“Requiem for the CRT” (SCMS 2011 presentation)

At SCMS 2011, I participated in a panel titled “Digital Television, Analog Memories” along with Karen Lury and Amy Holdsworth, both of the University of Glasgow. The panel explored themes of memory, materiality, and everydayness in relation to the digitalization of television. Amy kicked off the panel with a presentation titled “Nostalgic Frames: Televising and Teaching Television History and Memory.” Drawing on research for her forthcoming Palgrave book Television, Memory, and Nostalgia, Amy raised a number of provocative questions about the political economy of nostalgia programming (e.g. BBC4’s TV on Trial and Channel 5’s Greatest TV Comedy Moments) before concluding with some observations about the pedagogical challenges television’s current “memory boom” presents. Karen closed the session with her paper “‘Close’ Viewing: Stories of Technology in the Move from Analog to Digital Media,” a refreshingly original presentation that many attendees (including this one) agreed was one of the most exciting of the entire conference. Karen went door to door in her Glasgow close (the Scottish term for tenement-style apartments) photographing her neighbors’ media set-ups and interviewing them about their families’ media habits. The result was an engrossing story that was as much about neighborliness as it was about technology. Lury’s tour through her neighbors’ flats invited the audience to recall the ethnographic studies that had defined television studies during its formative years, and to consider how these familiar research methods might complement or complicate more recent industry-focused scholarship on digitalization and convergence.

In between these stellar papers I presented some new work on the changing cultural meanings of the cathode ray tube (CRT) television. The paper follows below, a .pdf version is available here. This is still a work in progress, and I would very much appreciate any feedback anyone felt like offering. And since this is an unfinished work, I ask that you please contact me directly before citing it.


Requiem for the CRT: Television, Obsolescence, and the Material of Memory

The cathode ray tube, or CRT, has been television’s dominant display technology since the medium’s experimental period. It is tube technology that is responsible for giving the television set its commanding presence, as well as one of its least flattering nicknames. Recently, however, the CRT’s market position and special, synecdochal relationship to television have both come under fire. Flat-panel liquid crystal (LCD) and plasma displays have steadily gained market share since their introduction in the 1990s, and in 2007 worldwide shipments of flat-panels surpassed those of CRT sets for the first time (Rosenwald, 2009). As CRT sales have declined, so, too, has the technology’s image taken a hit. In newspapers, at interior design blogs, and on basic cable home improvement shows technofashionistas declared the CRT passé, or, as one website put it, “as unfashionable as mint-coloured trousers” (Digital Home, n.d.). London’s Evening Standard claimed the CRT’s demise as a victory not only for technological progress, but also for good taste, announcing in 2007 that “the era when the ugly black boxes dominated the home – dictating the lay-out of the three-piece suite and even the décor – has come to an end” (Poulter, 2006). Even less style-conscious publications agreed that the CRT’s mass was at odds with contemporary design trends. “Excessive weight and bulk seem to have doomed the 76-year old cathode-ray tube to obsolescence,” wrote Popular Science in 2005 (Kirschner, 2005).

The CRT’s classification as an obsolete technology represents the culmination of a decades-long campaign by consumer electronics manufacturers, computer companies, and retailers to alter the ways that people consume, interact with, and think about screen media. This paper explores the production of the CRT’s obsolescence, highlighting the means by which these stakeholders and their partners in the press went about transforming the CRT from a useful artifact into a shameful eyesore. I am especially interested in how memories about the material properties of CRT television sets have factored in these processes. For while many commentators have eagerly bid good riddance to “the ugly black box,” the CRT’s obsolescence has nevertheless been accompanied by a surge of nostalgia for its materiality. In what follows, I consider some of the ways that this nostalgia has been expressed and mobilized. I conclude with a few thoughts on the importance of studying obsolete analog television technologies at a time when digital devices monopolize the attention of viewers and scholars.

Before I begin, two qualifications are in order. First, I understand obsolescence to be a “fundamentally taxonomic process.” To paraphrase Jonathan Sterne (2007), obsolescence is a “socially imposed category” that an artifact may fall under over the course of its “social life” (pp. 22-4). The doubly social nature of obsolescence means that a technology that in one setting falls under one category “obsolete” may in another fall under another the category of “useful.” In many portions of the world, and in many communities within the U.S., the CRT has maintained its identity as a useful technology. In some instances, these discrepancies in the categorization of the CRT may map onto discrepancies in the social positionality of different groups of users. As Evan Watkins (1993) notes, people who have themselves been categorized as obsolete may by the nature of their subordinate position within social hierarchies be able to recognize the use value of artifacts that members of dominant populations deem useless (p. 25). In the case of the CRT, however, it is not only the economically-disadvantaged or socially-marginal that continue to find uses for old television sets. Many people have continued using CRTs by choice, as opposed to by necessity. The CRT’s small yet committed group of devotees include broadcast engineers and video editors (who rely on the CRT’s color accuracy in their professions), high-end home theater enthusiasts (who tout the CRT’s unparalleled contrast ratios), and online gamers (who demand the fastest response times and refresh rates).[1] While perhaps outside of the technological mainstream, none of these populations occupy marginal social positions. They are made up of people who can and do pay top-dollar for devices that others might throw away. If these CRT devotees are in any way “obsolete,” it is because they are out of sync with the consumer electronics industry’s accelerating hardware replacement cycles.[2]

Second, while this paper focuses on the CRT’s changing status and meanings in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the consequences of its obsolescence are felt worldwide. Escalating demand for LCD displays in the U.S. results in the elimination of jobs at CRT factories in East Anglia, Wales, Barcelona, and France. CRT sets discarded to make way for these new LCDs are exported to African, Chinese, or Indian recycling centers for processing of their toxic contents. Though my focus in this paper is on memory, concerns about the global consequences of obsolescence inspire and inform this project. In fact, I want to argue that our memories are complicit in these injustices, and that nostalgia is a disappearing act that clears the way for us to ignore the catastrophic consequences of planned obsolescence.

The CRT’s own passage between the categories of “useful” and “obsolete” was set in motion by the global consumer electronics industry, which since the late 1980s has invested billions of dollars in the development, production, and marketing of flat-panel display technologies. It received a considerable push when regulators in the United States and United Kingdom established timetables for converting to digital broadcasting standards that required many consumers to invest in new reception hardware. Still, its most important source of momentum has been popular culture. For much of the last decade the popular presses of North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia and high-traffic technology blogs such as Engadget, CNet, and Gizmodo have participated in the “symbolic transformation” of the cultural meanings of the CRT (Sterne, 2007, p. 26). They have done so through the production, circulation, and recapitulation of narratives of the CRT’s decline. These narratives work in concert with the glossy and glamorous images that preponderate in advertisements for new flat panel displays.[3] While the latter have aligned LCDs and plasmas with television’s digital future, the former cast the CRT as a moribund relic of a regrettable analog past.

Drawing once again on Watkins, I term these narratives “obsolescence stories.” Obsolescence stories, writes Watkins, are “survival narratives that equate the obsolete with the fading past, the residual, the nostalgic” (1993, p. 40). Though Watkins employs this term within the context of a discussion of social positionality to refer to the “educational narratives” that rationalize the designation of certain populations as obsolete (p. 7), I contend it is equally applicable to the stories we tell ourselves about the obsolescence of artifacts. In each of these contexts, obsolescence stories are misleading, both about the temporality of obsolescence and about their own part in its production. For, as Watkins notes, “obsolescence involves conditions of both cultural and economic production in the present, not what has survived, uselessly, from the past, as obsolescence stories would have it” (p. 7). Thus while obsolescence stories are often stories about the stubborn persistence of people, practices, or artifacts that belong to and in the past, they in fact report on and participate in the symbolic transformation of people, practices, and artifacts into useless relics in the present.

In the case of the CRT, this symbolic transformation was affected largely through a relentless foregrounding of the tube’s materiality. For close to a decade mentions of CRT technologies in holiday buyers’ guides, home decorating features, tech blog posts, and business section articles have been accompanied by unflattering references to their “bulkiness,” “boxiness,” “heft,” “clunkiness,” “weightiness,” or “unwieldiness.” If these adjectives evoke contemporary Western body-image standards, it is not by mistake. Quite the contrary, it has become commonplace to explain the CRT’s obsolescence in terms of the stigma of obesity. “There’s no sucking in those bulky cathode ray tubes,” explained the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “It just can’t help being heavy-set. Wide in the backside. Chunky. It dresses almost exclusively in slimming black” (Eskin, 2004). Much as when these adjectives are used to describe people, obsolescence stories encourage their audiences to regard the CRTs in their living rooms as abject and shameful. “Cathode-Ray Tube televisions? Keep them in the spare room where your friends won’t laugh at them,” advised the Sydney Morning Herald (Tsang, 2004). “In 10 years,” a technology consultant told Time in 2004, “it’ll be embarrassing to have a regular, old-fashioned TV set” (Schuman, 2004).

As is the case in the Popular Science article quoted in this paper’s introduction, mass is often conflated with age and death in these “educational narratives.” Whereas flat-panel displays’ slim profiles earn them frequent comparisons to Star Trek, The Jetsons, and other science fiction texts, the CRT is a “dinosaur” headed for certain “extinction” (Ames, 2006; Wong, 2006). Even the Federal Communications Commission employed this metaphor in one of the many misleading public service announcements it issued prior to the United States digital television conversion, warning Americans to not “let your TV become extinct.” Throughout the 2000s, tech blogs routinely ran headlines announcing that manufacturers had “pulled the plug” or “sounded the death knell” on the CRT. Some commentators expressed astonishment that the CRT had held on so long. According to others, it was already dead (Hansen, 2006; Ogg, 2007, Toto, 2009).

Many of these death notices exhibit no regrets over the CRT’s demise. Some, however, are suffused with a sense of loss. One urged “a moment of silence in memory of the cathode-ray tube, which has served us so well since its invention 110 years ago” (Kramer, 2007). “Rest In Peace,” began another CRT obituary. “After a long decline, beloved brainchild of Karl Ferdinand Braun, physicist of Strasbourg, the cathode ray tube, aged 107” (Johnstone, 2004, p. 1). In some instances, the authors of these requiems for the CRT took the technology’s obsolescence as an occasion to share warm memories of its materiality. “As children of the cathode ray, we can’t but help mourn the imminent passing of analog’s touchy-feely, possibly life-threatening, presence in our homes,” one boomer-aged reporter explained. The article went on to recall sick days spent in front of the healing glow of the CRT, the jolt of static electricity the author often felt in his fingertips upon turning on his family’s old Motorola, and “the interactive, organic spectacle of an analog signal taking hold” (Craft, 2009, D1).

Other writers likewise oscillated between tongue-in-cheek humor and unvarnished sentimentality in describing their feelings about the CRT’s obsolescence. In his monthly column in the magazine Home Theater, comedian and writer Michael J. Nelson (2009) likened replacing his “beloved” CRT to putting down a family pet. Amongst his most cherished memories of the CRT he would soon discard were recollections of the times he cracked open its casing to tinker with mechanisms hidden inside. These were sensuous memories of experiences that brought Nelson’s body and his set into communion. He thus describes contorting his body as he lovingly cleaned the delicate lenses and mirrors that produced the images of which he was so proud, along with some far less pleasant memories about the ordeal of moving house with a 215-pound set.

Expressions of boomer nostalgia for television’s analog past have in no way been confined to the written word. Similar sentiments suffuse exhibitions of antique television receivers staged by the MZTV Museum of Television in Montreal and the National Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire (Holdsworth, forthcoming). We catch glimpses of it on television as well, in the Dharma initiative’s bunkers (Lost), the Draper’s living room (Mad Men), and in the depths of Sam Tyler’s subconscious (Life on Mars). To be sure, these are all deeply ambivalent memories, yet they nonetheless perform similar operations as the obsolescence stories quoted above. They relegate the CRT to a past when philandering ad executives chain-smoked their way through five martini lunches, when sideburned cops worked over perps without fear of recrimination, and when utopians travelled to mysterious islands to conduct experiments they hoped would forestall the end of the world. In others words, these nostalgic texts relegate the CRT to pasts no less fictional than the one recalled by the CRT’s boomer eulogizers. By re-placing CRTs in the past, these nostalgic texts render its presence in the present as anachronistic as the decrepit analog technologies left behind to rot in the Dharma initiative’s secret bunkers. On television, the CRT is a symbol of pastness. It is an artifact that is out of time, both in the sense that it has reached the end of its “natural life” and that it had somehow come unstuck from its “natural” place in chronological time.

The nostalgia that characterizes the appearance of CRTs in obsolescence stories, museum exhibitions, and television dramas stands in stark contrast to the attitudes many consumers display toward obsolete CRT technologies in their own media productions. YouTube is host to scores of videos documenting what happens when CRTs are kicked, bashed, shot, or defenestrated. Flickr groups with titles like “deadtvs,” “destroy TV,” and “smashed televisions” pool postmortem snapshots of CRTs. CRT snuff is not a new phenomenon, but rather belongs to a much more extensive history of violence against television sets that includes Wolf Vostell’s installation pieces, the video collective Ant Farm’s Media Burn, and Elvis Presley’s rumored penchant for shooting his television every time Robert Goulet appeared on it.[4] Still, these videos and photos voice in their own clumsy, inarticulate, and yet urge way a question that many of us likely share: what is to be done with obsolete CRTs?

In 2007, Americans alone replaced 27 million cathode-ray tube television sets (Rosenwald, 2009). In the past, a good number of these would have embarked on lengthy afterlives during which they might have circulated within households, families, or communities. In the age of the CRT’s obsolescence, however, established patterns of recirculation are being redrawn. Newspaper reports suggest that it has become almost impossible to give away, let alone sell, used CRTs in many parts of the United States (Rosenwald, 2009). Charitable organizations like Goodwill have been deluged with donations of unwanted sets, forcing some to institute strict no-CRT policies at their local drop-off points. In some communities, waste disposal facilities no longer accept CRT televisions and computer monitors. While privately-run recycling programs pick up some of the slack, they often have strict and confusing guidelines. In the absence of clear information about how to properly dispose of CRTs, many people hold on to their sets, warehousing them in attics or basements. Yet an unfortunately large number of people abandon their sets in alleyways, parking lots, and other public spaces, from where many head to landfills.

Both in the street and on the web, destroyed and discarded television sets present compelling counterarguments to the CRT’s obsolescence stories. They are refuse that refuses to be confined within the past. They spoil television’s narratives of technological progress by prematurely revealing the “surprise” twist of their finales. The CRT in the attic or in the back alley is an augur of the flat-panel display that will someday occupy those same spaces, much in the same way as the YouTube video of frenzied frat boys smashing their CRT is a trailer for the video that members of the class of 2018 will record when they replace the house’s fifty-five inch LCD with a seventy-two inch 3D set. But as much as television’s detritus gestures toward the future, it also forcefully directs our attention back to the present. As Amy Holdsworth (forthcoming) suggests, encounters with displaced “relics of our television lives” provoke “accidental and unexpected memories.” Unlike the tidy nostalgia of the CRT’s obsolescence stories, these memories are unruly; they “‘[erupt] into the present with evidence of old habits and dead routines.'” To paraphrase Watkins (1993), television trash and trashed televisions are dangerous, and not simply because they contain cadmium, lead, and arsenic. They are dangerous because the unavoidable and unmistakable presence of unwanted CRTs in our homes, streets, and landfills deforms the “natural” temporalities of progress, allowing the past to intrude in the present and future.

If, as I’m arguing, our memories are complicit in creating the CRT’s obsolescence, so, too can a lack of memory be problematic. I’m referring here specifically to the sort of historical amnesia that characterizes many contemporary discussions of television and technological change. Amongst the many things that we seem to forgot in our headlong rush into television’s digital future is that backward compatibility was a cornerstone of television policy in the U.S., U.K., and Australia between the 1940s and 2000s. In the past, consumers held on to their television sets for longer than they did almost any other consumer good, in part because even the oldest of sets remained compatible with current broadcasting standards. Even when sets fell out of fashion, they still worked. The conversion to digital broadcasting, or DTV, formally brought this extended period of guaranteed backward compatibility to a close. DTV did not obsolete analog television; with the appropriate accessories all television receivers are capable of tuning in digital signals. However, it established a worrisome precedent. In effect, digital television renders compatibility obsolete. In a future that is bound to see the eruption of countless format wars, compatibility will be a problem for consumers, as opposed to regulators, to sort out. We can thus look forward to more e-waste, more economic volatility, and the widening of digital television divides. Memory – or history, more accurately – can remind us that this need not be the case. If we must be nostalgic about the passing of the CRT, let us as least be nostalgic for the days when television sets were not considered disposable.

Notes

[1] Retrogamers constitute another group that has defied the CRT’s obsolescence. Aficionados of “vintage” game platforms such as the Atari 2600 maintain that flat-panel displays are unsuitable for playing games designed with the properties of CRTs in mind. As CRTs are not always available, some retrogamers have collaborated on the creation of software the emulates their properties on flat panel displays. For instance, a group at Georgia Tech University has modified the popular Atari 2600 emulator Stella to replicate the texture, afterimage, color bleed, and noise of “an ordinary television of the late 1970s.” For more on this project, and on the importance of CRT for retrogamers, see Bogost (n.d.).

[2] Further complicating the homology between social position and technological obsolescence, in some contexts the CRT’s devotees claim their continued commitment to CRT technology as a marker of social distinction. On videophile message boards, for instance, forum participants excoriate style-conscious consumers “naïve” enough to be “duped” by manufacturers’ spurious claims about flat-panel displays. In some instances, gender comes to factor prominently in these discussions, as when male videophiles complain about a wife’s or girlfriend’s request to replace a CRT with a flat-panel display. Far more frequently, gender is the subtext of these highly technical conversations about refresh rates, delay, color depth, and contrast ratios. The videophile’s defiant investment in an obsolete technology becomes yet another means of asserting the superiority of his power of discrimination, particularly compared to that of the woman with whom he shares his home. Certainly, the ability to salvage the use value of an obsolete device, and the social resources necessary to transform that use value into subcultural capital, are not enjoyed by all. At least in this case, the recuperation of the obsolete CRT appears to be a means by which those who enjoy this privilege rationalize inequities of which they themselves are beneficiaries. For more on obsolescence and cultural capital, see Henning (2007) and Davis (2007).

[3] The promotion of flat-panel displays are discussed by Spigel (2008) and Newman and Levine (forthcoming).

[4] For more on viewer-on-TV violence, see Sconce (2004, pp. 2-4).

Sources

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Wong, M. (2006, 22 October). Flat Panels Drive Old TVs From Market. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/gear/2006-10-22-crt-demise_x.htm

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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