In a world where television is all-consuming, we can turn it off
I mostly hate television, but ever since we got basic cable I watch it all the time. It pains me to see the parade of materialism and celebrity worship that dominates my chosen programming, but I can't help myself. Turning it on and checking out for a bit is easy. And that's one thing. Another thing entirely is being compelled to watch television in public. It's hard to impossible to find a place to eat, drink, shop, do your banking or travel without coming in contact with TV and being compelled to stare. And that's just frustrating. I am advertently and inadvertently wasting my time on something I despise, which is exactly what Mitch Altman was doing too, before he quit.
"I stopped watching television because I saw the devastating effect it had on my life. When I was a little kid I was extremely depressed. You know, I'm a geek and I'm gay and I was totally a target for other kids, and I didn't really have the tools available to handle it ... So I'd come home and I'd just retreat into television because it was there and I'd been watching it all my life. I was a total TV addict, really. TV would give me just enough to keep me coming back for more, but not enough to be truly satisfying."
While addicted to watching TV, Mitch couldn't find things in life he enjoyed and he wasn't learning how to interact with other kids. He believed the world was a horrible place and that everyone was unrelateable. Repeated bad news of war, disaster and tragedy, combined with the fact that his existence paled in comparison to TV's perfect people, reinforced his depression. It wasn't until many years later that Mitch realized he didn't have to participate in this process. When he decided to quit TV, giving away a 50-strong collection he'd fixed up over the years, his life immensely improved.
"The messages that come at us aren't for our own benefit, they're for the benefit of selling products. Selling products isn't bad in and of itself, but if the best way to sell a product is to manipulate people by making them feel insecure, then that's the way it will be and that's pretty much the way it is."
One day Mitch was in a restaurant, catching up with friends. In this restaurant there was a television on silent, and instead of socializing, he and his friends found themselves watching it. That's when Mitch, an electrical engineer, first decided to make a universal remote control that he could use to turn off televisions in public places.
"Even if the sound is off, there's this movement in the corner of your eye. I think it has to do with something really deep and primal in us. If something is moving we have to pay attention to it because it might be dangerous."
Ten years later, after quiting his job as a freelance consultant, and with the interest and pestering by friends and the help of volunteers, he had invented the TV-B-Gone, a small plastic remote that doubles as a keychain, designed for the stealthy elimination of television. Within the first week of sales the TV-B-Gone was the topic of reports among high-profile periodicals and broadcasting networks. Over the past two and a half years, Cornfield Electronics, the company where Mitch is chief scientist and CEO, has sold 112,000 TV-B-Gones, and in a few weeks will release the third version of the device. Given the unnecessary abundance of TVs in public, Mitch should do well to continue making a living by turning them off, reducing distraction, promoting the consideration of how television effects our live and helping people free themselves from a powerful media force.
"We all can choose what to do with our time. If I didn't make the time to explore what it is in my life that I love, then it's guaranteed that I wouldn't be doing what I love. And we can all make choices like that. We all have way more power than we give ourselves credit for."