When I heard Netflix was ending its DVD-by-mail service at the end of September 2023, meaning no more red envelopes, my first thought was, wait, they’re still doing that? And then I thought how it marked not just the end of an era for Netflix but also yet another change in how we relate to the things we watch: movies and TV shows, documentaries, even home recordings, although that last term itself seems anachronistic.
It feels strange to remember a time before VCRs, before even cable TV, a time when there were, for us at least, only four channels—maybe five if we had the local UHF station. And while I think I’ve always been conscious of the changes the time it really hit me just how much things had changed was one night when my wife and I were babysitting one of my nieces. The Wizard Of Oz happened to be on. I remembered when I was a kid there was usually an annual showing of The Wizard Of Oz on some channel, around Easter, maybe, or Thanksgiving, or maybe in the middle of summer. Some time when whatever network was showing it needed a boost. Anyway we turned on The Wizard Of Oz because we thought my niece, who was pretty young at the time, would enjoy it. It was on one of the cable channels—a basic channel, not one of the premium movie channels. And as we were watching the opening my niece asked, “Can we fast-forward through this part?”
No, we couldn’t. To be able to fast-forward we’d have to have it on videocassette—this was before DVDs—and we didn’t, and if I did I probably would have have had a version with “Dark Side Of The Moon” as its soundtrack, but that’s another story. And we couldn’t fast-forward through those pesky commercials either.
When DVDs came along they weren’t that much of a transition. We had to have new players but, hey, we’d already been through that with CDs, and we were able to buy a combination VCR/DVD player so we wouldn’t have to throw out all the videocassettes just yet. And you could use the media player in your desktop computer, or your laptop, if you had one, the player you used to burn CDs, to play your DVDs. I never tried but I suspect you could also use a CD player to play a DVD. There just wouldn’t be anything to see.
Speaking of CDs I remember what a revelation those were in terms of audio quality, but, like DVDs, they really didn’t change anything as far as how we owned and consumed music. I say the changes I’ve seen feel strange to me but then I think about the changes people just a couple of generations before me saw. In Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf the main character hates radio and the gramophone, which were still relatively new in 1927 when Hesse wrote the novel, because he feels they defile music. The technology of the time layered music with pops, hisses, and crackles, which was part of his frustration, but they also made music transportable. You could listen to a full orchestra alone in a room, or while eating, or making love, something most people wouldn’t want to do among a group of live musicians–not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It must have been extraordinary, a revolution I couldn’t imagine because I was born into a world where portable music, purchasable music, was everywhere, available to almost anyone.
And I was born just eight years after Herman Hesse died.
I’m not trying to sound like an old man yelling at clouds—a joke that’s only been around since 2002, and that’s only been a meme since, well, whenever memes became a popular form of internet communication, but I do wonder where the current changes are taking us. And they’re not necessarily bad. To go back to CDs, actually to go back all the way to gramophones, a recording for the first time allowed a person to, for lack of a better word, own a moment of time that would have otherwise been lost. A recording captured what had previous always been ephemeral. It also turned those moments into commodities—something that could be sold, but you could also keep it.
Now we’re moving, more and more, into a world where you don’t own a recording of a song or a TV show or a movie—you lease it, and your ability to watch it whenever you want depends on the company that holds it. Hey, sorry your favorite movie got pulled from the streaming service you’re paying for. On the bright side there’s a lot of other stuff you can watch.
Streaming only seems strange to me if I stop and think about how I used to have to go to a place to buy an album, a cassette, an eight-track, a CD, to rent or buy a movie on laser disc, Betamax, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, and while I tell myself, hey, at least I owned those things, I also know they had a shelf life. Some of my older DVDs might as well be coasters.
I also think about a time that, for some reason, feels like the distant past but was really only eight or nine years ago, when someone said to me, “Libraries are like Netflix for books.” And I had to open up a card catalog of whoop-ass on them because libraries are so much more than that. Libraries look to the future because their interest is in preserving the past, curating it. If libraries make mistakes in what they preserve, or fail to preserve, at least the idea is to have a shared archive for both the individual and the community.
Also you can still get DVDs from the library.