I Don't Want My Web TV
Why Yahoo's plan to merge the Internet and television isn't the future of home entertainment.
Here's a peek into the not-so-distant future as envisioned by executives converging on this week's Consumer Electronics Show. You'll come home from work in the evening, plop into your La-Z-Boy, and while settling in for a round of Wheel of Fortune, you'll wonder, Hey, what happened to my stake in Citibank today? Lucky for you, you'll be able to find out on the tube—press a button on your remote, scroll across the screen until you find the Stocks menu, and, voilà, your stock ticker pops up over Pat Sajak's face. Easy, right?
True, it's not as easy as looking up your portfolio on your computer, which is most likely sitting next to you on the couch. But, hey, this is the future, and in the future your TV will be very smart. According to a plan by Yahoo, Intel, and several TV manufacturers, you'll soon be able to access the Internet through the tube—a library of downloadable "widgets," scrollable and selectable via your remote control, will give you the news, weather, your photos, even Twitter. These services will pop up alongside the main attractions, an innovation that will "forever change the passive interaction we've had with our TVs," Tim Baxter, Samsung's executive vice president of marketing, told the CES crowd.
While Baxter says that like it's a good thing, do we really want to give up "passive interaction" with our TVs? Passivity is television's main feature; we love it precisely because it asks so little of us.
"Interactive TV" is a recurring fever dream of the consumer electronics industry. Every few years, tech leaders serenade us with songs of television's coming golden era—of technologies that will transform our TVs from guilt-inducing laziness enablers into fully aware, two-way devices that will help us become more productive. Recall, for instance, the "information superhighway," Al Gore's early-'90s vision of "a 500-channel universe" in which we'd be able to shop, bank, chat, and learn about the world through our TVs. Gore was right about the underlying technologies that would power such a revolution; he guessed correctly that fiber-optic cables, packet-switching networks, and digital media had the potential to create a revolutionary communications system. But he—like nearly everyone else in the tech business—was wrong about the device we'd use to access that network. Check out this 1993 cover of Time or this 1994 cover of Popular Mechanics—each pictures a torrent of media flying at American homes, but neither mentions the device that would bring it to us: the personal computer.
Computer and TV people have wised up since then. Now, many discriminate between the sort of interactivity we enjoy on our computers versus the sort we'll tolerate on television. They've even coined jargon for these distinctions—computer users crave a "lean-forward" experience while coach potatoes "lean back." But over the years we've started leaning further back from our computers; now, we use our machines to watch TV shows and movies, laying off the keyboard and mouse entirely.
When it comes to TV, we're more discriminating about interactivity. Numerous attempts to bring the Web to the tube have failed, which is why announcements by LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio that their new TVs will let you access Yahoo and MySpace seem so silly. Have you ever flipped on the TV and lamented its lack of MySpace? Not me, because MySpace isn't that hard to get to. If you're on a social network, you've likely got a PC—not to mention a laptop, smartphone, or a netbook—that isn't too far away from the couch. Perhaps you even use it while you're watching TV—a kind of multitasking that is much more comfortable than having everything on a single screen eight feet away from you.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.