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Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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september 1, 2007
It's fascinating to me to live in these times, for a lot of reasons, but in part because I am living, we all are living, during the beginnings of a new technology.
A technology (and this is the fascination, to me), that at this point is still incredibly primitive.
By way of comparison, let's consider the telephone.
Can you imagine how extraordinary the phone must have seemed when it was first introduced? We're so wired-up now, it's hard to conceive. Before the phone, houses were utterly isolated. There was no way to instantly communicate with anyone outside your house, except by physically traveling to another location.
And then the phone arrived. For the first time in the history of the human race, you could just touch this magical device, and talk to anyone. Actually hear their voice, in real time, responding to your voice. Even someone who, physically, was three thousand miles away.
You didn't even have to shout. You could whisper.
As stunning as that invention was, as much as it changed our lives forever, perhaps more than almost any other invention in history, by today's standards the early telephone would be considered absolutely unacceptable.
For one thing, a lot of phones, especially in rural areas, were on a party line.
That meant that instead of having a private phone line, you shared your line with everyone else in your neighborhood. If you wanted to place a call, you picked up your phone, hoped one of your neighbors wasn't already talking to someone else. If they were, you had to get off the phone and wait until the line was clear. Which might take hours. When you did finally get a chance to place a call, there was no way of preventing anyone else on your party line from quietly picking up their phone, eavesdropping on your conversation. And there was nothing you could do to stop them.
For another thing, phones were not portable. If you were driving to work and wanted to phone someone, you had to pull off the road, walk to a telephone booth, wait in line.
People didn't realize back then that one day every person would get their own private phone line, accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with complete privacy, or that phones would eventually get so sophisticated we'd do away with wires, so you could carry your phone with you anywhere, in your backyard, on the street, even, incredibly, on a car, bus, train, or helium-filled balloon.
That was the old technology.
With the new technology, we're still in the party line phone stage. Amazing, but primitive.
Look at computers.
A computer is an extension of your own mind. Except it's basically an idiot savant.
If I want to calculate Pi to the one millionth decimal position, my mind extension will do an error-free calculation. But if I want it to locate a file titled sausage.doc, and I accidentally type in sasage.doc, it comes back to me empty-handed, mouth drooling, shoe laces untied.
Plus computers are chained to a pc, or notebook. If I'm swimming, I want to be able to access my computer as my bare feet kick-off from the deep edge of the pool, headed back towards the shallow end.
And computers are not self-healing. If something goes wrong, it gives up. Rather than diagnosing the problem, and fixing it. If a file has become corrupt, I want my pc to automatically uncorrupt it. If a piece of hardware in my pc is broken, I want my pc to reconfigure the hardware, like a little factory, and create replacement hardware.
All of this is really not a lot to ask. One day, computers will have artificial intelligence, will be compressed to a pierced earring, with holographic projections, will be given the ability to repair itself, like skin repairs a bruise. We're just not there yet. We're still primitive.
Look at the Internet.
At this point, the Internet is incredibly ramshackle.
Connection is not a given. The last time Mary went to her cardiologist's office for a bloodstick, to test her coumadin levels, the technician apologized for the delay in seeing her. "We're transitioning to an Internet-based storage system." In other words, the office was doing away with hard drives. All information regarding patients would now be stored on the Internet, rather than locally, on hard drives.
I sat back in my seat as Mary had her blood pressure checked. "What happens if you can't connect, for some reason?"
He rolled his eyes, writing down Mary's readings. "I told them that, but they're too enthralled with the Internet. If for any reason we can't access the Internet on a particular day, that means we don't have access to any of our patient's records."
An inconvenience if they can't access someone's previous echocardiogram results, but a catastrophe, and possibly a death, if they can't access a heart attack victim's list of medications.
And at this point, the Internet is incredibly slow.
In the United States, downstream time, meaning the amount of time it takes a remote computer to display its content (text, images, film) on your local computer is limited to an optimum stream of 8 megabytes per second. In Europe, it's much higher. In Japan, it's over 100 megabytes per second.
When it comes to broadband speed, America is a third world nation. We are way, way behind the rest of the world. Due in large part to lack of competition. Each region gets one cable broadband provider, and that's it. There's very little incentive to increase broadband speed. Or offer superior customer service. Why would they? It's a closed market. Cable is one of the few government-sanctioned monopolies in America.
(When we call our cable broadband provider, Time-Warner, with a problem, after we press two to indicate the problem is with our Internet connection, rather than cable TV, we're asked if we can connect to the Internet. If we press the touchtone pad on our phone to indicate we can't connect to the Internet, we get two menu options: Press one to end this call, Press two to speak to a customer service representative. That choice has always astonished me. Why the fuck would anyone press one? But that's the mentality at Time-Warner.)
At this point, the Internet is incredibly barren.
If this is truly the Information Age, I want all information accessible instantly. Can I instantly access the text of all published books, newspapers, and magazines?
Of course not.
Can I at least access all public records?
The Internet is often characterized as the world's largest library. It isn't. At this primitive stage, the Internet is a used book sale on the front lawn of a family in Albany, New York.
Which brings us to Netflix.
At one point, the only way to see a movie was to go to a movie theater.
Even then, you could only see new releases.
Once a movie went through its initial run, it was no longer available.
That's hard for us to grasp these days.
If you saw Citizen Kane when it first came out, you might view it as a memorable movie (which of course it was), but then you'd never get a chance to see it again. You'd have to rely entirely on your memory, over the decades, as to how good a film it was. A film you would never experience again.
It was like reading Catch 22, Naked Lunch, or Lolita, once, and then having the novel taken away, forever.
Then came television.
A medium extremely content-hungry. TV executives had to fill twelve or more hours a day.
(Hard as it is to believe now, TV back then didn't broadcast twenty-four hours a day. The major stations across America would broadcast until about one o'clock in the morning, then they'd play the national anthem against the backdrop of a flag waving. After that, they'd go to static. Likewise, early in the morning, if you turned on one of the major network stations, there'd be static, then just before they started their broadcasting day, there'd be a test pattern, then the broadcast would begin, usually around five o'clock a.m.)
To help fill in content, TV started showing old movies.
But these would be only a very small selection of movies, they'd be reformatted to conform to the square aspect of TV screens, they'd be chopped up to allow the insertion of commercials every fifteen minutes, and they'd be edited, either to remove objectionable content, or to fit the movie within the rigid timelines of the movie's broadcast slot (i.e., a movie two hours long would have scenes cut out of it to fit into a one and a half hour time slot, with commercials.)
Eventually, a few of the major cities in America started revival houses, theaters that specialized in showing older films as they were originally released, uncut and uninterrupted. This was great, but if you lived in ninety percent of America, you were out of luck.
In 1974, Jerry Harvey launched Z Channel in Los Angeles, the first pay cable station in the United States, long before HBO. Z Channel allowed you to see full-length, uncut films in your own home. They featured a lot of cinema classics, plus a huge array of foreign films, and many offbeat movies. They popularized the use of letterboxing on TV, and were among the first to feature a director's cut of a film, rather than the cut used for a film's theatrical release.
Z Channel deserves a lot of credit. Far more than it's gotten. Jerry Harvey was a true pioneer. Admittedly, he was also a tortured individual, committing suicide in 1988, after murdering his wife.
Z Channel pioneered the idea of seeing uncut films in your own home, but of course in order to see them, you had to tune in at a specific time.
In the mid-seventies, several companies came up with the idea of producing movies on tape, which could be rented, or purchased, and shown at home on a standard TV, using a video cassette recorder (VCR).
The selling point was the extraordinary convenience of the system. You could buy or rent a movie whenever you wanted, watch it whenever you wanted, stop it whenever you wanted.
Sony introduced Betamax tapes in 1975. In 1976, the Japanese company Matsushita (which owned Panasonic and JVC), introduced the VHS (Video Home System) tape format.
There was no question Betamax produced a superior videotape, but the early Betamax tapes could only be one hour long, so an entire Hollywood movie couldn't fit on one tape (convenience, again), and the company refused to produce pornographic films, which was a large part of the early market.
By 1988, VHS dominated the market, and Betamax was a discarded technology.
We first became aware of videotapes in 1982, because we'd see them in the Maine supermarkets where we shopped.
We were anxious to try them, but we were living in a Holiday Inn at the time, so we didn't get a chance.
When we finally got our own apartment again, we immediately went to the local supermarket and rented a tape.
We took it home, along with our rented VCR (video stores back then rented VCRs as well as tapes, since so few people had VCRs.)
We hooked everything up to our TV, but the tape wouldn't play. I think in part because we seriously doubted such a miracle was possible, that we could actually see an uncensored movie on our TV whenever we wanted.
I called the supermarket, and they talked me through the buttons I had to press.
And there it was, the first movie we ever saw on VCR. Eating Raoul.
The experience was incredible.
For a dollar, we could rent a movie in a container the size of a book, take it home, watch that movie on our TV. We could stop the movie any time we wanted, to pee or fix a new drink, rewind it if we wanted to rewatch a particularly well-done scene. And we didn't have to leave our bedroom. (Of all our early video tape viewings, the one I remember the most was Day of the Dead. We were eagerly awaiting its release, got to the local video store as soon as it opened, and managed to get a copy. Back then, we watched about a dozen movies a weekend. As it happened, we didn't get around to Day of the Dead until one o'clock in the morning. As soon as we started watching it, outside in the large parking lot below our third story apartment, these horrible screams started up. The complex we lived in back then, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, was out in the sticks. Crouching down by our bedroom's windowsill, shining a high-powered flashlight outside, we realized the screams were coming from the large green dumpster in the far corner of the lot. Two male raccoons were baring fangs at each other, screeching, over who got first pick of the garbage. The screaming was an incredibly eerie sound effect that enhanced our enjoyment of the movie.)
"And managed to get a copy."
That was the problem.
If you went into a ma and pa video rental store (which have all but vanished now), or a Blockbuster, you'd be guaranteed they'd have a copy of Abbot and Costello's Co-ed Troubles from fifty years ago, but chances are the three copies they had of the latest popular movie released on videotape were already rented. Bummer.
What we took to doing, once we were in Texas, was going to Blockbuster each Sunday morning as soon as they opened. The return bin would be overflowing with videotapes members had returned either Saturday night or early Sunday morning, on the way to church, and we'd almost always get what we wanted. Afterwards, on the way home, we'd stop by a fast food place (Taco Bell, Sonic, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack in the Box), load up on big white steaming bags, take all our treasures home, roll down the garage door, and watch the latest releases while we chowed our way through an incredible array of delicious fast food.
But then Blockbuster got weird.
Even though we returned our movies on time, putting them in the drop-off box, they claimed they hadn't received them until a day later. Sometimes, they claimed they never got them back, although when we'd go to the store, their scan would show otherwise. The quality of their customer service, in other words, dropped drastically over the past few years.
So we started thinking about how we were going to rent movies without all these problems.
I did a little research, and came up with Netflix.
Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix owned no stores. Instead of driving to a physical location to rent DVDs, then driving back a day or two later to return them, a nuisance if you didn't otherwise have to go out, with Netflix you ordered your DVDs over the Internet. They'd be delivered to your mailbox the next day. You could keep the DVDs as long as you wanted, with no late fees. When you decided to return them, you just dropped them in the mail.
It was great.
No getting up early, no standing in line, no having to throw street clothes over pajamas. Plus we loved the no late fees policy. Sometimes we didn't see all the movies we rented in a single weekend. With Blockbuster, we'd have to return the DVD, or, in effect, pay for it twice, in the form of late fees. With Netflix, we could keep a DVD for a month, without any additional charges.
The first few years we used Netflix, it was wonderful.
And most of America agreed.
If a blogger was talking about a particular movie, he or she would always include a link, "Netflixable Here" with the blog, the link going to the page on Netflix for renting the movie.
No one ever said, "Blockbusterable Here."
Netflix was started by Reed Hastings in 1997. In a press release, he said he had been a Blockbuster customer, but was irritated by Blockbuster's habit of charging customers additional rates if they didn't return movies within a three-day window. Hastings' idea was to charge customers a flat monthly rate, and allow them to keep a certain number of DVDs, based on the monthly rate they paid, as long as they wanted.
At the time, Hastings' idea was applauded. A modern day hero!
But in fact, Netflix has been accused of "throttling." Throttling is a practice where even though in theory there are no penalties for holding a DVD longer than a few days, in actual practice, according to the charge, Netflix discriminates against customers who do in fact hang on to DVDs, or rent the maximum number of rentals they're paying for. The charge is that Netflix gives priority to people who rent only one or two movies a month (even though they're entitled, under their contract, to more), and who return movies within a day or two of receiving them. In essence, Netflix is imposing a late fee, by not sending out new releases to people who hold movies longer than a few days, or rent DVDs up to their quantity limit.
The charge appears to be true.
Over the years we've been Netflix customers, we were almost always able to get new releases the week they were released. They'd be shipped on Tuesdays when new DVDs are released, we'd get them Wednesday or Thursday, watch them Sunday, put them back in the mail Monday, and they'd be received back at Netflix by Tuesday.
But the past half year, service at Netflix has declined drastically.
New releases are almost never available any more from Netflix. There's almost always a "Very Long Wait." We put in an order for A Night at the Museum prior to its release. We didn't receive it from Netflix until over two months after its release. That's happened to us with dozens of new releases. Lately, we've also noticed that a number of Netflix disks we do receive have a screen near the beginning of the disk that reads, "Intended for Sale Only. Not to be Rented." So what's that all about? Is Netflix renting movies it's not supposed to?
Finally, in disgust, we looked at Blockbuster Online. Same deal, where you rent DVDs over the Internet, get them, return them, by mail.
Blockbuster Online's working model is obviously inspired by Netflix, except it's far more efficient. Whereas we almost never get new releases from Netflix, we almost always get the same new releases, right away, from Blockbuster.
Reed Hastings hated the corporate indifference of Blockbuster, which caused him to start Netflix. But over the years, Reed Hastings has become what he hated. An indifferent corporation. Funny how it works out that way sometimes.
So even though we're still Netflix customers, although we've cut back to the bare bones service plan, we're essentially Blockbuster customers again.
All of which goes to show, the thing about life is that nothing is permanent. Even though you're happy today, chances are you'll feel grief tomorrow (then happiness again, the next day.)
Even though we love Blockbuster Online right now, I'm sure in six months, three years, we'll hate it. That's how life works.
Netflix and Blockbuster are still primitive technology movie-delivery systems. As with party line phone service, you have to wait in a queue to get what you want, only this queue may last a month, or longer. We need instant delivery of movies over the Internet, which both corporations are testing right now, but that service has to include the latest theatrical releases (meaning a film is downloadable the same day it premieres in Hollywood, limousines pulling up, searchlights crossing yellow beams in the dark blue sky), the film has to be transferable to a DVD disk, so it can be played on our televisions, not just our pc monitor, and if it's encrypted at all, the encryption has to allow us at the very least unlimited viewings over a one-month period.
But what's really important, of course, which has nothing to do with corporations, are those serendipitous moments when it all comes together (like those two warring raccoons providing the perfect background noise in the green trash bin.)
Mary and I stuck with John from Cincinnati to the end. The day after the final episode of the season aired, HBO announced it was canceling the series.
Which, to me, makes sense.
JFC started out strong in its early episodes, but as the season progressed, the series grew less and less focused. Most of the episodes took place, in large part, in the parking lot of the motel where Butchie lived. Nothing much happened. Although the writers appeared to devote a lot of creative thought to dialogue, they devoted almost no thought to the plot.
Some fans of the show have said that was the great thing about JFC. "It defied conventional narrative."
The thing is, "defying conventional narrative" may be interesting in concept, but in actual practice, it's kind of boring.
When Stanley Kubrick originally released 2001: A Space Odyssey, he had a long segment in the middle of the film where the camera simply followed the astronauts around while they lived their everyday life in outer space. The segment was incredibly boring. Kubrick meant it to be. He wanted to show that even an experience as extraordinary as living in outer space tended, eventually, to become boring. It's a good point. And he showed it in an honest way, by making it boring. But it absolutely killed interest in his movie. People didn't like sitting through the boring part. So he changed it. He re-edited that segment, and removed the boring sequences.
Life is random, but to portray that randomness in JFC, without any kind of strong narrative drive, made the show seem listless. I have the impression David Milch at some point simply stopped caring about the show. Maybe he was mad at HBO for canceling Deadwood before its fourth, concluding season. But after watching so many middle episodes where nothing really happened, just more and more characters appearing, exchanging odd dialogue in the motel parking lot, I felt like I was watching the outtakes from a far more interesting series, for example, Fred From Cincinnati. Too bad Milch didn't decide to do that show, instead.
We won't be renting the DVD of the series, so for once, Netflix and Blockbuster are free from our wrath.