Future Foretold

Buried a little too deep in The New Yorker‘s content mines for the site’s recent excavation, but available here, is John Seabrook’s legendary 1994 embed with MTV. From the office of the president of the network, Judy McGrath:

From the windows there is an amazing view of lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and northeastern New Jersey, but the dominant view in McGrath’s office is of the television set, and when you go there for a meeting you have to remember to sit so that you, McGrath, and the TV are in the proper relationship to each other. At one of our early meetings, I made the mistake of choosing a seat across from McGrath at the round glass table that she uses as a desk, which gave me the best possible eye contact with her but put the TV behind me. What happened was that McGrath made eye contact with the TV, and I looked over her shoulder and out the window at two of the four faces of the huge clock atop the old Paramount Building, right across Forty-fourth Street, which stopped years ago (one face says 4:35, and the other says 5:50), and which McGrath says serves her as a convenient symbol of her peculiar state of arrested development. During the meeting, I found my body turning almost instinctively away from McGrath and toward the TV, until by the end of our conversation we were deployed in a triangle familiar to anyone who has sat around watching MTV with friends.

Who would have guessed that this odd and stressful physical negotiation, between bodies and screens, would be a constant feature of waking existence just a few years later? Probably plenty of people, in horror books about space. Anyway:

MTV is visual radio; it’s something you just have on. This is a fairly easy environment for kids who grew up in the seventies and eighties to adapt to, since the television was on pretty much all day while they were growing up, and the Bradys, the Fonz, and Mr. Kotter were like people they hung out with. But MTV ambience is surprisingly disorienting to people who grew up in the fifties and sixties, maybe because when Dick Van Dyke and Ed Sullivan were on the tube you sat down to watch them as though you were sitting in the audience.

I think about the “MTV ambience,” mute music videos playing on some screen in the periphery, and it sounds relaxing. Ruined!