What happened before YouTube?
It’s a question we’ve addressed here many times before. Many different histories lead to our current moment of video sharing and DIY media-making — some subcultural (the history of fandom and a range of other communities of practice which are generating new content), some economic, some technological. Lucas Hilderbrand, author of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, holds some critical pieces of the puzzle, writing with historiographical sophistication about the emergence of video as a technology and as set of cultural practices, about the debates it sparked especially around shifts in control over production and distribution, about the communities which formed around the sharing of tapes, and about how all of this looks forward to contemporary digital practices. It is a book which raises vital questions and provides a rich historical context for our current debates.
As someone who lived through the era when the VCR was launched, the book brought back many memories of things I had almost forgotten about the dramatic adjustments which the culture made to this transformative and transgressive technology. Working through the book for an interview, I was struck by the fact that I, like many other instructors, have had very little to say about videotape in my current course on new media and culture, something I will work on the next time I teach it.
Given my enthusiasm for this book, I was delighted to be able to interview Hilderbrand and share with you his own reflections on the ways the history of video can help us to understand some contemporary media developments.
As you note, the debates about videotape form an important precursor to current debates about digital technologies — especially those concerning the implications of expanding grassroots control over media production and circulation and debates around copying and intellectual property. From the start, video was understood as “out of control,” as shifting the balance of power between established media producers and distributors, new entrepreneurs, and consumers. What can we learn from tracing the history of video, which might better inform current discussions around file-sharing, piracy, and YouTube?
For me, the stakes of the project were always largely historical and in response to a threat of cultural amnesia. On the one hand, I was interested in intervening in new media studies, which has historically focused on the newness and nowness of technologies. I was intrigued by work that rethought newness in a historical sense, by returning to the 19th century and examining old media in their own moments of newness. But even this more historical work seemed to erase recent and increasingly obsolete technologies from memory and from the histories of new media. It seemed to me that many of the functions and political struggles surrounding new digital technologies had already pre-existed with tape technologies. I thought that it was important not only to complicate the hype surround new media but also to look back at the lessons we could learn from these prior moments that shaped the present.
In terms of questions of policy and sharing, I was struck that so much of the anxiety about piracy and the litigation around copyright seemed like a replay of the controversies that surrounded audiocassettes and videotape when they were introduced. Both the recorded music and the film industries fought tape because they feared that if audiences could make their own copies, that there would be economic collapse for the content industry. For the film studios, at least, VHS proved to be a huge economic boom. The challenge then, as more recently, was to find a new business model that didn’t alienate the audience but also provided reasonable and accessible ways to market content.
But the differences between digital distribution and analog tape sharing are also obviously significant in terms of efficiency and scale and in terms of their financial threat, so we need a technologically specific understanding of both the material practices and policy implications. But there’s also a major difference between the ways file sharing and burning a DVD work, so even “the digital” needs to be complicated and differentiated.
You describe video as the beginning of “on demand” culture, but also note that this culture has always been constrained on a practical level by issues of availability. How might we carry forward these tensions between the promises and reality of access to think about recent offerings by Amazon, Netflix, and others, that would make more movies and television shows available on demand?
The innovations are largely changes in convenience: as you have suggested in Convergence Culture, convergence often means the availability of the same content across multiple platforms. Even before streaming video, Netflix was functionally the best video store in the world, insofar as it has more selection than any single brick-and-mortar store could, yet even Netflix’s inventory was limited to content that had been released on DVD. There remain treasures and obscurities that have never been made available on DVD. And, of course, every tangible technology wears out eventually, so if Netflix’s discs of a film got scratched, broken, or lost and that title had gone out of print, it could not be rented. So there is always the limitation of what is made materially available.
For me, streaming video creates a different set of issues. On the one hand, people seem very enthusiastic about Netflix streaming and Hulu. These offer instant streaming access to an ever-increasing range of films and TV shows, and these have been two of the leaders in establishing a new business model that makes online distribution economically viable for the industry. But that model is based upon licensing and subscription rather than purchase. In other words, what is sold is time and access, but that access could be cut off at any time–if the user stops paying or the service’s licensing agreement with the rights-owners lapses. Unless users figure out a way to hack, download, and store the material, we are moving toward a model where there is no longer fixity and the assurance of long-term access that a videotape or a DVD allows. We are also moving away from a collector model. This is potentially alarming for fans and especially for teachers and scholars. It will be very hard to teach film and TV when we no longer have stable access or recordings that can be cued. But in the meantime, most people seem to be embracing the streaming model for its convenience. It’s been an economic boom for Netflix, and I frequently hear people complain if they have to wait for a DVD to be mailed rather than have streaming access.
Your book argues that issues of access and copying give rise to an aesthetic that recognizes if not respects the reality of “degeneration” which characterizes all analog video. Yet the digital introduces the potential for a “pristine” copy, an image that does not wear down through use. In my own research, I’ve watched aesthetic shifts in the fan vidding world between early vids which showed rainbow lines and other technical imperfections which emerged from the process of copying and more recent work that uses digital editing techniques and uses DVDs for the source material. What changes do you think have occurred in “video” aesthetics as a consequence of the shift from analog to digital?
First, I’d like to challenge the concept that digital technologies are perfect. Although in principle reproduction should not involve degeneration, most digital reproduction does involve compression, which is a different kind of loss. Perhaps I didn’t think this through as clearly as I could have at the time when I was writing: analog reproduction operates through degeneration, digital reproduction through compression. In addition, so many of our interactions with new technologies involve frustration and troubleshooting, whether it’s an unreadable DVD or a problem toggling a laptop to a projector or an email missing an attachment. Some of these problems are about mechanical failure, others about human error.
In terms of resolution, I was struck that, when the electronics and content industries began the push for audiences to adopt HD TVs and DVD formats, we saw more rapid adoption of low-resolution video technologies, from YouTube to cameraphones. These low-res options have become increasingly refined to allow for clearer resolution, but it seemed to me that it was convenience rather than pristine quality that generated a massive response. That said, there are numerous instances on YouTube and elsewhere that viewers will prefer a high-quality copy when it’s equally available. But we also see a blurring of the two models of “prosumer”: producer-consumers often have access to professional-consumer grade technologies that allow for slick fan productions.
Yet evolutions in video aesthetics, I think, make outmoded image resolutions not just dated but increasingly visible. When I started thinking through analog video aesthetics, there wasn’t much analytical work to build from, but there are now many popular examples that suggest recognition of what old video technologies look like. The technology has become a style. A friend told me that his iPhone has a filter on its camera to make the image look like VHS. I’ve seen similar effects that make still images look like Polaroids. So now we have a fetishization of the retro.
Lucas Hilderbrand is faculty in film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to core courses on film and TV, he teaches classes on popular sound media, documentary, sex in cinema, Disney, and queer nightlife. He is a contributor to flowtv.org
and is currently researching the cultural history of gay bars in the U.S.