Where Have All the TVs Gone?

10/11/2011 04:51 EDT | Updated 12/11/2011 05:12 EST

Over the last few years I've been struck, looking out at my undergraduate classes, by the sight of 80 or more Apple logos staring back at me from the backs of students' notebook computers. Those reflecting on the legacy of Steve Jobs have emphasized the ubiquity of the iPhone and iPad, but I'm even more intrigued by the near monopoly Apple holds over the portable computer market for students, at least at McGill University where I teach.

These 80 Mac owners are from a class of arts students that normally numbers just over a hundred. Another 10 or so students will bring no computer at all to class. A handful of others arrive bearing an assortment of netbooks (the hot electronics item of 2008) or Windows notebooks that range from the shiny and ultrathin through the big and clunky. We're long past that brief historical moment when dudes wanted Dells for Christmas.

I've visited other Canadian universities where classroom use of laptops by students is uncommon, either because official policies prohibit it or because students seem less able to afford them. In Latin American countries, I've counted fewer laptops in students' hands and more Windows machines, and the economic reasons for this are easy to grasp. I'm told that the socio-economic background of McGill students is above the average for Canadian universities, and I suspect most of these students have grown up in peer groups and households where Mac ownership is commonplace. Still, Apple's stranglehold on the student market, at least in my own institution, has never been adequately explained to me, except in the breathlessly enthusiastic language of the Apple cultist.

Rightly or not, the superiority of Apple computers for consuming media content has long been touted and assumed. The ever-present student Macbook is probably one of the reasons why Canadians are cutting their subscriptions to cable television, as more and more young people watch television programming online, on their portable computers. The real story, it seems to me, isn't how many people are cancelling cable but, rather, how few people of university student age even think of subscribing to it when they move away from home to set up apartments and attend university. In the absence of cable service, there is little incentive to buy a television set, either, since portable computers lend themselves more obviously to the personalized viewing, which characterizes so many people's relationship to television these days. "None of my friends at school has a TV," an undergraduate arts student told me last year, exaggerating only slightly.

Like the disappearance of the landline telephone, the withering of cable will be less about long-time subscribers making a bold shift than about successive generations below them simply failing to sign up for a service they see as an unnecessary encumbrance. The effects of this are being felt across our media ecology. Without cable, people are less likely to buy television sets, which already serve in many homes as little more than expensive, overly-elaborate monitors for video games. With no need to purchase a bundle of services -- landline telephones, cable television and Internet access -- from major media industry players, consumers will be more easily drawn to cheaper, upstart sellers of single services, like Internet access or cell phone call time.

The greatest error made by those who speculate about the future of media is to believe that people will forever desire a particular kind of experience -- that of watching films with others in a darkened room, for example, or holding a musical recording in your hands, or getting a letter from someone whose handwriting you recognize. (All of these have been trotted out to convince us of the long-term survival of movie theatres, compact discs and handwritten correspondence.) For those who have grown up with such attachments, they may well be hard to shake. Media habits change, however, not because individuals shift their allegiances from the old to the new, but because younger generations grow up with little experience of the old and even less attachment to it. The portable computer carried onto campus on the first day of university is the sign of transformed habits that are rippling across our media landscape.