Category Archives: Media

New year obituary: The death of appointment television

TV boxesI spent an idle half hour on 30th December 1986 looking through the TV schedules in the New Year issue of the Radio Times – a simple matter back then with only 4 channels to worry about – circling with a red biro all the stuff I thought I might like to watch. If only I hadn’t then had to remind myself to sit down and watch them when they were actually being broadcast, I might even have been able to enjoy some of them.

It wasn’t long till we had a better solution of course. Videoing stuff on rather large VHS video tapes meant you needed a new box under your TV, but finally let you record something to watch it later, as long as you got all the programme’s timings and other details right, and assuming it was broadcast as planned and didn’t overrun. The effort involved meant that you really had to want to watch something, so those bulky tapes became prized items, named and stored.

Programming your video became slightly easier with the adoption of VideoPlus+ codes – tortuous number sequences allocated to each and every programme, which when entered into your video recorder magically came up with the right date and time for the broadcast you wanted to record. After a brief foray into laser disks, next came DVDs with their size advantage and superior quality. They were clearly a winner, but the fact it took ages before you could record onto them made sure the VHS format stuck around for years – with the dual format VHS/DVD player still persisting in many houses even today.

DVD player

And then our patience was rewarded, and we got what we thought we’d needed all along: the world turned digital, hard disks got big enough to hold lots of programmes, TVs somehow started recording stuff inside themselves, iPlayer and its equivalents meant you could start to catch up on things online, Sky launched their Sky+ box and Virgin did the same with TiVo. Now, there’s no red-circling needed. Instead, I flick through the listings for my favourite channels either on the web or on the TV, press a single button to record anything that even remotely takes my fancy – either a one-off or an entire series – and create a cache of good telly for any time I feel like watching it (mostly when I’m ironing: it’s not all glamour in the 21st century).

All these changes mean old-style appointment viewing is now limited to special occasions, flagship series or live broadcasts – and as a consequence, the number of times the family congregates in the living room to watch something we all have a shared interest in has dropped dramatically. With the possible exception of Christmas, we no longer ask if there’s anything interesting on TV tonight. Instead, we contemplate the mysterious cache of TV that we’ve already recorded and wonder whether we’ll ever make any inroads into it.

Even when we are watching, we’re often multi-screening – busying ourselves on tablets, laptops or phones – with the TV playing a bit-part in the background. The minimal effort now required to actually record something means that our commitment to viewing it is equally low. We treat electronic storage as a near-infinite commodity, and as a result we value what it contains substantially less.

Perhaps that’s why many of us still have a box somewhere full of precious and often grainy TV programmes, trapped magically inside 240 cubic centimetres of black VHS plastic.

Messaging for letter-writers: a survival guide

Sending a messageWriting letters…ah, yes – I remember. That was what we did before we texted and messaged all day every day. Mercifully I appear to have survived the transition, but not everyone has emerged unscathed. So, in order to preserve the sanity of all involved, we present the followthehumming survival guide to modern messaging – created specially for those who still hanker after the comforting feel of pen on paper.

That was then This is now
Think about writing a letter. There is no think. Only do.
Search for pen and paper. Tighten grip on iPhone in anticipation of imminent communication opportunity.
If not Twitter, decide on messaging service to be used.
Smile inwardly at hoped-for instant replies.
Note increase in pulse and anxiety rates.
Find suitable writing location. Just keep right on doing whatever you were doing before. No really, don’t even stop walking.
Even lamp-posts are more bouncy than they look.
Consider possible topics, rough target length,
nature of intended recipient and
relationship with same; create broad mental
plan and start writing with the
words, ‘Dear Xxxx.’
Finger-type first fifteen words that enter head, choose appropriate emoticons and add five of each, then add ‘x’
Write letter. Enclose photo(s) if feeling daring. Take multiple photos of own face close to camera with surprised expression and mouth open wide. Attach to message.
Seal letter in envelope, address envelope,
obtain correct postage, take to nearest secure postage receptacle and place within; await
arrival of first of many personal couriers who will carefully transport letter to intended recipient
over a period of several days using a variety of vehicles.
Press send. Feel faintly sick until first reply / Like / Favourite / etc. notification is received.
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to have received letter. If no response received within 8 seconds of sending
message, stride about crossly, shouting, ‘But she’s definitely read it! And she must know I know she’s
read it! What’s she doing?’
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to write reply and send using
personal courier network, as above.
If no response to latest message received and total
messages exchanged <= 30, send ‘sad face’ #selfie. If no
further response received, delete recipient from #besties list.
Receive return letter via personal courier, tear open envelope and read about what happened four days ago. Mentally calculate overall message exchange value to
all parties and adjust self-esteem accordingly.

Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

A picture of the future

old cameraDiary date: 8th April, 1986

On this day back in 1986 I was excitedly on my way to the chemists to pick up some photos I’d taken on a weekend away with the university squash team. They featured a lovely girl that I was fairly sure I had just started going out with – I was never very good at reading the signs – so I was looking forward to seeing them even more than usual.

I told this story to my teenage children the other day, and they literally didn’t believe it – least of all the part about the prospective girlfriend. However, it also didn’t escape their attention that I was describing paying someone at the chemists to create and print out photographs for me.

When you think about it, the whole process really was rather unwieldy.

In those days, you bought a one-time-use roll of light-sensitive film which you put carefully into your camera, snaking it round a spool before you closed the case and hoped everything was attached where it should be. You then went about your business taking photos – rather inexplicably in multiples of 12 depending on which film you’d bought – after which you needed to open your camera, pray that everything had worked, and insert another roll. You took your finished film to the nearest chemist or photography shop, and you waited a few days. Then you went back, handed over a fee, and were given a sealed envelope containing your photos. You had no idea if any of them were any good, but you bought them all anyway, sight unseen. As soon as you were out of the shop, you tore open the envelope to find out what you’d just bought, hoping against hope that they weren’t someone else’s pictures. Finally, you selected the ones you wanted to keep (the bar was set very low in those days), put them in a pile with all the rest (or – if you were very organised – in an album), and off you went again.

In comparison, taking photos in 2014 is undeniably sci-fi-like:

1. You take a photo. You could have taken a video just as easily, but hey, you’re old-fashioned like that. And by the way, you probably used your telephone to do it, not your camera: (a) because you can, and, (b) because your phone never, ever leaves your side.

2. You look at your photo on your phone as soon as you’ve taken it and decide if you like it. Maybe you edit it a bit if it isn’t quite what you were after – unless you’re aiming for something like a #nomakeupselfie, that is.

3. Once you’re happy (and regardless of where you happen to be at the time), you probably share your photo immediately with your entire circle of friends and family, using the handy global computer network to which you are almost constantly connected.

4. Within a few minutes, people from all over the world start telling you what they think of your snap – and if they like it too, they might even share it right away with their own friends.

I know we don’t have flying cars yet (come on people, let’s get that sorted!), but photography really has done everything it can to make up for that particular disappointment.

Now all we have to do is find a way to guarantee that all the pictures I take this year will be stored and accessible somewhere in 28 years time – just like that picture of my squash-playing girlfriend, which is still tucked away safely upstairs in my student photo album.

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

Now That’s What I Call…

Diary date: 23rd February, 1986

Having never been much of a shopper, it’s rare for my diary to mention things I may have bought at the time. But I made an exception on this date in 1986 and recorded with great excitement that I had belatedly added the cassettes of “Now That’s What I Call Music 3” to the others in my collection. For obvious reasons, I’m going to ignore the fact that the series has just reached number 87.

At the time, ‘Now!‘ felt ridiculously revolutionary. Companies like K-Tel and Ronco had been advertising and releasing ‘Various Artists’ compilations since the 70’s, but the tracks they had access to meant that you largely bought the records for the sake of two or three songs – or that you were buying material that already felt dated.

‘Now!’ was the first time two major labels – EMI and Virgin – had joined forces, and the result was a track list that was much more representative of the charts at the time. Not only that, but a combination of slick operations and genuine enthusiasm seemed to turn around each new ‘Now!’ more and more quickly. We started buying them as relatively representative of current music rather than out of a sense of retrospective nostalgia.

The other advantage of ‘Now!’ was the instant boost that it gave your mix tapes. Having previously spent hours on Sunday evenings with a microphone up against the radio – making excruciatingly poor quality recordings of Radio 1‘s chart show – ‘Now!’ gave you both high quality and a half-decent choice. Songs you hadn’t liked first time around were suddenly more appealing just because they were easily available.

With its numerous spin-offs – genre-specific editions, computer games, karaoke, quizzes, retrospectives, even its own TV channel – and its ability to react to market and technological change, ‘Now!’ has been a consistent thirty-year success story. The brand has adapted to survive the introduction of reproducible formats like CDs and MP3s, the advent of mass personal storage in the form of MP3 players, and the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster. As such, it stands in marked contrast to the music business as a whole, an industry which spent years in denial of the fact that – whether it was desirable or not – digital music distribution had changed everything.

From Walkman to iPod: Hello to abundance

Cassette and pencilDiary date: 30th December, 1985

My favourite Christmas present of 1985 was a Sony Discman my parents bought me to replace the ageing cassette-based Walkman that had served me so well on my travels over the previous four years. With its at-the-time revolutionary ability to jump from track to track instantly and its mysterious ESP – Electronic Skip Protection – the Discman (subsequently renamed CD Walkman) was a must-have for any mobile music lover whose collection was slowly migrating from cassette tape to compact disc. But despite its shiny shell and space age curves, it failed to solve the one issue which made travelling with a tape-based Walkman so difficult: the need to choose the limited amount of music you would take with you in advance.

Deciding which tapes – and subsequently which CDs – would accompany you on your travels was a major undertaking. Lack of space meant only a few albums or mixtapes would win a coveted place in your already packed rucksack – and the considerations and implications of your musical choices were legion:

Which of your current favourites had earned the right to come with you – and how would you choose them? Should you side with the novelty of the album you bought last week and still weren’t quite sure about, or was it better to stick with the tried and tested mixtape that could make you feel at home even when you were on the road? You might like both of them now, but how would they sound once you’d listened to them dozens of times in the space of a few days?

What would your choices say about you once your cassette cases were spotted by others? Would your tapes convey enough of a sense of taste, hipness, tortured artistry, fun and mystery? Would they make you more or less attractive to the opposite sex? And would your selection be sufficiently swappable and shareable as far as your friends were concerned?

How many albums would fit in your bag – and how many was it practical to carry? Which tape would start its life in the Walkman itself, and spend its non-playing days living in the cases of the other cassettes you’d chosen to take with you?

Then there were the practical considerations. Chief amongst these: batteries. I was lucky if my first Walkman lasted 2-3 hours with a brand new set of AAs – and even then the volume for the final hour would slip gradually ever lower. The condition of the tape itself was also important. Any cassette that had previously required rescuing with a pencil was immediately a non-starter. As for adding new music to your collection while you were on the go…well, a trip to a shop was obviously required, as well as careful thought about how it would fit into a bag that was already stuffed with the music you’d brought with you.

Today’s MP3 players have largely made the discipline and romance of restricted music selection a thing of the past. My iPod currently tells me it contains 1,985 songs, many of which – if I’m honest – I’m fairly sure I haven’t heard in a while. Albums too have been disassembled, with the miraculous instant track skip of the Discman replaced with the instant iPod shuffle between individually favoured songs.

These changes in the way we manage and consume music are symptomatic of the more general shift from yesterday’s scarcity of storage to today’s always-available abundance. Many of the choices we were once forced to make – trivial or otherwise – now feel like they belong to another age, and not a mere decade or two ago.