Thursday, June 01, 2006

Obituary: Pem Farnsworth, 1908-2006

Muchos gracias to Socar Myles for use of her photo, The Suck.

This blog entry is long overdue. Several weeks ago, on April 27, the world lost a cultural pioneer. Odds are that you've never heard of her, nor seen her photograph, but Emma "Pem" Farnsworth was a key figure in the shaping of modern world culture.

You see, she and her brother Cliff Gardner were the first human images ever transmitted over television. On October 19, 1929, in a small upstairs "studio" at the corner of Green and Sansome in San Francisco, her husband Philo Farnsworth sent an image of Pem and Cliff to a 3.5" screen in the next room. And with that, the greatest modern influence next to the computer was born.

Despite revolutionizing the way people spend their leisure time, Philo Farnsworth never received much recognition for his invention. After his death in 1971, Pem made that her mission, writing an autobiography called "Distant Vision" and doing interviews to give her husband the credit he deserved.

Pem was 98 at the time of her death.

One has to wonder how she and Philo privately felt about how TV has evolved over its 76-year lifespan. Would they look upon today's spate of public-humiliation "reality" shows with a touch of horror, or feel disgust over the way their invention converted politics into a soundbite-driven publicity mill? Even early on, when the broadcast window was limited to one hour a day, television was about entertainment, not information. One of the earliest BBC broadcasts was a dance routine by the swimsuit-clad Paramount Astoria Girls. From there, we went to Milton Berle in drag, "I Love Lucy", "The Love Boat", "Dallas", "Knight Rider", "USA Up All Night", "Baywatch", (skipping a few years) "Survivor", "America's Next Top Model", "American Idol", "Desperate Housewives", until, finally, we arrived at the bottom of the entertainment gulch: "CSI: Miami". (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that as a youth I watched many of those shows religiously. I still hum the "A-Team" theme unconsciously.)

Mind you, not all was dreck and bilge water. We had some excellent journalism until Edward R. Murrow smoked too many cigarettes and Walter Cronkite wore out his sweaters. CNN gave us the ability to breathlessly watch no new developments at all--live!--24 hours a day from around the globe. "M*A*S*H" made people think as well as laugh. Um...I'm sure there were others that did not rely on bribing viewers with a glimpse of bare bum, but they escape me at the moment.

The point is that televion has done good things, but those moments are heavily outweighed by the hours of brain-sucking vacuum TV.

Does the consumer even shape the landscape of its viewing habits anymore, or have we become slaves to the electron gun, obediently watching whatever is put before us? How many times have you sat on the sofa flipping channels and complained to your mate (or pet), "There's nothing on," yet continued to flip channels anyway, finally settling on the least boring program you can find? Could this possibly be the future Philo and Pem envisioned, where instead of more enlightened beings expanding the horizons of our experience we are zombies stripped of the will to turn off the set?

In other words, are we the consumers, or the consumed?

The great irony of Pem Farnsworth's death--her last great joke upon the planet--was that she died during TV Turn-off Week.


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