UHF and the Loss of Cultural Memory

Last night for some reason I was thinking about Weird Al Yankovic’s 1989 film UHF (the film’s imdb.com page is here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098546/). It occurred to me that this film would completely baffle my students because they would have no idea what a UHF dial is, having grown up solely with remote-control televisions and cable (my college’s economic demographics are such that it is fair to assume that virtually all of my American students’ families could afford cable). The UHF dial was quickly becoming a thing of the past when the film was released; it is an ode to a dying cultural artifact. Now the film functions as a piece of historical documentation as well as entertainment.

On one hand, the idea that the UHF dial will be completely forgotten once my generation is dead seems insignificant. The variety of programming available on the UHF frequency is multiplied on cable (the film’s eponymous theme song’s assertion that “You can watch us all day, you can watch us all night, you can watch us any time that you please. You can sit around and stare at the picture tube ’til your brain turns into cottage cheese” is more true than ever), and the convenience of remote controls is wonderful. It is also quite possible that by the time I die televisions themselves will be a thing of the past because we will get all of our visual entertainment through computers. The technological progress since UHF‘s release is a good thing.

But on the other hand, the loss of any human knowledge should be mourned. (Nicholson Baker’s excellent novel The Mezzanine articulates this idea much more poignantly than I do here.) Our lives are enriched by understanding how far we’ve come, and when knowledge of the past disappears we are all poorer for it. It is especially scary when one realizes how quickly this knowledge can disappear. If we are not careful, it does so without any conversation, without any acknowledgment that it is occurring. We lose it before we realize it. I know about UHF dials, but it is not like I discuss them with others, so in a sense this knowledge was already dead because I was keeping it boxed up, but I am trying to resurrect it via this post.

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