This Holiday Season, I’m Grateful for My Television

How I learned to stop complaining and love technology

If you’re this short sighted, you either need glasses or a much, much bigger screen. Photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

LLast weekend, I bought a new TV. A massive, room-dominating, relationship-damaging TV. It sits in the corner, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey turned to landscape mode, with me as one of the chimps, braying at it and chucking the remote into the air. At its narrowest, the TV is less than half an inch, with a bevel so small I can’t lift it without getting fingerprints on the screen. To me it is a wonder from the future. It runs apps, so many apps, it can stream from anything, and it has Apple TV built into it. It’s 4K and so sharp that all I want to do is watch screen savers of rippling water. When I turn it on, it responds immediately with a beautiful HBO-style wipe, and a musical tone signaling hope and excitement.

There’s a peculiar happiness that comes from buying a new TV. Mine isn’t even a top of the range model. In the shop, I walked past curved, 8K, 80-inch, OLED models all blasting out HDR lumens galore to the dingy back of the shop where they’d shoved the budget kitchen TVs. There was mine, tucked under a flickering halogen light with a “reduced to clear” sticker attached to the side.

The televisions I sold used to have a looping 90-second trailer for The Matrix Reloaded. I probably saw it 300 times per shift for a year. It’s the cultural artifact that I’m most acquainted with. Photo: Марьян Блан/Unsplash

Years ago, when I was at school, my holiday job was selling televisions. I haven’t had much to do with them since then, so my knowledge is 20 years out of date, but even still, this new TV just leaves me in awe. I thought smart TVs were clunky, sluggish, difficult things, with apps that couldn’t update. But this one has none of that. The menus are slick, responsive, and easy to use. The animations are stylish. It leaves me amazed that such a device could be considered “budget.”

After a few days of using it, while exploring its advanced features, I found myself on the manufacturer’s forum. The subject lines of the messages jumped out at me:

“Absolute garbage!!!”

“Worst TV I have ever bought!”

“How do they justify this tripe?!”

Are they talking about my same beautiful TV? Cover your screen, TV — you don’t need to see these slurs. I don’t understand how they can be talking about the same product. Are they suggesting that it’s unreliable, and after its initial promise, will start to fall apart? Perhaps these people received faulty models? But no, reading the descriptions, they are bemoaning features (or lack thereof) of the same TV that I treat like a religious object.

We seem to have become a very angry people. Furious at omissions or decisions different from those we would have made. Ready to jump to attack the smallest error or failure.

I spot people screaming blue murder at their $1,000 phones when the signal drops in a remote area. “I can’t hear you. My phone is a pile of junk!” they scream. A pile of junk? These devices have thousands of times more computing power than the computers that took us to the moon. They’re able to do a trillion calculations a second, programmed with billions of lines of software that took decades to write. They run apps for hours a day without issue. And in an instant, when the wireless connection drops due to rain in a transmitter down a road, we write the whole thing off as a piece of rubbish. “Worthless. Apple should be ashamed they ever thought this was fit to be sold!”

The world has become binary. Everything is either perfect or woefully inadequate.

Digging into some of those complaints about my TV, I find one user who documents its failings: it has a miserly three HDMI ports and, to their utter incredulity, doesn’t have a sleep timer. The buyer can’t begin to fathom what was going through the minds of the imbeciles who created such a monstrosity.

I’ve never actually used a sleep timer, but apparently you can set some TVs to play on a countdown, turning themselves off when they reach zero. “How the hell am I supposed to get to sleep now?!” UnhappyCustomer1758 writes. He will be so surprised when he (for it is surely a “he” who wrote this) finds out that humanity somehow managed to fall asleep years before the invention of television.

For some reason, we now regard problems as general rather than situational. When the exact feature I want is not available, the whole device becomes worthless, regardless of the dozens or hundreds of other features it has that I love. Perhaps it’s the politics of outrage. A world where we ignore reality and go with whatever emotion washes over us. The center of a weird Venn diagram of Donald Trump, Brexit, and TVs with only three HDMI ports.

I wonder if it’s a consumer electronics relative to the virtue signaling, public shaming of Twitter. Society bifurcated and is at the ready to launch an attack against anything not on our side. Perhaps there’s something innate in humans that forces us to pick sides: Republicans or Democrats, Apple or Google, the Patriots or… well, any other team.

And I wonder if all of this — Trump, Brexit, fake news, the TV not having a sleep timer — comes from a position of feeling powerless. Vast, powerful corporate entities decide whether or not we can fall asleep with the TV gently on in the background, the same way they decide to close a Honda factory and put everyone out of work. When someone is reacting with the level of anger I saw on that forum, you know it’s not actually about the number of HDMI ports.

“My TVs have the best HDMI ports, just the best and everyone knows it. They say, ‘Trump has the best HDMI ports.’” Photo: History in HD/Unsplash

Of course, it could also be that we’re just taking ourselves too seriously. A few years ago, I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, an almighty festival of tech and consumption, so big they bus you from one end to the other. Between the 150-inch televisions and 3D printers, serious journalists cross-examined company representatives. “Does this smart washing machine support open Bluetooth standards? It doesn’t? This is an outrage! The end of the free world!” It all felt so out of proportion, considering that these were luxury devices meant to bring us pleasure.

And yet I still feel the irritation bubbling up when a website is slow to load on my phone. “Worthless waste of space!” My expectations have been incrementally increased update after update. Each time an app or device is updated, the bar rises for everything else.

Gen X have massive TVs, Millennials use their laptops, Gen Z use their phones. I’m waiting for the next generation who only watch films on their smartwatches, Dick Tracy style. Photo: Charles 🇵🇭/Unsplash

I think that’s why this new TV has surprised me so much. I’ve been out of the TV game for nearly two decades. A life of working in a big city and living in tiny flats has left me, like seemingly all millennials, watching programs from Netflix on a laptop screen perched on my knees. I became accustomed to the sound from tinny laptop speakers (“Can’t these half-inch speakers produce any better sound than that?”) and the video of almost any film I want streamed immediately, on demand (“Awful quality! Barely full HD! How can I watch this junk?”). My expectations for screens were nowhere.

So when I turned on the TV, I was blown away. Not just by the quality and overall slickness of the device, (I’ve mentioned I like my new TV, right?) but by my own reaction. I can’t remember the last time I was just so happy about a piece of technology. And I was amazed by how nice that felt. I let myself ride this wave of uncritical happiness, rather than nitpicking areas that didn’t meet my specific preferences.

There are, of course, things that could be better about it. When I turned it on, it suggested I download an app, which I did. But then the app couldn’t connect to the TV. I couldn’t seem to be able to find a button to delete files from a USB drive. I’m sure with a bit of internet research I could find a thoroughly documented list of its failings. But why? The TV brings me delight. What will I gain by finding out and then resenting what it can’t do, when it meets all my actual needs so perfectly?

After this experience with the new TV, I’ve found myself looking at other devices and focusing on the details that bring me delight. My iPad Pro is a machine from the future. My computer is fast and reliable. I can’t remember the last time I saw the blue screen of death that once filled my waking hours in the 1990s. My Kindle is light, the battery lasts forever, and it stores about a gazillion books. (I’d look up how many but I’d only find a message board with someone furious that he can’t store his other trillion e-books on it.)

How on Earth am I supposed to read on this Kindle when it doesn’t smell like musty old paper?! Photo: Valentin Rechitean/Unsplash

As I think about this, a line from a poem I studied at university pops into my head: Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism from 1709. (“Piece of Horatian junk! Barely contains any memorable lines other than ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’”)

Pope at one point says: A perfect judge will read each work of wit/With the same spirit that its author writ.

And I wonder to myself: 1) Is this the first time someone has used 18th century poetry to talk about attitudes toward consumer electronics; and 2) perhaps this says something about why my TV made me so happy. I feel like I’m experiencing it as it intends to be, not bringing to bear a series of personal preferences and grudges.

With the move to USB-C, I’m almost feeling nostalgic about the days when it took at least three tries to plug in a USB cable. Photo: Sara Kurfeß/Unsplash

I remember being irritated that my iPad couldn’t do what my laptop could. But it’s a different device with a different purpose. I complained that I couldn’t plug my USB drive into it (a clear failure to judge it in the spirit that Jony Ive writ). But then I made peace with that. A year later, iPadOS 13 came out, and now my iPad supports USB drives. However, it turns out that being able to plug a drive into it is nice, but doing so hasn’t changed my life. All that irritation for a feature I use only occasionally.

This isn’t to say that technology and apps aren’t buggy and broken. Or that any of these complaints aren’t legitimate cases where products have failed to live up to the correct standards. But the anger and irritation becomes disproportionate to the issue. If problems with technology become too great to deal with, we live in such a time of plenty that it’s easy to switch to an alternative. Now that I’ve realized it’s okay to enjoy my tech without it having to be perfect in every way, it feels like a load has been lifted. And I’m just getting so much more out of it.

On the TV forum, an official support account has written back to UnhappyCustomer1758. “I’m sorry to hear you’re having issues with your purchase. Your satisfaction is very important to us,” it says, and offers an email address to contact for further support or to arrange a refund. At the end of the message it adds. “To activate the sleep timer function on the television, go to settings, advanced, and select power settings.”

UnhappyCustomer1758 has not replied.

Media techie, developer, product manager, software person and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk

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