Monday, February 18, 2008

VHS versus Betamax... and the illusion of choice.

"The death knell of Toshiba's HD DVD format sounded on Friday when Wal-Mart decided to stock only Blu-ray DVDs and DVD players from now on. The manufacturer is expected to announce it is officially abandoning the format as early as this week, after trying to put a positive spin on the loss of Warner Bros. as a supporter." -Cindy Turner, Cynopsis, 2/28/2008
I sat out the first steel-cage matches between "formats", namely the Drive-ins versus the multiplex (I was too young, seeing my last Drive-in movie, "Two Minute Warning" when I was eight), and the second such duel between formats "Betamax versus VHS" (My mother wouldn't buy either one) . I won't go into the various audio formats that have forced some of us to buy the same recordings over and over again. Nobody needs to own Pink Floyd's "Animals" three times: on LP; cassettte; and CD. For my part I went with an mp3 download before ever buying the compact disc, that meant waiting roughly 10 years. But honeslty, I figured I just wouldn't listen to that album again after already have been "taken" on albums like "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul". Nobody needs three copies of anything, seriously.
The interesting thing about this latest, wasteful, license-oriented battle between corporation incubated formats? In the most transparent manner in recent history, it was not in any way decided by the consumers (In some ways mirroring that Sony Betamax debacle of the eighties). When one thinks about it, none of the past options for recorded media ever were. Currently there is an increasing move away from projected film in theaters (which actually started in 1999). When I told John Nubian, (Yes, that John Nubian, one of the founders of Black Fimmakers Foundation and one of the smartest and perceptive guys I've ever known and worked with) about this years ago, he said "the public wouldn't stand for it". I reminded him that it was already happening/had happened. Shortly after that, Steven Spileberg's "Minority Report" was projected digitally in many theaters in New York City. Some film houses advertised the novelty of the technology, others simply did it without telling anyone... And that's the point. While there is an illusion of choice, ultimately the final answer is determined by anonymous corporate players. Ultimately we will not see projected celluloid films anymore, -not because the new technology is better, but because it is cheaper and easier. Understand that what you want is not important, the distributors will give you what you'll settle for, and charge you more.

The final outcome of "choice" in America is determined, not by quality, not by accessibility, not by ease of use, but by profit/loss margins identifed by the supplier.

It's a scary statement I know. It essentially means the laws of "supply and demand" are a fiction in America, and the rest of the world, thanks to the machinations and back-door dealings of transnational corporations. If it appears I'm defending Capitalism, you're absolutely right. It needs defending. It's long been exposed as a "fixed-game" where success is achieved by whomever flouts the rules in the most excessive and secretive way possible. In theory, (in the theory still taught in grade schools, high schools and colleges in the U.S.) it is supposed to be a membrane or flux in which fair play is guaranteed, in which you fail or die by the soundness of your thinking and planning, buoyed or sunk by the strength of your efforts, advancing only when you identify consumers' "needs/demands" and meet those demands with the products and services you supply. Capitalism, as practiced in the last four centuries, is a race to see who can screw the public the fastest and the hardest, and do it repeatedly. I don't pretend to know how Adam Smith would have felt about all this, I just know it's not compatible with his written hopes for the world and its economy. It's all due to the "illusion of choice".
...And while you may think that doesn't mean much, that "business is business" and that a VCR is just a VCR, (and it is, -it's just an entertainment device) I would like to suggest that you examine what I am calling the "illusion of choice" as it pertains to education, housing and construction, healthcare and finally our government:
A squad of candidates were funded by corporations and big business for the last year and a half, to meet our demand for a new president. Do you think we're getting better candidates?, or just the ones that we'll settle for?
A Happy President's Day to you all.

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