Reality Bytes: I Am Audio Legend

I trudged through booth after booth, aisle after aisle, mile after mile, becoming increasingly depressed. The Consumer Electronics Show - held mainly in vast, warehouse-size buildings - was like an inventory manager's nightmare. Some idiot had leaned on the "TV" button and unwittingly ordered up a zillion screens. I felt like Gulliver dwarfed by huge smiling electronic faces, like George Orwell's Winston Smith under surveillance by Big Brother. Amid all that video, I felt like the last audio man on earth. The Omega Ken.

Sure, CES is a happy place, and the oversize, vibrant screens are a perfect match for the Las Vegas Strip itself, where entire buildings have been turned into video billboards. When TVs were small boxes, overshadowed by towering speakers, I could look the other way. But now, visually, TVs no longer speak to me. They SHOUT. Consider your own home. There's a good chance that your wall screen is bigger than any of your windows. When windows looking into artificial reality eclipse the ones looking out to actual reality, that isn't good.

Civilized people chuckle when they hear of a primitive tribesman's belief that when you take his picture, you take away his soul. Well, you can chuckle at me, too, because it's my firm opinion that watching TV sucks away your soul. Every minute spent in front of the boob tube saps your strength a little more, and takes away a minute you could have spent listening to music.

Music is emotional, active, liberating, visceral, enlightening. Music weeds out the weaklings and exposes the truth. Nobody mistakes Britney Spears for Robert Plant, even though they both call themselves singers. Good musicians are real; all actors are pretending. I like drummers and guitarists; I don't like film stars or screen idols.

Video is passive propaganda. It attempts to persuade you intellectually, to bring you around to its point of view. In Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, it isn't the music of Beethoven's Ninth that brainwashes Alex; it's the images burned into his forcibly opened eyes. If you want to instruct, train, or program someone - if you want to pacify him, if you want to shut him up - you show him a video. If you want to inspire someone - if you want him to stand up and dance, if you want him to sing - you play music.

Music also has power; it provokes a response. When the Army wanted to evict machete-swinging Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from the Apostolic Nunciature, it set up speakers, turned up the amps to 11, and assaulted him with Van Halen. He ultimately fled.

Ask yourself if you'd rather go to a film festival or a music festival. Film festivals are about distribution rights, box-office grosses, wine and cheese. Music festivals are about music - and about achieving nirvana and making love, preferably all at the same time.

Video is conformist; music is insurgent. Consider: Your apartment neighbor mounts a big TV on the common wall and watches it all night with the brightness cranked all the way up. Your other neighbor listens to music all night with the volume cranked all the way up. Which one would you call the police on? When you ride the train, video is fine, but music through speakers is banned. If you disobey and release music into the air, you can be arrested. Video is silent; music spells trouble. That's why I urge you to listen to more music - preferably through speakers, and preferably in public. That's because your music will rouse and possibly upset other people. That's a good thing.

CES and its microcosms (such as any Big Box store) are all about roomy, wall-mounted screens. Audio is persona non grata. Amid the space-cadet glow of all those diodes, mirrors, and plasma, audio is receding like a ship's smoke on the horizon. We say, "I didn't mean to let the TVs take away my soul." But pixel by pixel, that's what they're doing.

Well, I've said my piece. I'll be quiet now. You can direct your attention back to the colorful images on your wall. We now return you to your originally scheduled programming.

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