It seems appropriate to use this year, that turning point burned into our cultural consciousness by the 1968 classic film "2001: A Space Odyssey," to ask: If visitors from another planet were to drop by today, what would they make of Earth - specifically the American experience as seen through the lens of TV?
Writer Jack Lechner, fresh from several years of self-imposed exile from the popular medium, decided he would find out.
In a high-tech, multichannel reprise of Charles Sopkin's classic 1968 book, "Seven Glorious Days, Seven Fun-Filled Nights," the former Miramax executive watched 12 TV sets for 15 hours a day for a full week - and lived to write about it.
"I was thinking I'd love to dive in and find the heart of the great popular culture," says the author about his book-writing experience. Like all survivors, he has a tale to tell, not to mention a life lesson or three to impart.
His account of the experience, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," while funny, also resonates with insights about life in the early 21st century - particularly as depicted by television producers.
"I was surprised at how much of what's on TV is about escape and fantasy," he says. "Even when it's in the so-called 'reality' genre, it's utterly fantastic." He says he didn't see anything that related to the real experiences of young people he knew. The shows that set out to find something more closely resembling a genuine human encounter were much less successful.
"This was a useful reminder to me," he says. "People don't like being told unpleasant truths, even on the news." And of course, sex "trumps everything."
Television is not bringing people together, Lechner says. "We are totally balkanized now. The whole country does not come together to enjoy a single experience through TV anymore. No matter who you are, or what your interest, there is a show for you."
The insularity of the programming also surprised him. "One of the themes of my experience is how much of TV is about TV," he says. "I realize you're always mining something, but television has become its own subject." The old adage from media guru Marshall Macluhan that the medium is the message is becoming truer than ever.
"TV has become the subject of news reporting, and many shows are based on older shows," Lechner says.
This relentless self-referencing led him to a simple, well, almost early-20th-century conclusion. "I found the more I watched the more I appreciated nature," he says with a slight smile, adding with only the tiniest hint of irony, "we don't have enough time for contemplation."
Overlooking the self-imposed work binge that led to these epiphanies, Lechner suggests Americans work far too much.
"We have to find the time to stop being distracted by so much work," says the former film executive, who often juggled some 75 projects simultaneously. "We work more than any other society on the planet."
Especially in a time of so many attractive distractions (aside from his own 12 television sets, which were loaned to him for the experiment), Lechner says the need to create time in which to contemplate is more pressing than ever.
Lechner says popular culture's lack of originality, and the trend toward self-reference, reminded him of a bit of wisdom he developed during his earlier TV career. The key to being heard is to "dare to be great. If you focus on [following] the market first, you will build in your own obsolescence."
Focus on what you bring that is unique, he says, and you will never go out of style.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society