In the May 14 issue of the New Yorker Magazine there is a review by Steven Shapin of a book called "The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900" (the books author is David Edgerton). The premise of the book--and Shapin's
article--is that innovation in technology is never, in and of itself, the whole story. Rather time, and the way in which humans eventually come to regard and use technology, tends to have much more to do with whether or not a given innovation is ultimately successful (i.e.--we can't imagine life without it) or merely a passing fad. Sometimes new mediums are not
even correctly understood for a good many years. An example is the telephone which, the article points out, was initially presumed to be a device only for use by the upper classes and one that could, if not monitored closely, lead to the end of interpersonal human contact as we know it.

Edgerton also coins a term to describe the tendency to overrate new technology, "futurism". Examples would be: one-hour around the world airships, underground housing, the paperless office, efficient nuclear power.

So which are the new technologies that movies face that will truly radically alter the experience? And which will drop into the dustbin of "futurism"?

A couple of widely held assumptions follow, along with responses (guesses) on my part:

"I-Pods will be the preferred method of viewing movies. The result will be that movies will get shorter because the attention span for watching anything on a small screen)is much shorter than other wise."

I hear this a lot. The "futurism" seems to be the assumption that i-pods (or similarly shaped and functioning devices) will be the preferred method of viewing. I-pod screens may be used to store and/or download films, but has anyone ever seen a fetish as extreme as the fifty-inch flat screen panic of the past year or two? The cheaper they get, the more ubiquitous they will be in our lives. Frankly, it is the i-pod that strikes me as the device that will change--in the way we use it--over time. Could it be an efficient storage device at best? And a backup viewing tool if the need arises?

As to whether the form--three acts, two hours--will change, I still cling to the notion that drama found this form--with slight variations in the number of acts and the general length-- thousands of years before the invention of the feature film and it has proven resiliant for a reason. This seems to be about the time needed to introduce a set of people, a problem and enough interesting complications and resolutions to make the catharsis--the journey--feel real enough and earned.

"Movie Theaters will stop showing anything but spectacle sized movies."

Again, the "futurism" here is found in the belief that a certain kind of movie will always be popular--in this case the "tentpoles" so trumpeted in the last few years (Spiderman, Pirates, Shrek, etc.) Movie tastes are fluid, dependent on the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. Ocne upon a time it was for musicals and westerns. Super-sized "quadrant" movies will probably look, in twenty years, awfully reminiscent of the early twenty-first century. Meanwhile the communal viewing experience will have evolved in another direction, another genre etc. Just as television provided an additional form of viewership and one that didn't compete in a direct way with the communal viewing experience, so will all forms of new media support and enhance the age old custom of humans sitting with other humans to watch humans act stuff out.

"Youtube" (or a similar service) will replace normal television as we know it."

This seems to me perfectly sensible and more than likely. And why not? What inherent goodness is there in the "old Europe" (to quote the disgraced but still amusingly quotable Donald Rumsfeld) model of TV watching, as it was developed -- essentially -- in 1948 and never really changed. (Even with cable and on-demand TV watching is still, one way or another, dependent on the programs being available at the service provider's discretion). What youtube has done is created a gallery of work that is accessible at any time. This one strikes me as the keeper--the idea that, once we get used to it, we will never be able to turn back the clock on.

In a recent NY Times artical, film critic A.O. Scott coined a term to desribe this phenomena. He calls it "The Virtual Cinemateque." (At least i think he coined it. If he didn't then the hell with him anyway--I have no desire beyond accuracy to do A.O. Scott any favors). As a major fan and user of youtube I can only look forward with real pleasure to anything of interest to me--no matter how old, new, obscure, popular--being available with a click. What will such a world look like?Probably not all that different than our world looks now. Movie theaters, flat screens, i-pods. The screen is the same as its function, no matter what its size.

And the fear that the future will be unrecognizable, as opposed to merely a varieation on the present, is probably as perfect an example of "futurism" as can be found. After all, are we all living in suburban space colonies as was predicted forty years ago in the revolutionary animated drama "The Jetsons?"


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  2. Great summary of the HDTV format debate by Michael Pusateri

    For those interested in a brief history of HDTV, here it is:
    Here’s how it went:

    Broadcast Industry asks for bandwidth for HDTV
    FCC says “OK, we’ll set aside bandwidth for HDTV”
    FCC says “What standards?”
    Industry says ‘No Standards Please’ and come up with EIGHTEEN recommended formats for HDTV. I am not shitting you.
    FCC says “Isn’t 18 different standards a bit much?”
    Industry says “Shut the fuck up FCC, we know what we are doing. The ‘market’ will handle this!”
    Consumer Electronics dudes whine “18 formats make every thing cost more, you are fucking us!”
    FCC says “OK, it’s your call on standards, 18 formats is fine, infact there are NO STANDARDS AT ALL, ’cause we are letting the ‘market decide’, but you start broadcasting HDTV now or we take back the FREE bandwidth.”
    Industry says “What? We really just want the free bandwidth. You really want us to do HDTV??
    Congress says “Fuck you Industry. Broadcast HDTV or we’ll legislate your asses back to Sun-day!”
    Industry says “We’re fucked. 18 formats? Why the hell did we do that? Let’s change it.”
    Consumer Electronics dudes say “You ain’t changing shit. We are already building the boxes you said you wanted built.”
    FCC says “Yah, ya boneheads we told you 18 was too many, now you gotta live with it.”
    Industry says “Well FCC, will you at least make the cable companies carry the HDTV at no charge?”
    Cable companies say “Fuck you! You gotta pay! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!”
    FCC says “Yep, no federal mandated on HDTV must carry, we are letting ‘the market’ handle that”
    Industry says “We are so fucked. We are spending 5-10 million per TV station in hardware alone and have 1000 HDTV viewers per city, even in LA!”
    Consumer at home says “Where is my HDTV? Why does it cost so much? Fuck it, I’m sticking with cable/DirecTV.”

    Consumer electronics dudes, broadcast industry, FCC, and congress all cry. Cable companies laugh and make even bigger profits.