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What Is Teletext? A Phenomenological Description

This text was first published in . The topic is , the genre and the year of publication .


It seems clear that the teletext experience has rather low intensity compared to that of other media. Teletext consists of a visual interface that communicates in alphabetical script, numbers and icons. In this chapter, I offer a phenomenology of teletext inspired by close readings of Merleau-Ponty, Gibson and Scannell. They all write about lived experience, or perception, and their theories help me answer an existential question: What is teletext? What happens when I turn on the apparatus and start experiencing it? In order to encircle the teletext experience, the chapter describes a series of experiential situations with communicative features: (1) the full body experience of nature, (2) disembedded technological life in the city, and the increasingly-specialized cultural activities of (3) attending a football match at a big stadium, (4) watching the match on live television, and (5) reading about it on teletext. The first four situations are just as important to understand as the fifth, i.e. that of reading teletext and, furthermore, they are necessary preconditions for its “readability.” The analysis shows that a medium is a reduction of the action possibilities of perception, and teletext is considerably more reduced than radio, television and online services.


This book is oriented to teletext’s technology development, social organization and national policy differences. In the process of detailing all this governance, it risks losing sight of the reception process. A book dedicated to its full description must deal realistically with how it is experienced. Compared with other media, teletext has only text and pixels and, as such, it is a limited sensory influence on people’s lives. In this chapter, I offer a phenomenology of teletext inspired by close readings of theorists like Merleau-Ponty (1992), Gibson (1966) and Scannell (2014). They all write about lived experience, or perception, and their theories help me to answer an existential question: What is teletext? What happens when I turn on the apparatus and start experiencing it?

First a preliminary answer based on insights from other chapters in this anthology. Teletext is an electronic technology that allows humans to com municate in a readerly way: to take up the remote control and select a page, read it through and punch in a new number to read another page, for as long as you like until turning the TV set off. The individual user appropriates a standing resource of live, written information. This resource is constructed to have “readability” for its users, and it is contained in large data networks with servers, wires, transmitters and receivers. Indeed, teletext is part of a global network of communication technologies that all have sensory interfaces that allow people to communicate in this way or the other.

The chapter first explains itself theoretically and methodically. The analysis is going to through five distinctly different situations that nevertheless have communicative features in them: (1) the full body experience of nature, (2) disembedded technological life in the city, and three increasingly-specialized cultural activities of (3) attending a football match at a big stadium, (4) watching the match on live television, and (5) reading about it on teletext. The four first situations are just as important to understand as that of reading teletext and, furthermore, they are necessary preconditions for its “readability.”

Phenomenological description

Ontology is a way of reflecting on the conditions of existence for humans and their habitats, and it describes the distinguishing features of things and actions in various domains of reality.1This chapter is written according to a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology studies the general features of the subjective experience of the world. Phenomenology has a focus on the individual’s perspective, their everyday life, their practical projects, interpretations and engagements, and describes all of this in general terms.

Scannell (1998) asked “What happens when I (or anyone) turn on the TV set?” and he underlined that you engage a large technological infrastructure where expert work has already been devoted – with care and concern – to shaping the technology. Like Scannell, I aim to describe the lived experience of media technologies under given historical conditions. While Scannell’s vocabulary is borrowed mainly from Heidegger and deals with social concerns, mine is borrowed from Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1992) and J.J. Gibson (1966) and deals with the perceptual dimension of media. My position is meant to fit into Scannell’s media ontology, so there is no negating of phenomenological principles. The originality rather lies in the exploration of material aspects of communication within phenomenological limits. Throughout the text there will be connections with central phenomenological authors like Don Ihde, Albert Borgmann and Wolfgang Iser and it is abundantly clear that my arguments rely on close readings of these authors.

My writing method is to formulate descriptions of the everyday perception of media. With careful choice of concepts and vocabulary, I explore the human situation in a series of five experiential variations. I construct an implied person, or a manikin, like the crime writer constructs a villain and a detective. And in the same way that the crime novel contains an implied reader who is interested in crime stories, my intention is for this description to be recognizable for any and all readers, regardless of their cultural background. I construct the “implied perception” of a person who shifts between various projects in his daily life, among them watching television and reading teletext. While the latter is clearly the focus of my chapter, the other situations are needed to put teletext in its proper place. The descriptions that follow will not give preference to teletext but place it into the technological life of such a generalized person. It is a form of scenario-building, where stories and situations are presented with the imperative “Imagine this …”

In relation to history, this approach can be considered a “synchronous description” of the electronic communicative affordances in Western societies at the turn of the 20th century; applicable to most if not all of the countries dealt with in this book. Around 1990, teletext was an established medium in Europe. It was at the top of its curve because, like many other technologies, teletext had a phase when it was new and cutting edge, from the late 1970s and all through the 1980s. Along with the emergence of the Internet and smartphones, teletext entered a phase – from the late 1990s and up to now – when it is being made redundant. In 2015 teletext is definitely by and large a fading medium, with emotional defenders and a majority of researchers never even thinking about it. So please notice that the description presumes a “timetravel” back to a time when teletext was commonly used and the Internet did not exist in people’s lives.

The method of phenomenological description may seem odd to some readers. It is not built on empirical data in the social scientific sense but, rather, it consists of a series of variations or imaginings that are eminently interchangeable with any other of a similar type. To support the explanatory force of the arguments, they are visualized in a series of five custom-made drawings by a skilled designer. These drawings show objects and processes and their relations. Since we are dealing with materiality we can simply show how the humans relate to the physical objects in question. Academics who deal with perception and technology often make use of such descriptive figures, for example Gibson (1966).

The illustrations show a human character relating to typical perceptual experiences for average Western humans: (1) in nature with a fire, (2) in the city with the transport system, (3) at a football match in a big stadium, (4) watching television with others, (5) reading teletext alone. The figures do not show abstract correlations or modelled relations, they just show what you can see right there. They show “snapshots,” synchronous slices of projects that are active and on-going for a while, before you move on to other matters in your life. In this sense they could just as well have been photographs. The five situations form a trajectory from rich to poor fidelity of mediation, from exploration with all senses to reading text alone and, hence, a trajectory from sensual to cognitive information gathering. This exposes an underlying historical narrative in this chapter.

Full body in nature

Imagine being out in nature without any modern technologies; it could be in the mountains surrounding Bergen, Norway, where there are hills, brooks, forests and bogs. Although you can do many complex tasks in nature, you cannot reach beyond your immediate environment. For most of human history this has been the only situation possible, and it can be called full body perception.

Figure 1. In nature. Drawing by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås [2]
It is important to note that full body experience is exploratory. Humans do not have passive sensations as much as explorative projects. Perception is an active search for information about the environment, where the individual (body) uses the combination of perceptual systems most suitable for investigation of the object in question. In assessing the “eatability” of raw meat the senses of smell, touch and vision are engaged, but not, typically, taste or hearing. Elaborating on Figure 1, I will describe the five basic perceptual systems according to Gibson (1966), and add a sixth.

1. The visual system orients to information that can be specified by the variables of optical structure, and chief among them are sizes, shapes, colours, patterns and ratios. The intentional act can be called “watching” and it relies on light from the sun in the daytime and the light from the fireplace at night.

2. The auditory system orients to information about the nature and location of vibratory events, and they consist of sizes, distances, energy levels/ forces, etc. The intentional act can be called “listening” and the manikin in the drawing can, for example, hear a chirping bird, the white noise of the waterfall and the crackling of the fire.

3. The haptic system involves the arms, hands and fingers, as well as the skin surface of the body, and orients to information about the earth, mechanical encounters, object shapes, material states and solidity or viscosity. The act can be called “touching” or “handling” as when building the fire.

4. The taste-smell system orients to the nature of volatile sources and nutritive and biochemical values. This can be to prepare a meal on the blazing fire, and know when it is ideal for eating. The intentional act can be called “smelling” or “sniffing.”

5. The basic orienting system relates to information about the direction of gravity, and of being pushed, the sense of body motion, or positionmovement sensation, sense of locomotion, etc. Locomotion by foot, swimming, riding and other means are included here.

6. I will add the expressive system. Speaking is a demanding task and involves the whole body. Both listening and speaking are crucial to oral communication; in speaking you must use your tongue, larynx, mouth nasal cavity, and in hearing you must use your skills of interpretation and sensitivity to nuance.

Regardless of how many systems we identify, the whole body is still the primary phenomenon. Here Merleau-Ponty and Gibson are in accord, despite not being part of the same academic cultures. The perceptual systems are interrelated rather than mutually exclusive; they are merely our analytical tools to talk about perception. In a given exploratory project one system combines effortlessly with the others and overlaps with them when registering objective facts. We do not primarily assemble the meaning of the objects and events in our surroundings cognitively; we experience them directly as action possibilities.

Another way of saying the same thing is that perception constantly evaluates the “… –bility” of things. The climbability of rocks, the drinkability of watery fluids, the readability of teletext and, in general terms, the usability of anything. This focus on assessing the possibilities for practical engagement is important in phenomenology. There is a subtle link to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “perceptual horizons” of experience. A horizon is the apparent line that separates the earth from the sky, and what is below the horizon is somehow within our reach as humans (the sea, mountains, forests) while that which is above the horizon continues endlessly into the sky and is unattainable. While the outer horizon of experience delimits that which is imposed on us by the laws of nature, the inner horizon delimits what can be modified and constructed by the humans. It could be called the “horizon of action” and it tells us what we can do something with and what we cannot.

Disembedded in the city

Imagine that the Bergen woman travels to London by airplane, and lands at Gatwick Airport. She continuously explores her environment, according to the full body perception described above. She can get there in approximately five hours, including waiting time at the airports. She departs from a small city full of mountains, tunnels and bridges and, after travelling on the Gatwick Express, arrives in a multi-million metropolis with motorways, ring roads, commuter trains, buses, underground, taxis, etc. Around her other airplanes take off and fly off to other cities in Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. She takes part in a global system of air transportation.

Figure 2. In the city. Drawing by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås [2]
Compared with life in nature, life in modern technological civilizations is bigger, stronger, more controlled, but simultaneously limits our physical behaviour, liberating us from one situation and enforcing another. The process involved has been called “disembedding mechanisms” by Giddens (1991: 21): “By disembedding I mean the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.” Gid dens’ approach can be supplemented with that of the technology philosopher Albert Borgmann (1984). He distinguishes things from devices, and the latter concept can be considered to describe the same as Giddens’ “disembedding mechanisms.” Please think back to Figure 1, and the fire in the wood. To build and maintain a fire is to make a thing, Borgmann (1984: 41) explains. A thing is inseparable from its bodily and social world, and a wood-burning stove furnishes more than mere warmth; it is a focus, a hearth, a place that gathers the work and leisure of a family and gives a house a centre (Borgmann 1984: 41-42), while to turn on the central heating system is to use a device.

The city is dominated more by what Borgmann calls devices than by the resource-demanding things. Keep in mind the ubiquitous presence of underground lines, traffic light systems, sidewalks of streets and floor plans of buildings. The function of such technologies is to disburden the humans, Borgmann argues. A device produces an instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe and easy commodity, and it is typically carefree, discardable and perishable. Devices have what Borgmann (1984: 43) calls a “variety of means, stability of ends,” which implies that the machinery of the device can change dramatically without the function changing at all. The means are concealed and unfamiliar, while the ends are prominent and available (Borgmann 1984: 44).

It is important to note that while life in the city involves disembedding mechanisms, it does not in itself involve a reduction of the full-body experience. Imagine our person travelling on the Gatwick Express. While she is detached from the natural surroundings by a high-speed train, she is continuously centred in relation to the physical world. The train window may feel a little like a television screen where everything just whisks past, but if you open it and stick your head out you will recognize that you are indeed still in the full-body world. Urban life does not in itself produce perceptual discontinuities and breaking points, while electronic media most definitively do (more about this later).

The relationship between perception and technology becomes more complex the more technologies we add to the mix. There should nevertheless be a common ground in the vocabulary of the analytical approach. Following Gibson (1979), I will consider all technologies to be material objects with characteristic affordances. Gibson defines affordance as the perceptual possibilities of a particular object or technology. According to Gibson “the affordances of the environment is what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment” (Gibson 1979: 127). For example, a ledge affords sitting, air affords breathing and water affords drinking and bathing. Thus, affordances refer to the practical meanings that objects have for observers, and these meanings remain invariant in most cases (Goldstein 1981: 192).

Continuing the definition, Gibson points out that affordances are action possibilities latent in the environment. They are objectively measurable, and independent of a person’s ability to recognize them, but always existing in relation to the body and therefore also contingent on its capabilities. For example, a person’s reaction to a flight of stairs is basically “here is a way to go up” and not “here is a series of flat, layered surfaces” (Goldstein 1981: 192). Notice that it is the material limitations of objects that create these action possibilities. If all objects could flexibly alter their appearance at any time, alternating between being hard and soft, small and large, loud and quiet, stinky and pleasing, there would be no action possibilities. Again, we return to the claim that perception is the human way of exploring the “…-bility” of objects: the transport-ability of a train or the safety of a football stadium.

Focal practices at football matches

Imagine that the Bergen person goes to the Emirates Stadium to watch an Arsenal home game for the first time. Along the way she encounters sounds, smells, street surfaces, other people, etc. Inside the stadium she can smell the green playing field, feel the noise and warmth of all the other people, and see innumerable colours, shapes and textures of everything around her. She can, for example, study the flickering advertisements, the security guards, or the TV cameras. She can run the gamut of her own personality, for example trying make it onto the live TV coverage by running onto the pitch during half-time to do a boob flashing. She scouts the “boob-flashability” of her location at Emirates stadium.

Figure 3. At a football match. Drawing by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås [2]
During the match there will be a mood dominated by the mass of people being assembled in one place. There is social bonding, yelling, beer drinking, rough language, fisticuffs, and perhaps even a real fight. The football stadium carries a rough-and-ready mood, where events sometimes spin out of control and riot police have to clear the space.

The stadium is a technology that brings a large number of people together in order to attend to approximately the same thing; it could be a concert, but in our case it is a football match. Many different people, independently of each other, can refer to this event as being about approximately the same thing; e.g. they all accept the security rules, and implicitly agree to behaving in a polite way. In this sense the stadium event is a primary social situation; one which can considered a public event regardless of the presence of cameras, microphones or computer keyboards. It is a type of event that pre-dates modern media, but which is also deeply involved in the technological mediation of our own time.

Under the next headline I will deal with mediation of the football match, but first we must specify further what kind of experience the football match is. Borgmann (1984) develops a theory of “focal practices” that fits nicely. Focal practices are activities like playing music, tending a garden, cooking or hunting (Borgmann 1984: 197). They have a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of competence and consummation that makes them valuable beyond the individual’s subjective experience. A football match is a focal practice in Borgmann’s sense; the quality of “being at the scene” constitutes the event as reality – not only for the ones present at the stadium but also for the absent television viewers.

Borgmann’s approach fits nicely with Scannell’s, probably due to the fact that they are both inspired by Heidegger’s ontology (see Nyre 2007). Scannell (1998: 7) argues that being human means “being with others in a shared world of concern.” He sets up a contrast between objective space and humans engaged in space. “I am in the seminar room,” Scannell writes. “You can notice that there are several other things in the seminar room as well; a blackboard, an overhead projector, a cassette player.” Objective space includes the measured, observed, objective properties (Scannell 1998: 8) which for example carpenters and engineers deal with. Next, Scannell gives an example of the shared world of concern. “I am taking part in the seminar. The only thing that can sensibly be said to be in the seminar with me are you, the other participants, and not the blackboard, the overhead projector or the cassette player” (Scannell 1998: 8). By setting up this contrast between being present and taking part, Scannell encircles the fundamentally communicative way of being that we humans have established among ourselves, even when we use technologies.

Watching television together

Imagine now that the Bergen football enthusiast turns on her television set to watch an Arsenal match. She has returned home, and now watches the match with her boyfriend in the comfort of her home. There is a big difference between the two experiences. She cannot act in the same way as when she was present at the Emirates Stadium. She turns on the television set with a touch panel, and can hear the sounds and watch the images that appear from the device. The set can be considered a technical frame in which something from the full body world is displayed.

Figure 4. Watching television. Drawing by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås [2]
Although her full body perception of course continues while she watches the TV screen, it is strangely impotent in relation to the events presented through the television set. The situation in front of the television can be called a “reduced perception” of the Emirates Stadium. Television presents the same, standardized, and quite limited, action possibilities for everyone. For each medium we could specify the reduction that takes place; for example the reduction to sound alone in telephony, radio and music records. This process opens up creative possibilities at what can be considered the “producing end,” and these are the main working features of a medium.

In the human-technology relation described here, there is a strong sense of seeing what is happening in the other place, a sense that there is an indexical link back to the full body world of the stadium. And a phenomenological approach will have to concede that, yes, there is indeed a link, but it has no horizons. The link is being shaped in a technological way so that it should rather be called an “analogue” or a “presentation” of the events on the other side.

Real-time transmission is the strongest analogue of reality. The fact that television is live at the point of transmission has been used to great effect, and carries a tremendous documentary authority due to the fact that it is felt to happen “right now.” Furthermore, television displays the sounds and images of the live events, which increases its authority as real. Television is further limited by camera frames, microphone characteristics, colour limitations, frequency spectrum limitations, cultural conventions, media-specific genres, etc. In sum, we nevertheless get an “analogue.” The information we get from the football match by the aid of television is smaller, bigger, faster and slower than the information we would get by being present at the stadium, but it is not at odds with reality. Seen from a phenomenological perspective, what happens is that the TV set neutralizes the action possibilities of the objects being presented. Although the viewer sees the possibility for perceptual exploration of the stadium, she knows it is nevertheless completely impossible. This is a “reduction” in strictly material terms: we cannot explore the events at the football stadium with all our perceptual systems when we watch them on television.

Phenomenology is conceptually well equipped to describe this confounding feature of mass media. Merleau-Ponty (1992: 68) writes “the screen has no horizons.” He argues that when we recognize objects depicted on a screen, it is based on our familiarity with the given objects and their ratios, and not with a direct perceptual experience of them through the screen. Media perception on this score is fundamentally different from full-body perception.

When, in a film, the camera is trained on an object and moves nearer to it to give a close-up view, we can remember that we are being shown the ash tray or an actor’s hand, but we do not actually identify it. This is because the screen has no horizons. In normal vision, on the other hand, I direct my gaze upon a sector of the landscape, which comes to life and is disclosed, while the other objects recede into the periphery and become dormant, while, however, not ceasing to be there. (Merleau-Ponty 1992: 68).

What Merleau-Ponty says about film is also valid for television, and it is also valid for auditory phenomena. The reality of screens and loudspeakers does not include what Merleau-Ponty (1992: 265) calls the “field of presence” extending in the here/there-dimension and past/present/future-dimension. They just do not afford a gradual exploration, like the objects that are within your perceptual horizon.

In ordinary experience this fundamental lack of horizons goes largely unnoticed because of the strong emotional, social and indeed political role of television. Television is a device in Borgmann’s sense; the concealed machinery produces an easily accessible commodity. The existential twist consists in the fact that this commodity is fully capable of constituting a focal practice in people’s lives, and in this way television become fully meaningful despite its perceptual shortcomings. While it is not a full-body focal practice, it is indeed a public one. It is a “for anyone as someone” structure (Scannell 2000) with a carefully prepared “listenability” and “watchability,” and this point fits with Gibson’s theory of affordances discussed above. The TV experience is constructed to be a public, social, engaging event. Media strategists and engineers have constructed the watchability of television programmes in order for them to become a “shared world of concern” or a “focal practice.” Scannell (2014: 99) compares the dull inertia of a CCTV surveillance tape with a television programme to show how much care goes into a television programme. “Liveness,” he writes, “is the worked at, achieved and accomplished effect of the human application and use of technologies whose ontological characteristic is immediate connectivity” (Scannell 2014: 99). The “care structures” of television aim to please the audience, and create a warm and positive experience.

Reading teletext alone

Imagine that the woman was unable to follow the match live on television, but now she has come home and she checks the result on a teletext service. Most likely, the sound will be turned on from before, so she will also hear the sound of whatever programme is aired on the mother channel at that moment. She turns off the sound, sits down in the sofa and starts reading – sports results, the weather in Bergen, a “breaking news” story.

Figure 5. Reading teletext. Drawing by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås [2]

There are at least three unique perceptual processes that help to distinguish the act of reading teletext from that of watching television, going to a football match, etc. These are the fruits of applying a phenomenological perspective on teletexts.

1) Live paper: Teletext has a pixelated visual interface. Its expressiveness basically consists of letters, numbers, words and sentences. They are expressed in relation to boxes, polygons, and with a selected typeface. There is no video; there are no light-induced representations of visual phenomena and no representations of sounds. Teletext does not have the perceptual, technicolour, stereosound richness of material that characterizes radio and television broadcasting. Since there is no sound in teletext, it is not produced with its own soundtrack – neither sonfication nor the spoken word. What is left is live transmission and the flexibility of written language, and it is in these communicative qualities that we can finally identify the ontological status of teletext.

Teletext’s readability is live, and this makes it very different from paper. The words are “streamed” continuously through the transmission and cable systems to the subscriber’s television set. The transfer process was for many years analogue but has now, in most cases, become digital. However, teletext is still live at the point of transmission. This is crucial for the human behaviour involved in teletext. The perceptual relations of reading teletext are highly sophisticated. All hand and finger movements are combined with vision, which can change focus, see colours and shapes, read words and sentences, recognize metaphors, etc.

2) Remote control reading: In teletext the remote control comes into its own as a communicative tool. While it is also important for television, for switching channels or zapping around, it lies on the table for most of the time – especially during programmes that have achieved the status of a focal practice. The less the remote control is used, the more successful the programme. For teletext it is the other way around: the more the control pad is used, the more active the reader is. Teletext positions the user as an active seeker of information. Furthermore, the remote control is a technological tool that can be analysed in a phenomenological way. It is tactile, visual and visceral, a little like an axe for chopping wood. There is manual work consisting of punching numbers and letters on the touch panels of media like the telephone, typewriter and calculator, and control panels with buttons and levers for anything from airplane cockpits to high street cash machines. Finger and hand movements are central, and teletext involves cognitive operations, a highly advanced behaviour using several fingers for coding at the same time. This skill is only found only in humans. In Gibson’s (1966: 53) vocabulary, it is the eyes-fingers-body system. Touch panels have an indexical link through the technological ensemble since text and images appear on other computers because of acts done here, at the same time. Beyond simply appearing, the text can be stored digitally or on printouts. However, there is no manual or haptic horizon. You cannot use teletext to move anything physical on the other side, and this is the same as saying that the remote control has no manual horizon. Instead, it has tremendous symbolic powers. The user’s actions with the remote control generate presentations of text, sent out in real time, written by the broadcast institution, and presented in a typeface with bright colours and an “electronic” appearance.

3) Pure Code: Teletext is not a continuation of television as much as of the pen and paper; of writing and reading. While it is fine to say that we watch television shows, we clearly read teletext. So what we have to be concerned with explaining is the readability and writability of teletext. Iser (1980) reminds us that the reader is absent while the writer writes the text, and the writer is absent while the reader reads it. This distance is also characteristic of teletext. The writers, as anonymous clerks in the broadcast company’s staff, have almost no identity at all. Teletext has no faces or voices. The primordial identification through these indices is completely nulled out. Teletext can never unite people in the way a live television match can. For the football fan who pines for his side to win there is no replacing the opportunity to be present at the stadium and cheer them on, or at least watching the game on TV along with friends.

It follows that teletext is written words, semantics, syntax and grammar. Teletext relies on the high literacy levels in Western public spheres as well as the dexterity of our hands and fingers. Literacy grows through action via codes or languages; embedded in materials that can store code. Teletext is one of those material forms, along with letters, newspapers, books, telefax, etc. The coded communication of writing is as dense as communication between humans can be.

Teletext is not visually indexical in the way that television can be. There is no seeing “through” the teletext apparatus to the other side. There is no other side except the people who write the code somewhere in the production line of the media company. Teletext is an extremely pure reduction with enormous potential. It can express anything that can be expressed in any natural language in the world. Ihde (1990) describes what he calls hermeneutical technology relations. In these cases there is an indexical or isomorphic link between the user and the reality presented, but the link is coded through language, genres, norms and conventions. If you do not know the culture you will not understand the communication. This is true for teletext, but not for television.

Conclusion: The limits of teletext

The media are reductions of the action possibilities of objects, and teletext is considerably more reduced than television. It is less sensual than moving images and sounds. There is technicolour beauty, but all representation takes the form of symbolic signs. From a phenomenological perspective, teletext does not come across as essential to modern human existence, like nature is, or the transport technologies of the city, our social events and television watching. Compared to these practices, teletext is less impactful, less relevant and less missed when it is inaccessible. The unique perceptual characteristics of teletext, as described in this chapter, are “live paper” presentation, reading with the remote control, and communicating in pure code.

However, from a phenomenological perspective it is this limited “action horizon”; this visual precision without care for expressiveness is exactly what makes teletext interesting. Because of its material form, teletext cannot easily be included among sociable experiences like watching television together. It seems we have to conclude that teletext is not a focal practice, as Borgmann describes it, nor is it a relation marked by concern, as Scannell describes it. While TV is emotional, collective and inclusive, teletext is logical, individualist and exclusive. Clearly, teletext produces information commodities just like television, but they do not have the same social concern for people, and do not become a focal practice. At the end of the day the most interesting aspect of teletext is its character of not being all these important things. It is what it is as a result of these negativities. Few other media are as pure in expressive forms – with the exception maybe of the telegraph. Teletext affords live readability and writability, and that is what it does.

The analysis of teletext is an instance of media ontology, and my general phenomenological approach to mediation has shown that media present us with materials that lack action possibilities, and therefore they communicate in a fundamentally different way from the things that are simply present (or absent). The material that can be manipulated by producers, programmers, speakers, and other creative contributors exists because of specific perceptual skills on the other side of the technological mediation. Electronic media are characterized by a myriad of ways to reduce and codify the body’s perceptual reach, and teletext is a particularly interesting example of the process.


1. Notice that in computer science “ontology” typically means a comprehensive system where all items can be expressed in the ontology. “An ontology compartmentalizes the variables needed for some set of computations and establishes the relationships between them” (Wikipedia 2015: “ontology”).

2. All drawings: © Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås. Reproduced by permission of Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås. Permission to reuse must be obtained from Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås.


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