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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I THINK MY TIVO® MAY BE RACIST

Disclaimer: I am aware that describing one's Tivo in human terms has been done before. In fact, I recommend Patton Oswalt's Feelin' Kinda Patton CD for anyone seeking the definitive exploration of this concept.

That said, I think my Tivo may be racist.

I love my Tivo. I've had it for a few weeks now and I love it. Or rather, I love the way it does what I tell it. If I say, "Tivo, if there are ever any reruns of the old Dick Cavett Showand if Dick's guest happens to be Jimi Hendrix, then record them and don't delete them until I tell you to," Tivo obeys. It remembers my request and it waits like a cat waits for a mouse to come out its hole. It'll wait forever for that show to come on. Tivo doesn't need to eat or sleep. It has it's orders and it follows them to the letter. That's what I love about Tivo.

Where Tivo gets into to trouble is when it gets impressed with itself. Tivo could take the advice of Harry Callahan who said in Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations." When Tivo tries a little too hard to give me what I want, little quirks in its personality come out, little biases and assumptions make themselves known through its selections of what programs it THINKS I'll like based on what it knows I've already watched. Sometimes Tivo's cleverness impresses me. Sometimes not.

I watched the last 20 minutes of Roc last week. If you don't remember Roc, it was the "sitcom with a racial message" back in the 80s. Mainstream America had a major crush on The Cosby Show and Cliff Huxtable's crime scene sweaters (I think the wool used to make the sweaters was infused with psilocybin to create that mottled, multi-colored effect) The consensus was that TV was finally representing a black family as "THE AVERAGE FAMILY." I think what was really going on was that white Americans had such guilt over the way African Americans had been portrayed in the 70s, it made them feel good to accept a show about a rich, successful black family. So while James and Florida Evans were having Good Times in the 70s despite their poverty and the easy credit ripoffs, Cliff was busy getting his M.D. and Claire was busy passing the bar. The problems were pretty much the standard sitcom fare - little Michael got suspended from school; little Theo pierced his ear - but the settings couldn't have been more different. So when Mainstream America embraced the Huxtables, everyone let out a big "Ahhhh!" and relaxed, basking in the glow of Cliff's sweaters.

"See? We're not racist after all."

But then some grumbling could be heard. A lot of people started to say, "Hey, these Huxtables are doing a lot better than I am. If they're 'average' what does that make me? And you know what else? I'm just gonna come out and say it. Those sweaters are butt-ugly! It looks like Vernon Reid just threw up on a sheep! Why don't they have a show about a poor black family trying to get by in a crime-ridden, drug-infested big city neighborhood? Instead of a doctor, why don't they make the father a garbage man?"

And thus, Roc was born. It was the anti-Cosby.

I'm one of the ones who watched Roc. Not because of anything related to race but because the writing and acting and plotlines were so dramatically over-the-top. Charles S. Dutton, in the title role of patriarch of the Emerson family, dominated with his impassioned pleas for justice. It seemed ike every show culminated in Roc trying to emphatically convince someone of something, puncuated by his most heart-felt, "Dontcha see?" I like watching Roc for the same reason I like watching Quincy. It's SO over-the-top it's compelling.

So as I flipped through channels the other night, suddenly there was Roc. I hadn't seen him in years. This episode found him running for political office. Backed by Tone Loc, he stood up to the gang leader and pledged to "take back the streets." Classic Roc.

Which brings me to why I suspect that my Tivo is racist. I think it thinks that all black people are alike. Like I said, I watched 20 minutes of it and flipped around some more and then turned it off. And that's when my racist little Tivo went to work. The next night I turned on the TV and brought up the list of shows Tivo recorded for me. In 24 hours, it had filled its hard drive with every and any sitcom, drama, or movie that in any way had anything to do with black people. I had three Moesha's, four The Parkers, a Soul Food (why is that even on anymore anywhere), The Tavis Smiley Show, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. I'm quite certain that had The Cosby Show been on, Tivo would have grabbed that too and said, "See? Black people. You liked those Roc black people so you'll like these black people, too. Didn't I do a good job?"

According to the manual, Tivo is supposed to learn your likes and dislikes over time. The more it observes, the more refined its selections are supposed to be. So for now, I'm giving Tivo the benefit of the doubt. If I learned anything from Roc, it's that racism is a bear and overcoming it takes time and patience. Maybe it's human nature to lump things into groups until we can break the groups down into subgroups and sub-subgroups and so on until eventually we see things as they truly are, individually. Since Tivo seems so human in so many other ways, I choose to believe that the potential for such wisdom lies somewhere within those wires and chips.

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