Watching (on television) the town that turned off its TV sets
When the brave townspeople of Farmington, Conn., gave up television, naturally the television cameras of the nation headed their way before you could say ''Columbia Broadcasting System.'' That's television for you.
As the heretics appeared on the TV tubes which they themselves could no longer watch, they were staring at those cameras just a little wistfully. The pledged abstainers admitted their New Year's resolution would not be easy to keep. Honest individuals conceded there might be cheating - renegades tiptoeing downstairs in the middle of the night to snap on a 3 a.m. rerun of ''Our Miss Brooks,'' or whatnot.
Still, the town, pushed by the Library Council, had agreed to a January blackout, thus casting a vote against the passive excesses of life in electronic lotus-land, etc., etc. No doubt about that.
But a vote for what? For the art of conversation, maybe, or the habit of reading, or any number of ancient folkways. None of us, in Farmington and elsewhere, can be too precise on this side of the issue. One of the losses that occurs from watching too much television is, alas, the capacity to remember what you've lost.
We, as well as the people of Farmington, worry that the ''electronic village'' has become the only village, the ''electronic hearth,'' the only hearth. When people plug into the medium, do they withdraw to that degree from what Hawthorne called the ''magnetic chain of humanity''? If it doesn't sound too grandiose, perhaps, in the end, the Farmington abstainers want to answer the question: What has television cost the family, in both the particular and the universal sense of family?
There are people still around - though their children may doubt it - who can remember what life was like in the world BT (Before Television). No use pretending it was all Happy Hours and Togetherness - like a TV sitcom. Fathers fell asleep in armchairs, barricaded behind the pages of their newspaper. Mothers knitted a lot, and make no mistake - the click-clack of needles held purposefully in front of one can set up an outer defense the Pentagon might envy. Children said, ''Well, I guess it's time to hit the homework'' and climbed the stairs with shoulders dutifully squared to listen to ''I Love a Mystery'' on the old Atwater-Kent radios by their beds.
There was no automatic community just because commercial television was still a gleam in David Sarnoff's eye.
But, on the other hand, let Average-to-Heavy TV-Watchers - and we count ourself intermittently among them - watch themselves. Look about a so-called living room where the tube is flickering. People a couple of feet apart might as well be in separate houses. The connection is with It, not with One Another.
In a science-fiction way, Wally and Beaver, Archie Bunker, the Jeffersons, even - help us! - the Flintstones, have become our real families during these years we now refer to almost organically as ''television seasons.''
Do we wax too melodramatic? Look, finally, at the child lying flat on the floor, legs splayed behind, uplifted face cupped in both hands - five feet from the set. After a while, this marathon gazer is not simply detached from the human race. He or she does not even know or care what program is being watched. The child is spaced out, in the most terrible sense of the words.
What has television cost us? The question is as far beyond us as the other question: How has television benefited us?
We fall back on specifics. We reexamine, for instance, the furniture of our lives. In the days BT, people sat facing one another. The angle of confrontation was taken for granted. Now rooms are arranged so that their inhabitants can sit in parallel rank, facing the screen. Interior decorating has become the art of serving communal solitude.
Somebody ought to write a social history of the kitchen table - the forum for Big Discussions, where everybody had to look everybody else in the eye, which was also the favored space for writing letters to absent family members.
The breakfast bar, it may be recalled, came in with television, giving counter-squatters all the intimacy of a column of soldiers executing ''eyes right'' - toward the video blinking at the far end.
We're going to watch the Farmington Experiment, and any other experiments to follow, including - who knows? - maybe our own. But we intend to keep our hopes modest. If some designer starts a revival of the old-fashioned breakfast nook, we'll take that as signal enough - for now.