Monday, April 25, 2005

Don't say anything! I haven't watched it yet.

The other day I saw the headline for an article about the death of watercooler TV talk because of Tivo and similar devices. The idea is that because people are delaying watching Desperate Housewives or Survivor or Lost by recording them on their Tivo, they can't gather round the watercooler and discuss the previous night's episodes without spoiling it for someone.

It got me thinking about a parallel phenomenon; the development of home theater systems and the ongoing shift from watching films in movie theaters to watching them at home. Both are instances of the loss of communal experience. The movie theater experience is obvious, the TV one less so. While the Lost fans probably didn't come together physically, they did temporally, and then discussed the experience the next day. When the number of people using VCRs and DVRs to shift when they watch increases, it disrupts even the temporal communality and therefore the watercooler "campfire".

Today, I made another connection through the increasing privitization of public spaces in the US. We're moving further away from a culture of sharing unique experiences physically and temporally towards one where experiences are preserved and available to indiduals whenever and wherever.

Let me back up a bit. A long time ago, communicating was very much a here-and-now phenomenon. A storyteller entertaining their tribe with tales was a one-time, physically intimate performance. You had to be there at the time to experience it. Even if the storyteller repeated a story, it wasn't exactly the same. Then, we came up with ways to record information; we created media. Pictographs, writing systems, etcetera were increasingly complex methods of transmitting ideas and experiences through space and time.

From this it's a logical supposition that the development of media is the constant process of refining the transmission of ideas and experiences through space and time. I haven't quite thought it all out, but I see a pattern repeating itself through media development, a pattern of increasing and decreasing shared experience. A simplified example would be:

theater -> novel -> film -> TV -> VHS/DVD/Tivo

Theater as a way of telling stories was and is a rigid experience. You are physically there in front of the actors seeing the performance with the rest of the audience. Then writing systems and literacy allowed people to experience the same story, but as a personal experience at random times and places through the novel. Then a new medium, film, was developed and we moved back towards a communal experience. The same story could be seen at different times and places, but you had to get yourself to a specific place and time for the screening and experience it with an audience. Then TV came along. Although you were physically tied down to a place with a TV, TVs quickly became ubiquitous. Time was the real constraint. Particular programs aired at particular times and if you missed it, you were out of luck. Finally we reached the near-present where films and television shows are available with most of the benefits of the novel. Cheap copies are available for people to see whenever and wherever they want, and we can jump backward and forward through the text to whatever degree we like.

You can walk yourself through another example:

town crier -> newspaper -> network news -> web news

Or trace one out yourself.

Now I'm not assigning value to private vs public experience and certainly there are many social factors that influence the development of media as well, I just wanted to throw out what I've been turning over in my head for the past day. The next thing I'll ponder is the push-pull of demands on our time, the pace of modern life, and the desire to see/hear/do as much as possible.

Or to put it another way:

We implement technology for time-shifting,
so events are not observed when they occur.
Everything is preserved. To be seen, eventually.
Always later, when there's time to shuttle time.
In gaining access and lack of overlap,
we've scattered the tribal pack.

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