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The Truth, Mainly - 08/28/1995

Beyond the V-chip; A low-tech alternative for your TV

I'd just finished explaining to my wife about the new Microsoft Windows 95 software. Nothing radically new, I'd told her, probably just a supersoft pair of miracle fiber long johns with a high-tech velcroed window to ventilate the cyberspace in the back. She rolled her eyes in appreciation and said I should probably explain the V-chip while I'm at it.

You know about the V-chip, don't you? It's that computer chip—you're acquainted with computer chips, aren't you?—that we might put inside our TV sets so we can block out "violent and unsavory programming" before it corrupts our kids.

It's a very high-tech way to parent your child.

What? You didn't know parent was a verb? Then you probably wouldn't understand V-chips either. My high-tech explanation would only confuse you.

I used to be confused myself before I got hard-wired into the Internet. You understand hard wires and the Internet, don't you? Now I've got more data at my fingertips that I can shake a stick at. I can hardly believe how dumb I used to be.

You want to know how dumb? Listen to this:

Back in the seventies when our kids were little, they yearned to be corrupted by violent and unsavory TV. Our family's always been way ahead of the curve—you know about being ahead of the curve, don't you?—and we solved our problem in a laughably low-tech way:

We moved our TV set to the basement.

That's the sort of thing people did back before parent was a verb. Here's how it worked:

In the winter, the basement was too cold for human habitation. In the summer, it was full of big brown Nordic crickets who took an interest in people who invaded their space. Our kids couldn't stand to be down there very long and so they remained relatively uncorrupted.

Oh, they tried to get corrupted all right, all right.

In the winter, they'd put their little snow suits on and watch "The Brady Bunch" until their little lips turned blue and their little teeth chattered.

"Could you reheat our gruel in the microwave?" they'd holler up from below.

"We don't have a microwave," I'd yell back. "Microwave chips haven't been invented yet."

"But the Brady bunch is about to do something violent and unsavory," they'd yell back. "And if we don't watch them do it, we'll remain so uncorrupted that our little classmates will heap ridicule on our heads."

Or in the summer, we'd send them to the basement to sit with the big brown Nordic crickets while they all watched Richard Nixon explain how he was no crook.

"We need DDT and we need it now," they'd holler. "Cockroaches are about to carry us off in the middle of an important message from the President."

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"They aren't cockroaches," I'd yell back. "They're big brown Nordic crickets and they're our friends. If you don't like them, come upstairs."

Low tech as it was, it worked, sort of. Our children grew up uncorrupted, but slightly bewildered: Everytime anyone turns on a TV now, they either shiver or look around for the crickets.

But the real problem was that my wife and I couldn't watch TV in the seventies either. Co-workers would heap ridicule on our heads when we didn't join them in making fun of Richard Nixon.

"Who's Richard Nixon?" we'd say.

"He's on TV night and day," they'd tell us. "You are politically irresponsible dolts."

"Our TV is in the basement," we'd whine, "and it's cold in the winter and full of big brown Nordic crickets in the summer. We can't stand it down there."

"Then you're doomed," they'd say, "to live out your lives in politically irresponsible doltdom."

"Well," we'd say, "we certainly don't want to do that."

So a few years after our kids grew up and left home, we set off DDT bombs in the basement and installed a woodburning stove down there. Now it's warm in the winter and cricket-free in the summer. We watch violent and unsavory TV in sybaritic comfort.

But when our kids come to visit, they won't allow the grandbabies to go to the basement with me. They say it would be poor parenting to let them into a room contaminated by DDT and by TV that's not filtered through a V-chip.

"If you go down there to be grandparented by him," our kids tell our grandbabies, "the DDT will take the snap out of your synapses, the wood-burning stove will dry up your moral fibers, and the unfiltered TV will corrupt your judgment. You'll start thinking like your grandpa and next thing you know you'll be dunking your computer chips in bean dip."

"Oh yeah?" I say, forgetting everything I've learned from my hard wire into the Internet and slipping into my low-tech witty-comeback mode. "Like fun."


Leon Satterfield is a Lincoln English professor. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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