Today as I was walking through Best Buy, one of the biggest televisions in the store caught my eye. It was a Samsung LED television that boasted a 65 inch display, vibrant color definition, and an image quality that made the video of New York City that was displayed on the screen look as real as if I were actually in New York. But what really caught my eye—in fact, the only reason I even bothered stopping—was the fact that the television was curved.
A salesman approached me and started listing off the details of the television (as if a college student could possibly afford the $3,000 price tag), and I listened even though I wasn’t really interested in making a purchase. I just wanted to look at the pretty picture of New York for a few seconds before continuing on my way.
As I was brainstorming ways to make a quick escape from the salesman, he said something that caught my attention: “Really,” he said, “this is the best image quality out there. In
fact, with the color enhancing technology in this device, it gives you a picture that is better than real life.”
If there was any phrase that was going to convince me not to buy that television, it was that one. And worse yet, as I studied the image on the screen, which had switched to a colorful view of Prague, I was tempted to agree with the salesman. The reds were brighter, the blues richer. The definition made every window in the city visible in a way that the human brain could never process even as the eye saw it, and the cars on the street took on a spectacular, lively potential as they sped through the city and wove between buildings.
Suddenly, in the middle of Best Buy, I was having an existential crisis hinging on the existence of a television that makes a picture that is better than real life. If I could purchase a television like that, there would be no point in traveling or even in leaving my house, right? I would be able to sit on my couch and display an image of the Great Barrier Reef, and I wouldn’t have to get a SCUBA certification or be worried about all the animals that would probably be trying to kill me as I swam around the Australian waters. I could display the summit of Mount Everest without having to fly across the world and actually climb it. Worst of all, I could play a sitcom on the screen and stay in my house pretending that I had actual friends. After all, the picture is better than real life, right? Why even bother with real life if I can get a better picture on a screen?
Spelled out this way, it’s obvious that there are flaws in this sort of reasoning. Despite the fact that people are making televisions with displays that are better than real life, I’m sure we can all agree that there is an important distinction between real life and what technology suggests real life might be. Anyone on Instagram knows that social media would be dull and pointless without filters, owns that the whole network is an exercise in posturing as more interesting than you really are. In fact, the more you look at any sort of technology, the more it feels like technology reduces real life into a series of images.
In 1928, René Magritte painted a work called “The Treachery of Images” (French: “La trahison des images”) in which he painted a pipe and captioned it “Ceci n’est une pipe.”: “This is not a pipe.” Perhaps for the next few years, people will remember that televisions and Facebook and the internet are not real life, and perhaps for the next few years, people will maintain their interest in real-world living. But it is not hard to imagine a world in which people stop thinking this way; as Chuck Klosterman says in his book “Eating the Dinosaur,” “We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world…the benefits of technology are easy to point out…but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence.”
Technology raises important questions of authenticity and truth. A television can display New York City in a beautiful and artistic (read: color enhanced) way, but what is shown on the screen cannot convey the energy of a hundred thousand people walking shoulder to shoulder down Fifth Avenue. It cannot convey the human spirit of New York City.
Maybe the Best Buy salesman was right: a curved television can produce an image that is better than real life. But I do not want my life to become a series of images on a color-enhanced LED display, curved or not. I want to walk down Fifth Avenue. I want to touch the shoulders of the people I pass. I want to make contact with humanity.