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Your Future, 24/7 

The dystopian delights of TechTV

Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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The other night I watched a program called Robot Wars in which remote-controlled, demonic-looking machines slug it out like gladiators from another planet. The robots have names like Dead Metal, Mr. Psycho, Sir Killalot and Sergeant Bash, and they slowly hack, gouge, ram and slice each other to bits while an English commentator enthuses from the sidelines. (“Oh, that’s a decisive blow with the ax! Good work from Cat 3!”) It’s the kind of “sport” you’d think would be popular only on Mars, but after about 40 minutes or so I realized I was actually starting to enjoy it. Maybe I was watching too much TechTV.

TechTV, if you haven’t heard of it, reaches about 40 million homes in the U.S. and has an audience that is mostly young and about 75 percent male. Which is why some of its programs, like Unscrewed With Martin Sargent, can be a bit on the puerile side. (Robot Wars, of course, is utterly mature.) Unscrewed, a new show for which the channel has high hopes, is basically David Letterman for the techie set. Sargent is an affable, slightly goofy guy who’s always laughing, even when nothing funny’s going on — your typical talk-show host, in other words. He doesn’t do an opening monologue or tell jokes exactly, but he does have a desk as well as a sidekick named Laura Swisher, who sits on a blue IKEA couch, looks cute and occasionally says something. The guests on the shows I watched included Dr. Bruce Goldberg, a dentist, “time traveler” and all-round kook from L.A. who talked knowledgeably about life in the 35th century, when being “700 years young” will (he claimed) be considered normal. There was in addition a webcam girl with “a black belt in deep throat,” and a mentalist named Banachek, who bent a lot of forks, Uri Geller having apparently cornered the market on spoons. Also on display were some Lettermanesque comedy sketches, such as “Geek Style Blunders,” “Girl Gone Wired” and “Spam Lab.” None of them were more than mildly amusing, but the show definitely gets an A for effort.

Fresh Gear, the perky guide to cool new gadgets, is probably the best-known program on TechTV. (This is partly due to Sumi Das, its lovely host, who unfortunately is leaving the show.) It’s worth watching even if you pine for the era of manual typewriters, unfiltered cigarettes and rotary phones. Probably you don’t. But do you, on the other hand, fully welcome an age in which every man is his own phone booth and you can buy a backpack that plays music? Yes, a backpack that plays music: the $150 Osiris G-Bag, to be precise, which comes equipped with eight-watt speakers and a battery pack to which you can hook up a portable CD player, and has dozens of compartments and pouches to hold your water bottle, “media player” (I have no idea what that is) and skateboard. It goes without saying, of course, that you are never seen in public without all three items.

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One of the reasons I like Fresh Gear is simply to receive advance warning about minor technological horrors like the Osiris G-Bag, which are now virtually inescapable, indoors or out. Here’s an example of what I mean. Recently I was in the sauna — a small wooden box, essentially, with room for about seven people — at my gym. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I was the only person in there, and it was blissfully quiet. After about five minutes, a guy came in, accompanied by a noise that sounded like a travel alarm clock going off: beep beep beep beep beep . . . He sat down on a bench, stretched out his legs and closed his eyes, soaking up the heat. In the meantime the beeping noise continued, and the blissful silence, needless to say, was shattered.

I studied this mysteriously beeping man carefully. He was about 35 years old, rather distinguished-looking (I later learned he was an academic), and appeared to be in perfect health. He also had a thin strap of some kind across his chest.

“Is that a heart monitor you’re wearing?” I asked him.

“Yes, it is,” he said, opening his eyes.

“And are you wearing it for medical reasons?”

“Nah,” he replied. “It’s just to keep me honest.”

I took this to mean that he was trying to make sure he kept his heart rate above a certain point, not only during his workout but after it too.

“Well,” I ventured, “it’s, er, kind of annoying.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, looking surprised. “I’ll take it off.”

Which he did. Which was nice of him. But it was amazing to me that someone could think that it wouldn’t be annoying. Is technology making us insane, or is it simply revealing new dimensions of our ever-present egotism?

What’s commendable about Fresh Gear, and keeps it from turning off non-techies, is that it’s aware of problems like this. It pokes gentle fun at many of the goods and gadgets on display, but admires their ingenuity nonetheless, even when they seem pointless or half-crazy. Thus, while he was demonstrating the G-Bag, show regular Brett Larson performed a skit where he was out on the street trying to talk to someone but couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the rap blasting from his backpack. “I can’t hear you, my music’s up too loud,” he shouted. Point taken.

 

One of the best programs on TechTV is Performance, a weekly examination of how technology affects contemporary sport. It’s the perfect antidote to those moronic segments NBC airs during the Olympics in which tearful athletes recall how devastated they were when their beloved grandma died, or how they overcame a life-threatening disease to come back and win the gold. There is no sentiment on Performance, just information. It’s here, for instance, that you’ll get a preview of the tennis racket of the future (it’s computerized and adjusts string tension according to an opponent’s game) or watch an Olympic rower make minute changes in her posture after studying a “video-based movement analysis” of her rowing technique. There’s nothing romantic about sport on Performance; it’s really more like a science in which even a tiny technological advantage can make the difference between victory and defeat. The gap between robot wars and human sports seems to be closing rapidly. Athletes aren’t remote-controlled yet, but it takes an awful lot of trainers, nutritionists, psychologists, computers and specialized equipment to help them win a race.

You’ll find other good things on TechTV, depending on your tastes. X-play previews new video games; CyberCrime tackles topics like Internet revenge, fraudulent collectibles and assassination sites; Wired for Sex takes on intersexuals, cyber cruising and 21st-century fetishes; and gadget-happy Spy School is James Bond for geeks. One of the best things I’ve seen on the channel was a documentary about narcolepsy on the series Secret, Strange and True. It seems that while studying sleep disorders, scientists have stumbled on what keeps us awake in the first place. It’s orexin, a chemical produced by the brain, and once it is manufactured as a drug it has the potential not only to cure narcolepsy but also to keep us awake all the time. To some people, that might sound attractive — think of all you could do if you didn’t have to sleep — but “the big fear,” said the program’s narrator, is that orexin could usher in a 24-hour society “that would turn us all into automatons. The whole world could become one huge hive of worker drones.”

Funny, I thought that had already happened. Evidently the filmmakers thought so too, because as the narrator tremblingly voiced her fears, we were treated to sped-up films of commuters zipping up escalators, popping in and out of subways and swarming the sidewalks. I’ve seen footage like this hundreds of times, but the added thought of people working around the clock made it compellingly creepy. It’s also plausible, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sort of way. After all, since we can’t work, shop or watch commercials when we’re asleep, how much longer will we be permitted to just close our eyes and doze off for hours on end? Not for long, I reckon. Beep beep beep beep beep . . .

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