Column: As the VCR finally dies, a lament for once-great technologies
It’s a little silly to lament the demise of a technology that has been well-demised for years.
But last week’s announcement that production will cease within days at the last Japanese factory manufacturing VCRs is a cause for reflection — both about where we’ve been technologically and where we’re going.
“It’s one of those moments,” Langdon Winner, a professor in the department of science and technology studies in New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said of the end of VCR production.
“I’m 72,” he told me. “I’ve lived long enough to remember 78 rpm records, then 45 rpm, then LPs. Now we’re streaming music.”
Obviously, this is evidence of technological progress. But various tech experts I spoke with also saw a more complex narrative at work.
What we’re seeing is the rise of individual fulfillment and the loss of group experiences.
— Langdon Winner, professor at New Yorkâs Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
“What we’re seeing is the rise of individual fulfillment and the loss of group experiences,” Winner said. “Consumer electronics increasingly focus on personal satisfaction. In a sense, it’s a way of trying to take control of your life.”
There’s something to that. The trend, clearly, is one of individual empowerment, and interaction not through personal encounters but through impersonal digital networks. Shared experiences now frequently transpire through the buffer of Facebook or Twitter, bringing us closer while keeping us at a distance.
Meanwhile, the old gives way to the new. Yahoo once was the gatekeeper to the Web. On Monday, its core assets were purchased for almost $5 billion by Verizon, which also owns whatever’s left of AOL, another example of digital roadkill.
The video cassette recorder was a turning-point technology, enabling home viewing of movies that otherwise would have had to be seen in theaters, and allowing TV owners for the first time to take control of their viewing schedule.
I remember when my dad brought home one of the first Sony Betamax VCR players. As with the 1974 arrival of the Z Channel — the first encounter most Los Angeles residents had with a premium movie channel — the VCR represented an astonishing step forward in home entertainment.
Think of it: Movies. In your home. On Your TV. Without cuts or commercials. The marketing hook for the Betamax player was “watch whatever whenever.”
This was as mind-blowing for me as would be my later encounters with the Sony Walkman and, of course, the Internet.
Murray Millson, a business professor at Cal State Monterey Bay with a background in electrical engineering, said a question that’s often overlooked is “whether humanity is more sane” as a result of profound technological change.
“Sanity, as I have used the word, implies thoughtful consideration of the use of and understanding of the technology,” he said. It also means not being irresponsible, “such as using cellphones while driving or searching for Pokemon in dangerous areas, such as on cliffs.”
Say this for the VCR: Falling off a cliff while hunting Pokemon was never a concern.
Japan’s Nikkei newspaper reported that Funai Electric will stop making VCRs at the end of the month. The company had been making VHS recorders under various brands since 1983, most recently for Sanyo. At its production peak, it was churning out 15 million VCRs a year.
Last year, Funai’s VCR production totaled just 750,000 units. Now it can’t find the parts to keep going.
“A company that was making parts for us said it was too tough to keep making them with sales at this level so they stopped, which led to our decision — we can’t make them without that part,” Funai said in a statement.
Like me, you’re probably thinking, “I didn’t know they even made these things any more. Who buys them?” The answer is that VCRs were sold primarily in developing countries, where consumers may not be able to keep pace with every technological advance coming down the pike.
Bet you didn’t know this either: It wasn’t until this March that Sony stopped making Betamax video cassettes. Again, there was demand in some countries for the things, even though Betamax lost the VCR war to JVC’s VHS format in the late 1980s.
VHS, in turn, bowed to DVD players about a decade later. And now DVDs are being elbowed aside by Blu-ray.
“Technology companies make money off planned obsolescence,” said Coleen Carrigan, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “We always have to keep paying more for consumption of entertainment.”
While the positive aspects of digital technology are undeniable, she said, “our sense of community, and our participation in communities, has been diminished.”
I used to go to the movies all the time with my son. Now we seldom go because he can access first-run movies online while they’re still in theaters (which is a crime, boys and girls, so don’t try this at home). So I typically wait for a movie to reach HBO and then, more often than not, I watch it by myself.
That’s not to imply that binge-watching on Netflix, say, represents the decline of civilization. Most of us would agree that this expands entertainment options. But it also means that many people may choose to stay home alone when they might have chosen in the past to go out with others.
Andrew Nelson, an associate professor of management at the University of Oregon who studies innovation, calls this the “fallacy of substitution.” That is, you think you’re substituting one thing for another, but actually you’re giving something up.
“For example,” he said, “MP3s make music-listening far easier and possible in more places than LPs. Yet what’s lost, or what’s not substituted, are the experiences of pulling an LP out of its sleeve and admiring the cover art — the tactile experience of holding the rim of a record, setting it on a turntable and lowering the needle in anticipation of the first track.”
Will anyone mourn the passing of the VCR? I doubt it.
But I used to have shelves full of videotapes of movies I loved. Then I had shelves full of DVDs.
Now I have subscriptions to HBO and streaming services, and I no longer surround myself with the likes of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Night at the Opera” and “Star Wars.”
I miss my friends.