Saturday 25 June 2016

Future Friday (on a Saturday) #1: The End of Ownership

Hi, it's Friday. On a Saturday.

So among the projects I'm working on right now (City of God, Cosmic Memory) one of the first things I want to do is kickstart a new edition of my futuristic satire game MSG™, which is still out there, still remembered, and which last week at the games shop I did a demonstration game of that was a riot. Because of that I decided to institute Future Friday as a thing on the blog, a weekly thing where instead of talking about history, I talk about, you know, THE FUTURE. Or the present. Or something.

Except it's Saturday. Meh, let's go through with it anyway.

The obvious thing that anyone would want to talk about today is Brexit but to be honest, I really, really don't want to right now. I've even automated my blog so it posts to Facebook and Twitter without me having to look at them (which is pretty futuristic, am I right?) Because I just... can't.

Actually right now, I just want to talk about owning media. Because the age of media ownership is dying.

But then... OK, listen.

I'm not saying this is my favourite show or anything but
OK, look, yes, that's a part of my DVD shelf, and I think you might have a good idea by now what sort of TV I like. No excuses. I happen to like Doctor Who (just don't call me a fan, I like it too much to be one of those).

When I was a kid, when Peter Davison was the Doctor this is, so in the early 80s, no one I knew had a video recorder.

There were three channels, and the likelihood is that if something significant happened, everyone saw it. Everyone in my primary school playground saw the last episode of Blake's 7 where everyone died at the end, for example, and everyone had an opinion. Everyone saw Ghostwatch. Everyone watched Maradona's Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup, even if they didn't like football, because it was the only thing on.

You either saw it or missed it. Even if you were lucky enough to have a video, often, given the cost of recordable tapes, keeping stuff wasn't an option because Mum and Dad wouldn't let you because these things didn't grow on trees. This isn't to say that we didn't keep stuff: I kept my copy of Repo Man, taped off of BBC 2 when I was seventeen, for years, and wore the tape out the number of times I watched it. This is because it is the greatest movie ever made.

And shows were not often repeated. Through the 70s and 80s, most episodes of shows like Doctor Who were on once, and never rebroadcast. Even when people started having video recorders, these shows were gone. Sometimes not even kept by the broadcaster.

For example, there was an English language dubbed version of René Laloux's utterly bleak animation Time Masters which was broadcast on the BBC on summer holiday mornings a couple of times in the mid /late 80s and traumatised millions of kids (the ending is just... the most depressing thing ever). That English language version doesn't exist anymore outside of some shaky reconstructions. It's gone. When broadcast-grade video tape was first manufactured, it was so expensive that broadcasters, once they'd shown a thing once, would take a copy on film to sell abroad and then tape over the original. There are whole swathes of classic TV from the 60s and 70s, even the 80s, that are gone forever, and a fair amount of that which survives is recovered from the vaults of these foreign broadcasters who bought British shows.

There was actually, I learned recently, a black-market trade in videos of old Doctor Who stories in the 80s, sent from people in Australia, Canada and the US who had the old shows being repeated on their networks and which were then taped over and over again until they were almost unwatchable, and passed around for ridiculous sums of money among fans.

The first official BBC Doctor Who release on VHS was Revenge of the Cybermen. It cost £39.99 (equivalent to the buying power of nearly £200 in 2016 money, and approximately £150,000 in post-Brexit money). Revenge of the Cybermen is not even good TV.

By the early 90s though, a library of affordable video tapes was a thing. People started buying movies to keep. By the time I was 20, I had Amadeus and Batman and Barbarella (don't judge me, OK), and several others, a single Doctor Who story, a collection of REM videos (I loved REM when I was in my teens), three official videos of Aeon Flux cartoons and a couple of others. Not all of these were necessarily even my favourites. They were just what I had. It was always about the movies though. TV on VHS was unwieldy as hell.

And then DVDs came along and suddenly the idea of the TV series boxset, so clumsy with VHS tapes, became a thing, and we were binge watching our way through The Wire and Six Feet Under and old episodes of Doctor Who and...

Thinking about it, this whole period of media history hasn't lasted a very long time.

I had thought about getting the DVD of last year's Channel 4 show Humans. I'd been put off for various reasons and decided to give it a shot; and then I found it a few days ago, sitting in a corner of my Virgin Media box, on 4OD. Just there. Ready to watch for free any time.

It's really good, by the way, unsettling and strange and thought-provoking.

It got me thinking that the period of history through which we have had these media – TV drama in its current serial form, other things like it – has been short. The period in which we've widely been able to own it, to have it on our bookshelf like, well, a book, has been even shorter, thirty-five years tops.

But the DVD (and by extension other hardcopy media), barely old enough to drive, is dying. Now, more and more, services like Netflix and Amazon and Now TV and a whole bunch of others are allowing people to access more shows more cheaply... but also temporarily. Like, I was talking to this lovely guy at my Other Place of Work who I call the Precious Boy, and he doesn't bother to watch his favourite shows until they've been entirely broadcast... and then watches them all in a big binge. He's not fussed about owning these things. And like me as a kid, he's got no real wish to watch this stuff more than once. He's a pretty average guy in his tastes, I reckon, not a geek by any stretch.

And that's interesting to me. The kerfuffle from a little while ago about Amazon deleting 1984 from people's Kindles is interesting because it's becoming about other media, other information. The shift has been that we consume these things rather than own them, and that's as true for books as it is for anything else.

Again: the model now is to consume rather than to own, and I wonder where that will take us in future. It's not the same as before the ownership age. Before then, it was on, and then it was gone. Now... It's all there, still ephemeral but no longer depending on your memory (there was an episode of Doctor Who when I was eight that ended with a giant malevolent face crashing through a wall and it haunted my childhood but seeing it now, the magic of that moment is not remotely what I recall). Once TV was a moment, now it's a library, much of it paid. Temporary rather than time bound.

The way we watch TV, the way we consume media, is changing. I don't know if that's better or worse, but it is changing the way we engage with it and is perhaps central to how the inevitable generational shift is working this time round.

I'm an Xer. My experience is of a library of beloved things, kept, treasured and revisited. Now, the possession of these things is ephemeral, related to a subscription rather than a one time payment, and the hardware to consume them with is of a much greater importance, and the media matters less. My generation was obsessed with its rarities, its artisan vinyl and limited editions. Sure, you got the occasional stereo nerd, but that wasn't the main show. The new generation loves these things no less... but cares less about keeping them, doesn't pretend that they are theirs.

Or at least not in the terms of picking up a box from the shelf and going "this is my movie" in the way that you might pick up a beloved, well thumbed book. You see ownership expressed in different ways; engaged with in different ways. The phenomenon of "shipping" for example, which I don't think I can really talk about because I'm too old to understand, but which you see all the time.

People are changing the ways in which they interact with media. Thirty years ago, TV was an appointment, a thing that you either missed or didn't. Fifteen years ago TV was a thing you could own on a shelf. Now, it's something else again.