In the less politically correct age which was my childhood, a series of stocking-filler paperbacks sold in their millions. The first was called The Official Irish Joke Book — Book Three (Book Two to follow). The only joke I remember concerned the Irish Nobel Prize for Medicine, ‘awarded to a man who had discovered a cure for which there was no known disease’.
This practice, of seeking solutions for non-problems (or ex-problems), seems to be the curse of the consumer electronics industry. It is the civilian equivalent of the military-industrial complex, with a standing army of engineers forever looking for battles to fight, even when a technological ceasefire might make more sense.
Currently it is TV technology that seems to be headed for a bridge too far. 3D may well have one wonderful application, in allowing groups of people to go to digital cinemas to watch live spectacles on large screens — indeed for major sporting fixtures, Formula 1, Wagner, coronations or anything staged by Kim Jong Il its possibilities seem genuinely exciting. But great entertainment is mostly not about spectacle. It is about human drama. For this reason, farsighted people have often warned that better technology can lead to worse content: Leslie Halliwell even bemoaned CinemaScope’s role in destroying the intimacy of the old 4:3 aspect ratio, quoting Fritz Lang’s complaint that widescreen ‘is a great shape when you want to show a snake or a funeral’.
Frankly, I don’t want Mike Leigh remade in 3D. ‘Wow, when that bearded man was repairing his Breville sandwich-maker in the kitchen, the screwdriver seemed to leap out of the screen.’ CSI in 3D would induce vomiting. Likewise I am only mildly interested in Google TV, Apple TV and the new British platform called YouView, which will allow me to watch the past week of television on demand via my TV. You see I don’t really suffer from a shortage of TV as it is.
Meanwhile, because it is simple and free, one of the most useful ideas in television technology has passed unremarked. By this I mean the free applications which you can download to your iPhone, iPad or smartphone and which allow you to instruct your Sky+ box to record any programme you choose from anywhere you happen to be. (Sky’s own apps are good, but FindMeTV is arguably better.)
Since I never get to read a newspaper before I leave the house, these little apps mean I can simply read the day’s TV listings at lunchtime (or from an internet café in Bogotá, for that matter), find out what’s recommended viewing for that day and then ask my Sky box to record it (for people who are impressed by such details, your instruction to record Ice Road Truckers is sent to your box via a satellite orbiting 20,000 miles above the equator).
This is the kind of thing that is really useful. Not some 3D remake of Twister or Titanic. Although, in defence of Titanic, it did give rise to one of the funniest true stories I have ever heard. In the queue for tickets at a Gloucester cinema back in 1997 someone commented to a friend, ‘Apparently when the ship sinks the effects are really amazing.’ A nearby group of teenage girls turned on him: ‘You’ve given away the whole plot now. Thanks for ruining our evening.’
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.