When VCRs Were New

Yesterday, I posted some excerpts from history Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New, her study of late 19th century electronic media. In keeping with the spirit of her title, here’s a quick look at a more recent case of when old technologies were new: the VCR.

I stumbled upon a 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune titled, “The Living Room Revolution: Entertainment Tonight—Or Whenever.” The article opened with a quotation from Jack Kerouac: ”He came the following Sunday afternoon. I had a television set. We played one ballgame on the TV, another on the radio, and kept switching to a third and kept track of all that was happening every moment.”

That opening is what caught my attention when it was tweeted by Chenoe Hart.

“In a way, Jack Kerouac may have anticipated–as early as the 1950s–the beginning of a new era in home entertainment,” the author went on say. “While the original hippie only suggested a basic way to mix technologies, in this case radio and television, Kerouac did demonstrate how television can be manipulated and how we the viewers can control and play with the information we receive.”

As with most encounters with the recently forgotten past, there’s a combination of the familiar and the strange. It’s not unlike seeing childhood photographs, you look very different but not so different that you can’t see your present self in the image. There are intimations of future developments and we see recognize that there’s a trajectory along which we’ve been moving. Chiefly, I was struck by the familiar structure of the piece. It seems we’ve been writing popular pieces about technology following the same pattern for a long time. Here are some of the more interesting slices.

On “time shifting”:

“This concept in home viewing is now known as ”time shifting” and it has revolutionized the way we view the world through our TV sets. Our ability to time-shift is the result of two decades of technological innovation, based on the development of the video tape recorder in the 1960s and ’70s, that now allows us in the 1980s to control what information we receive, and how, when and where we receive it, to a degree never known before.”

On increasing affordability:

“Not a small part of this industry’s growth is based on the plummeting cost of VCRs, which have dropped from an average of $1,300 in 1975 to less than $400 in 1985. Basic VCR systems are available today for as low as $200 and as many Americans now own them as own component stereo systems.”

The hype:

”Let’s face it, VCRs are the appliance of the ’80s, and we haven’t seen anything like this technology since the invention of the radio,” says Doug Garr, author and editor-in-chief of Video Magazine. ”Americans are staying at home like they never used to. We can now wake up in the morning to a work-out tape, watch a ”How to Cook Sushi” tape for lunch followed by ”How to Bass Fish” in the afternoon followed by ”How to Get a Divorce by Marvin Mitchelson” in the evening, and then go to bed watching a classic movie.”

The trends:

“People used to just throw the television in the living room or bedroom, without much thought,” Strez says. ”But the thing now is to have a room where you have the television, stereo, videocassette recorder, cassette decks, all that, in one special area that is assuming a much more important place in the home. In the last year we have custom-designed 25 rooms like this, and people will spend up to $25,000 on them, and we have done countless other less extensive video room projects.”

The concerns:

“It is the ease of accessibility to the content of many of these popular videocassettes that is raising concerns worldwide. Nations as diverse as China (which officially sanctioned the use of home videos last month), Sweden and the United Arab Republic are struggling to keep pace with the social implications of video recording technology. Government officials in England (where 40 percent of all homes have a VCR) and Sweden, for example, have publicly debated the potential negative social influence that videotapes depicting pornography and violence may have on the well-being of their citizens. The videocassette recorder, it seems, is viewed as a magical box by some and as a Pandora’s box by others.”

The vapid expert opinion (but with a passing reference to Aristotle rather than Plato’s Pheadrus and writing):

Professor James Ettema, a communications expert at Northwestern University who specializes in the social impact of new technologies, says:

”Anything that enhances the diversity of choices should be applauded. VCR technology is important because it has the potential for diversity, but it also has the potential for abuse, and there are concerns with the VCR as there are with any new technology. Videocassettes are subject to the kinds of questions that we have had about television. Is there too much violence? Is it taking up too much of our time? And there is the issue of pornography. The VCR has brought pornography out of the Pussycat Theatre and into the suburban living room. In a cultural way, it is dumping a lot of garbage into our society. Our 1st Amendment rights give us the choice to see the cassettes, but what does it mean for our society? VCRs are raising these issues in a new way. ”But you have to remember,” Ettema adds, ”Aristotle worried about the impact of Greek drama and its influence on the youths of Athens. We’ve been worried about the impact of culture for thousands of years.”

The testimonial:

”We tape off of cable and (free) television,” she says. ”And we are very careful about what programs and movie cassettes our children watch. We tend to rent one movie for ourselves and one movie for our children and watch them on a week-end night. I don’t think that the VCR should be used as a baby-sitter. I think you should screen what your children watch. But I think it is a godsend if you are having a birthday party or something, and you don’t have to take all the kids out to a movie.”

There’s a lot in there that echoes present discussions of gaming, Netflix, mobile devices, etc. Mostly, though, I’m left thinking that we’ve needed a better way to write about technology for a long time.

3 thoughts on “When VCRs Were New

  1. I’d forgotten about recording from a tv and how we had this growing stack of videotapes. It’s still in our language, though, isn’t it? We talk about taping and video games, etc. I wonder what will replace UltraK discs.

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