't seem a miserable life. If you don't recognize his name, and you know Edison and Bell, well. That's the drama, right there. Doesn't feel right.
But I don't know how it's supposed to feel, because I don't know what it means.
We forget things like this, and not just big things like this. If you're around my age, you've probably forgotten how it felt when grocery stores began taking credit and then debit cards. It hardly seems mentioning now, just another innovation, but it changed our lives (I'd argue) dramatically and significantly. It fundamentally changed the way we view economics and our money, I'd say, as it moved from thinking of exchanging physical items (e.g., dollar bills for milk) to something closer to economic theory.
But it also changed the way we shop for ordinary, everyday things, when and how and why. And that's just debit cards at Safeway. We've now almost completely moved from cash to electronic transfers, and it changes how we engage with everything.
There's just so much more. Email was HUGE. Instant messaging: HUGE. Caller ID: HUGE. And down the list, we have been fundamentally changed by technology and general social/cultural evolution, and we pretty much don't notice.
I think I should talk to people who remember what it was like when television arrived. My mother comes to mind, although she was a child at the time TVs started popping up in store windows and neighbors' houses. Most of her life has included this, then, and I'm not sure she's old enough to tell me what I'm looking for.
Farnsworth was demonstrating his television system by the late 1920s, so it wasn't a total surprise, but I wonder a lot. I wonder how it felt to a person born in, say, 1890, a time when horses were important and a person might reasonably be expected to never venture more than 100 miles from their hometown. I suspect television must have seemed disorienting, as if the future dropped from a hole in the sky, suddenly and out of sequence.
This is apropos of nothing much, just idle thoughts about semantics, actually. Half a dozen times over the past 30 years, I've given up on TV. Not dramatically; it was more of an assumption that I was done being a fan of a particular series or show, tired of being tied to an entertainment schedule I had no control over. Even with videotapes.
And I always came back. It was Mr. Sorkin who re-snared me in 1999 with The West Wing, which I just thought I'd check out and which became, I guess, my all-time favorite show (I've rewatched it more than any other, anyway). There was another drop-off in the early aughts, and then I got hooked on NBC Thursdays, with The Office and 30 Rock. Eventually I grabbed Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and it seemed that I always had a couple of favorites to follow.
But I'd already given up cable by then, so watching was all à la carte, either streaming for free or paying for individual episodes/seasons, and most of the series I followed had limited seasons of only 10-12 episodes. Once a year, then, I'll follow Saul Goodman for a couple of months, then maybe the guys on Silicon Valley and VEEP for a bit. We're about to binge through the fourth season of Grace & Frankie on Netflix. I'm trying to stay current with The Good Doctor and The Good Place. I've never seen The Good Wife but I could if I wanted to.
I have Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO through Amazon (split with a tenant), and Hulu (paid for by my son, who uses it a lot). Any one of these would give me something to watch, 24/7. With these four services, I can watch anything I want. It's true self-serve television.
So. Is it television?
Just something I think about. We always have hold-over words, from silly ones like "movie" to saying dial a phone and tape something (meaning, to record something), which I can see lingering for another century, the original etymology lost.
Television is fine, really. It just means watching from a distance, from far away. It's a fine word for any transmission of video, either over the air, via cable or satellite, or streaming online, and honestly? Those are getting to be kind of blurry lines.
I don't know where I fall on the scale of watchers. The only broadcast television I watch involves sports, usually football, less than an hour a week, averaged out over the year.
I might catch some cable in a hotel room or at my mom's house a few times a year, but the vast majority of what I watch is streamed from some source, so again: Is this television I'm watching, or something else?
And again, it's not a thing. I think the word is fine. But I own a television (several, but only one that we use; the rest await recycling), meaning a large monitor with a built-in tuner, and I never watch it. Essentially never (those football games, mostly). When I watch a TV show, I almost always watch it at my desk, on a large monitor that is perfectly fine. I can also move over to the sofa and watch from there, still good.
So I don't watch an actual television much, and what I do watch is mostly a video file stored on some server somewhere that I access by clicking on an icon. It's not completely dissimilar, but it's also not the same experience as watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights.
Silicon Valley is about a digital start-up, based around a compression algorithm a programmer stumbles across. It provides such quick and lossless compression that no media needs to be stored, for example, on your phone; a photo, or movie, stored in the cloud is as accessible as one sitting on your hard drive, no difference.
The trick, though, is that everything is stored temporarily on your hard drive. That's what streaming is. It's a different technology than broadcast, but we think of it in the same way, even as we pause "live" television.
I dunno. I'm not even sure why I think about these things, other than to document for my own amusement the fact that I am, actually, old as fuck.
But I'll probably watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. Or at least some of it.
And then I'll probably wander off, depending, knowing that if something spectacular happens, I'll just go to NFL.com and watch the game that way. By clicking on an icon, and skipping commercials, and maybe skipping everything that happens between plays and cutting the time down to 45 minutes. You can do that now. It's still football. I'm just not sure it's TV.
(ABOVE: William H. Macy explains all about Philo Farnsworth in "Sports Night")