There is a large flat screen TV on the wall of the students’ lounge at OISE Cambridge, which generally shows BBC News 24 – news and sport and weather delivered on a loop. I tend to watch it for a few minutes when I get a coffee mid-morning, without really taking it in.
I don’t know that the students take it in much either – there are some sofas arrayed in front of it, and they sit in these, but as often as not they are looking at their tablets or smart phones, or just chatting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but I remember that when I first lived in Italy I shared an apartment with a Dutch engineer who worked for Ericsson, and he had a television which had to be kept in my room because that was where the aerial socket was. Every evening he would come in for an hour or two and watch it; sometimes I watched it too, sometimes I didn’t, but at the end of few months I could understand virtually everything I saw. The television had performed some sort of osmosis of understanding on me.
I still recommend the TV to my students, for that reason. To sit and listen with a lot of visual or cultural context and absorb real speech patterns seems to me one of the benefits of being in the country, and I know that many students do this in the evenings with their host families. But perhaps that sort of social or idle watching is fading away.
Joe Moran, who writes a blog about everyday life, remarked a couple of days ago that some of the people who watched the broadcast of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 would have been born in the 1860s (you can read his post here). He suggests that they took the advent of this miracle in their stride (no doubt in part because they had already lived through an age which saw the invention of powered flight, the telephone, electric light, and moving pictures). In the same way, I don’t remember ever being mesmerised by the Internet, which I encountered at about the same time as I was living with the Dutch Ericsson engineer – and come to think of it, it was he who sent my first email for me, from his place of work, to an American friend of mine.
I don’t know that the TV is out of date, exactly – Microsoft and Apple don’t seem to think so, and in many ways TV acts as a publisher of content, no matter how that content is then consumed. But it seems an increasingly lonely and ancient object, for all its flat screen and high definition, a grandfather of screens in a world of screens. Only a couple of weeks ago, when the now similarly ancient Queen visited the new BBC newsroom as the news was being read, and came up to the glass behind the newsreaders and peered out, it was as though she were caught in a strange memory of a televisual age, when these things mattered and everyone watched together; but now it was just me, in an empty room, hurriedly sipping a coffee and glancing at the aquarium as I walked past.