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Watching You
By Ron Steinman

This column is not about filmmaking as we know it. But it is about life in the digital age. For me the problem started with a red light that suddenly appeared one night in September, mysteriously and without warning, on both my TV sets. When I could not sleep, I looked over to the TV set in my bedroom and a red light I had not noticed before stared me back in the face. I tried turning the set on and off several times. The red light remained. I went into my living room and the red light also shown brightly on that TV set. Doing what I did in the bedroom made no difference. The red lights remained.

Then I looked around my apartment. I have broadband through my cable provider. Attached to one TV I have a cable box, a CD/DVD player and a fast-becoming-obsolete VHS player. A green light was on the VHS player. As much as I tried, I could not turn it off. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Along with the just mentioned digital devices, I have a microwave, two telephones, one power strip under my desk that is always on, its red light happily glowing, a digital clock and my broadband connection that blinks all the time. The light that shines through most of my necessary gadgets is green, not a real green, mind, but a hazy green as if from another planet.
When I lived in the suburbs, I had even more digital devices. There were at least eight telephones, 2 microwaves, five TV sets, four digital clocks, two refrigerators, two freezers, an automatic garage door, the garage opener to make it work, an automatic,
in-ground watering system, several computers and probably a few more devices that have slipped through the cracks that were always on.

Those red lights, my blinking clock and actually all things digital are invading my space and I donít know how to stop the onslaught. Digital is the key. Everything I use to keep my life modern is always on. I canít turn anything off unless I pull one of the many plugs controlling the various appliances. Each lighted piece of equipment uses tiny, almost infinitesimal watts of power that we ignore because alone we believe their use does not add up to very much. But think of all the devices in the world that uses these small bits of power. Think, too, and how the watts they use add up, especially with the high price of oil. You get the idea. Or I hope you do.

That is only part of my problem. I canít help but think of Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Philip K Dick, and Thomas M. Disch, maybe even Stephen King. Truth, the truth I am witnessing, is stranger than fiction. Consider the following theory. I wonder if these devices, that we bring into our homes and our, lives many of which are necessary, are there for another purpose? Are they quietly and secretly watching us? Are they recording our every move? If they are, what are they doing with the information? Are they storing it for future use? Are they cataloguing it? Are they selling it to marketing experts or to another planet? Could they be enjoying everything they see for their own pleasure? Unless their existence is so empty, I donít see what they could be getting from all those empty hours and all those straight on views of mostly mundane lives. One could believe that in each location, my past home, and my current home, in hotels and restaurants, where these devices abound, each one records everything we do. I do. Making a film, perhaps?

You may not believe any of this. If you do not, I wonít argue with you. Who is to say I am wrong and you are right. Why, though, are those lights, both the red and the green, always on? If they are not watching me and you, your friends, family and neighbors, what are they doing? I refuse to believe they are there to remind us of their machineís presence. There has to be something more.

The energy these billions of digital devices use probably is beyond calculation. Consider all the barrels of oil wasted on recording mostly unsuspecting lives. Do people understand what is going on? I doubt it. I know those eyes peering out from the innards of all modern machines use far more energy than anyone realizes. This is a story worth pursuing for an enterprising reporter. There are others far better equipped to handle the machinery of statistics than I. They should chase this story. Advanced math, physics and chemistry are important here. Someone knows the answer to how much energy the digital machines in our homes use.

For every new invention, another digital device quickly pops into use. Pre-digital devices in homes and offices are becoming obsolete. Those red and green lights follow everyone everywhere. Can we halt the invasion of the energy suckers? Probably not. Perhaps it is time to bring back the slide rule, the plastic pocket case and leaky ballpoint pen. Perhaps. No matter. It is always worth invoking the spirit of Kafka, Poe, Lovecraft and their kind. I am certain these geniuses of the absurd and the weird would have has a great time working these elements into their stories. The circle we are in is vicious.
Remember the red lights on my TV sets that stayed on no matter what I did? Before I could call my broadband provider, I woke up the other morning to see, to my amazement, that they had disappeared. Gone. There were no more red lights on my TV sets. Days later as I write, the red lights are still off. I will not make that phone call. I plan to leave well enough alone, at least for now. I am sure the red lights are recharging, getting ready for another onslaught. Until the red lights return, which they surely will, I will leave well enough alone. Only time will tell. Then I will cry for help. If I can.

Post Script.

I spoke too soon. The other morning I woke with a start. Just when I thought everything was fine, once again, staring at me from my TV in the bedroom, and the other in the living room, was Ė not the tiny red light, but where the red light had been, a clock. For the life of me, I cannot turn it off. I do not want it. I did not ask for it. Is it watching me? Am I paranoid or realistic? You be the judge.

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At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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