Replay: The day things changed so fast…
Today is not only Black Friday. It’s also Record Store Day in the U.S. Bet you didn’t know that, did you?
In an effort to buck the trend of everything being bits on a screen, there’s been a push lately back to vinyl, that flat bendable material containing etchings of your favorite music that you can hold in your hand.
Last year’s acclaimed movie American Hustle, which takes place in the 1970s, is seeing its soundtrack released on vinyl on this day, including some songs that were not put on the original digital release. It seems a fitting gesture for a movie that takes place back when home computers looked like this and most computers still looked like this. (For a little bit of bragger’s rights, my dad helped design that machine. I still remember the drawings he did. He, on the other hand, used to laugh at people buying these new “toys” that the hobby shops were selling. “What will anyone do with one?” he’d say.)
So I thought it would be appropriate to rerun this post I did a while back about how things have changed—in particular in just the last couple of years, and how more and more people are sort of wishing some of it would change back. at least some.
The story of Entertaining Welsey Shaw starts somewhere in 2008 and ends up in the present day. That’s not a very long span of time. Yet the social changes that happen between the beginning and the end are seismic.
In 2008 people still primarily watched movies either in the theater or on their home TVs. Fairly big screens, in other words. In 2008 people still went shopping by going shopping. In 2008 people read newspapers and magazines—those things made of paper and print.
In 2008 Virgin Megastores still lined streets of major cities. Okay, Tower was already defunct, but it had been gone less than a year, as much a product of stagnant and complacent management as the changing times. Their size and selection were the only things that made them relevant to me even when they were flying high, and Amazon did them in easily. (I used to know a cashier at a Tower Records, and she told me once that management felt they had a product that sold itself and they’d never have to do anything beyond make sure the doors opened at 10am every day. How wrong.)
Borders and Barnes & Noble were still considered big conglomerates. Today, with Amazon dominating, Borders is gone and B&N is viewed by many as a small player in the “bookseller wars.”
In 2008, you could go into a bookstore and browse. Today many of those retail space are phone stores, where you can look at shiny rectangle after shiny rectangle—well, actually even that’s not true anymore. With Nokia and BlackBerry—Welsey’s phone of choice—disappearing, you can mostly look at two rectangles, the Samsung and the Apple.
I remember a scene in the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters: Michael Caine bumps into Barbara Hershey and suggests they go somewhere romantic to pass the time—a bookstore. She says, “You can browse here all day.” How quaint. I imagine future generations, not born when Hannah came out in 1985, wondering what that experience of browsing for books or magazines or records was like. Maybe some future Disney “Main Street U.S.A.” theme land will show a book or record shop or video store, complete with facsimiles of these strange items people used to line up to buy.
I really wonder how people can enjoy burying their heads in an electronic device instead of going out and socializing. You certainly have more control of your environment—a recent commercial makes a joke out of how doing everything with our phones has made us all control freaks, but I see this as no joke. A certain randomness, a chance for coincidence, has been eliminated. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea. I don’t know if this makes me an old foagie but I do wonder where kids go after school these days. Probably to their rooms and their phones and pads, if they’re not on overdrive studying accelerated coursework to get into that super-duper college to the tune of $50,000 a year.
At the end of Entertaining Welsey Shaw, the story’s narrator notes all the things that aren’t there anymore. One of them, though he doesn’t exactly say it, is different options for what to do. If you want music today there’s pretty much one way. If you want books you have to settle for Amazon’s preview-one-page option. You can watch entertainment any time you want pretty much, but the screen is tiny, and hasn’t the point of movies or TV shows always been the shared experience? Roger Ebert once observed that watching TV alone was a depressing experience; he said he never laughed at comedies, because he found laughing alone to be depressing.
Of course these new developments have advantages too, and I come off sounding gloomier than I am. It’s amazing to have access to whole treasure-troves of information at the click of a mouse or the tap of s screen, although when I look at most people in public places they’re texting and posting selfies on Facebook, not changing the world by writing symphonies and poems, as the Apple ads would have you believe.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about a nostalgia for the early-mid 90s. While there’s a wistful feeling for every era about 15-20 years later, I have to note that during this time-frame the Internet was around, but it hadn’t yet taken over our lives. We ruled it. It didn’t rule us. You could “surf” online, to use the then-popular term, but you could go to a bookstore or shop in a large choice of well-stocked department stores, or see a variety of movies beyond the current IMAX blockbusters. And you could pick up the phone and talk to a person when you needed assistance. You couldn’t have a virtual friendship with someone on the other side of the world as easily. But you could have a real one with the person at the next table in the coffee shop. Everything was a little bit harder. But it was also a little bit more real.
Funny thing is at the time, we didn’t think this was anything special…