The Television

Merle clicked off the TV and tossed the remote to the end of the sofa. Around him, the gloom suddenly gathered, no longer kept at bay by the flickering lights of what passed for early evening entertainment. His new TV sat proudly in the corner of the room; it’s big black eye framing his reflection. He’d picked it up cheap at the auction in the flat above that had been held following the sudden death of the woman upstairs – who would have thought that she’d have had such a modern piece of kit. 3D and everything, it would have cost him a semester’s stipend if he had bought it new. The bargain brought its own temptations; the essays from his most recent batch of students sat unread on the table in the corner. Merle sighed. Given a choice, he’d have been focusing on his own research, looking forwards. However the University were insistent, all tenured professors were required to teach at least one course each academic year – and so Professor Lyon had carefully cultivated a cantankerous, exacting reputation that limited his class sizes to the bare minimum of students.

Merle shuffled through the papers. “The impact of the Television as a Disruptive Influence on 20th Century Politics”. “The Potential Use of Media as a Tool of Propaganda in Democratic Countries”. Merle sighed again, before briefly stopping over the next paper. “The Cross-Fertilisation between the Science Fiction works of Philip K. Dick, 20th Century History and ongoing Technological Development”. The paper was by Niamh, a quiet student in most of the seminars, whose reticence Merle had initially put down to being out of her depth. Maybe he’d misjudged her though – maybe she was just as bored as he was with the inane belly-gazing of the other students. Merle put the paper to the bottom of the pile – even if it was to be a disappointment, at least he’d have the pleasure of looking forward to it whilst marking the others.

Merle was Professor of Future Studies at a red brick university in the south-west of the country. He spent most of days thinking about the shape of the world from the short term, merely centuries in the future, and the longer millennia that the planet had left. The timescales on which most of his colleagues and students thought were deeply irritating to him. As he had irritably explained to the latest journalist phoning him up for a take on Elon Musk’s latest announcement, to think in terms of a decade, much less a year, introduced far too much uncertainty. Over the course of a century the vagaries of chance would smooth out the noise inherent in the fractal details and the overall picture would appear. “Does that mean that we’ll definitely have passed the singularity in a 100 years time?” the journalist had eagerly asked before Merle hung up.

All of which is not to say that the here and now, or even the past, disinterested him. Indeed, where he saw great certainty in the grand themes that defined the epochs, the individual variation of the immediate past fascinated him, his attention drawn by the eddys and whirls within the current of the river that flows inexorably towards the ocean. The sheer unexpected variety of it drew him in; he’d spent the evening flicking between various current affairs programs marvelling at the short sightedness of the commentators who believed that any individual event was sufficiently powerful to change the long term course of human history. As a young PhD student he’d been focused on his dissertation, linking the evolution of humankind to Lovelock’s Gaia theory, entropy and the inexorable march of the world towards its conclusion. It was as an eminent greying professor that he’d started to take an interest in the politics and petty squabbles of the present day, dabbling in his own way with public opinion and government policy.

Still, the general myopia of the population remained a source of frustration. So many were only able to look backwards, assuming that the future would be a reflection of their own immediate past. They could only see within the confines of the dim recesses of their own little pond, the occasional shafts of sunlight that pierced the murky depths only serving to send them scuttling back into parochial retreat. A decade ago, he had made a concerted educational effort around climate change, attempting to highlight the dangers of an accelerating and uncontrolled volatility of temperatures on the narrow habitat zone in which humanity had flourished. We need to radically change our approach, he’d pleaded. For a while he’d been a celebrated guest on talking head shows, until he’d realised that no matter how much he explained public opinion would be wedded to the belief that how it is now is how it was and will always be – and besides, even if something needed to be done, someone else should bear the cost. Those allies that he had counted on his side, including the young, dynamic president that had seemed at one time to promise so much, distracted themselves with a search for short-term revolutions in technology to prove the mastery of humankind over the planet and in so doing obscured the entropic progression that threatened the future ecosystem. Merle had always known that this is how it would happen, the system theory he had developed left him little doubt over the eventual outcome, but for a while he had mistakenly convinced himself that with the appropriate leadership, a temporary equilibrium could be attained. Now Merle contented himself with writing abstract papers on the broad warp of history, and left the weft of the present to those cloistered academics who were content to live within the one-dimensional surface of immediate existence.

It was after he’d finished marking the first paper (a pass, barely) that a movement on the TV screen caught the corner of his eye. His head flicked round instinctively, but the screen sat empty. Or not quite empty, it seemed to Merle as if the profile of a woman could be seen in the glass, as if through a scanner darkly. A reflection, maybe. He shifted his position and squinted at the screen. Burn in? He couldn’t be sure. Maybe he was only imagining it. Giving his eyes a break, he returned to his summary of the paper (“A logically constructed essay using a reasonable variety of sources but too wedded to the specificity of the Television programming as a one-way influence without sufficient development of the wider cultural phenomenon that broadening the engaged demos created. Be careful with your referencing.”) and began marking the second. Within a few minutes he’d taken to flicking through the pages. Another trite discussion of the manipulation of the media by savvy but shallow politicians; nothing factually inaccurate, but insipid and lacking insight. Merle briefly paused at a section that compared the current political dynamic with early 20th Century Europe, but the discussion was limited to the kind of scratchings you could expect from a New York Times editorial. Merle sighed, there had been an opportunity here to discuss how the social dynamic interplays with the orbit of geopolitical and environmental factors. The interlocking of cycles that created the incidental disturbance that knocks history off course and into a new equilibrium. Instead, the essay remained mired in the specificity of journalism and never suggested even an approach to original thought. The conclusion was a critique of the modern mediums of communication, laying the blame for the rise of the new fascism at the shallow feet of moving images and empty aphorisms, said more prosaically, of course. Merle would have forgiven the anachronistic conclusion if it had at least been presented as part of an interesting argument. As it was, the essay was a fail. Merle scribbled a few comments in the margin and sat back in his chair.

In front of him the TV stood silently, it’s dead black eye staring morosely at the table where he was sat. Merle’s hand idly reached for the remote, but before he could switch the TV on, the screen flickered into life. Startled, Merle leaned forward. The screen was showing a woman, her hair grey but with a taut face that gave her the appearance of ageless beauty. She was sitting staring out of the screen, a smile shadowing across her mouth and her eyes sparkling with a melancholic mirth. One of those boring talking head plays, Merle guessed, although she wasn’t speaking. Merle had surprised his sister when he’d expressed a liking for the format: she had thought that he would have found them too parochial, but Merle enjoyed the suggestion of universal experience contained within the single seed of the performance. Some were better than others, of course. This one was… quiet but strangely compelling. The woman’s features reminded him in a vague way of his student, Niamh. No doubt one of those accidental shared inheritances that are far more common within the population than the public’s statistically illiterate common sense suggested. Merle reached for the remote to turn up the sound, but as he did so, the image was replaced by the glaring images and blaring sound of a cookery program. Merle frowned. Maybe he’d changed the channel by mistake? But flicking through the Freeview channels revealed nothing that was remotely similar to the image that had been displayed. Intrigued he stood up and ran his fingers over the screen.  The cooling glass of the screen tickled with static. Frowning Merle turned off the television and returned to his seat.

By the time he had completed marking the rest and had reached Niamh’s essay, it was the early hours of the morning. Merle’s brain had a tired fugue around it which was not being helped by the amber whiskey that sat in the diaphanous cut glass next to him. In her essay, Niamh made the argument that as well as reflecting contemporary concerns about the aggressivity of technological control and human nature, the writings of Dick also influenced and shaped these apprehensions. On a surface level she pointed towards various military and civilian developments (the most recent, and boring, being the hyperloop) that had seen a genesis in Dick’s writing. However, there was also a psychological parallel: Dick’s embracing of altered consciousness, brought on through both recreational drugs and technological advances had ushered in a popular worldview whereby the truth was no longer an objective fact, but a Derridean construct. The terror engendered in the cold war of having perception manipulated by enemy agents opened the possibility for a rejection of all external evidence. The argument was persuasive and insidious. “By reading Dick, we create within ourselves a fear of a dystopian future where our lives are shaped by mechanical and political imperatives that are inimical to personal freedom and self-expression; to avoid this, we instead choose to imprison ourselves within a virtual cage of self-censorship and fantasy. Whilst the citizen on the street encourages firms to pursue the technological and biochemical advancements to realise a form of the Cat-D inspired Perky Pat paradise, the elite class have realised that an opportunity exists to hold the entirety of a city or country within the palms of their hand, similar to the Terran terrorists at the end of The Crystal Crypt.”

As he finished reading this last sentence, Merle heard a soft singing. Frowning he looked up, the room was dark apart from the lamp by which he was marking. The yellow light reflected off of the whiskey glass, casting shards of amber across the empty room. He realised now that the singing had been going on for some time, only now fully surfacing in his consciousness. The hour was surely too late for one of his neighbours to be engaging in any sort of music practise, and the flat above still sat empty. Maybe it was a lullaby for a restless child? He rose to investigate but it was immediately apparent that the singing was coming from within the room itself. Niamh’s essay was still swirling around within his head, confusing him, and he shook himself to try and clear his thoughts. Merle downed his whiskey, and as clunked the glass back onto the table, his gaze fell on the television. The singing was coming from within the flat screen of the set, and had completely surrounded him. Merle fell to his knees in front of the screen, and gazed into the eyes of the elfin woman he had seen before. She was looking directly out of the screen, inches away from him and was smiling the same half smile. Her eyes seemed to flash and Merle realised that she was calling to him, calling him to join her. The singing was caressing him, washing him and binding him and he knew that the song was one that he had always heard. Merle blinked slowly and in the fraction of time that his gaze was broken, his head partially cleared. He should get up… but then her eyes were bearing into him again, beckoning pools of deep blue that were laughing, knowing that he could not turn away. Merle did not want to turn away. The singing soothed him, offered respite and an empty, dreamless sleep. Merle leant forward, was pulled forward, and his hand rested on and through the cold crystal wall.