Flat Screen Illusion

As TVs get thinner, the dance between 2 and 3 dimensions gets more intriguing.

I was talking to a friend the other day who said that his wife was utterly indifferent to the allure of technology and the latest electronic gadgetry. “Except for one thing,” he said. “She is absolutely, totally smitten by those flat-panel televisions. She doesn’t care about anything else. But this she craves. We can go into a store and she stares wide-eyed at these things.”

I understand this because I am the same way. I pride myself on not being one of those people who is to Alessi what some people are to Prada: a design victim. I do not buy objects simply because they have a pedigree, and I take a certain pride in sometimes preferring ordinary mass-market merchandise over products that scream “design.” I do not want my house to be full of the right things. And I rarely care about being the first to acquire the hottest form of technology. I still don’t have a Palm Pilot.

So why is it that I have a Sharp liquid-crystal television? It has nothing whatsoever to do with technology, or even with television. It is that flat panel. I look at it like I have looked at no object since—well, no object since the last flat-panel screen I acquired, which is my black computer monitor. But this new one is even better: it is silver, with those perforated metallic sections on the side containing the speakers, and sits on this nifty little stand that looks like something designed by John Lautner.

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Actually the base has a swoop to it, reminiscent of a 1950s coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard. It is probably too generous to credit Sharp’s designers with intentional irony in marrying a whiff of retro to the ultimate piece of sleek technology, but this object puts me in a good mood, so I will. For the right price, I would have taken one of these TVs home even if it didn’t work. I am happy to look at this television turned off. In fact I do. I stare at it with the same sense of amazement that my grandfather looked at the vast wooden DuMont that sat in his living room, astonished that it exists in my universe.

Flat-panel screens have a kind of magical aura. Even though you knew there was nothing except a picture tube and wires in that bulky mass behind a conventional television, there was still something inherently logical about having a three-dimensional mass to back up a three-dimensional image on the screen. TV is somewhat mysterious anyway. It was an accepted understanding that the big box contained all the weird gizmos that made it possible—like the unseen stuff inside the magician’s cabinet that sits underneath the woman he saws in half. But a flat-panel screen just appears. It is the woman not only being sawed in half but floating simultaneously in midair. The flat panel is the illusion of depth with nothing to support it—a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface floating in three-dimensional space. When you ponder the metaphysics of it, it’s a much more interesting Chinese box than a regular television. And it isn’t being projected from the front or back, above or below. The image just dances on the screen as if it created itself. And what a wonderful image it is—crisp and intensely colored (as long as you don’t look at it from an angle).

The other thing I like about the flat-panel television is that it bears out the axiom that progress makes things lighter. Everything weighs less now—telephones, cars, refrigerators, winter coats—largely because technology has brought us new kinds of materials that are lighter and stronger. But the flat-panel television goes beyond these other objects because it is a fundamentally different kind of thing. Every other television set I have now feels clunky and heavy, like a relic, because it occupies so much more space than it has to. This reminds me of the way in which calculators the size of credit cards have replaced big machines with mechanical innards and flat-panel computer monitors have succeeded old CRT monitors. The work space on my desk expanded by nearly two square feet when I replaced my old monitor with a flat screen. Now I have all this new space around my kitchen counter. The flat panel hovers like a butterfly where the old white plastic Sony seemed plunked down.

Let me end with a confession: I don’t really have any more usable space on my kitchen counter. I actually have less because I felt compelled to move the cable box from its old position underneath the television to a new one several inches away. The new flat-panel television could sit on top of it the way the old one did, but it would look so, well, undignified perched up there. This television, after all, is a serious object, as is even its cute stand. You can’t put something with lines like that on top of a cable box—it’s like putting a piece of sculpture on top of the refrigerator. In fact you can’t put this television anywhere near the cable box. You must sustain the illusion that this perfect object exists in pure space. I have to admire this TV because it has done what no object I’ve owned in years has done, which is to turn me into a design victim, big time.

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