Tuesday, November 6, 2007

“Unabideables”: analog lasts and lasts, digital is... extremely pretty

Now, let me get this straight, the analog media that were supposed to have extremely short life spans, audio and video tape cassettes, can still be played years, decades (!), after their supposed expiration date. Who remembers the hue and cry that “video tapes will only be watchable for 15 years!” I’ve got 30 year old ones that ain’t exactly pretty, but can still be viewed and/or copied. These media are sneered at by those who crave the utter perfection inherent in digital media, yet, um… they still work.

On the other hand, I’ve been doing the Funhouse access show using digital media for less than two years now, and have already encountered problems with both of the media favored for us consumers to archive our acquisitions and, more importantly, our creations. When rerunning a show just a few months back, a show that was recorded (oops… “exported”) onto a mini-dv tape just 18 months earlier, I found that the soundtrack now had dropout problems, snaps, crackles, and pops. I was informed by a very wise tech pal that this might indeed have been because I was daring to attempt a viewing/usage of this material during the summer months (which are humid beyond belief in NYC these days), and that the tape might indeed be playable in colder weather. Outside of a climate-controlled locker, it seems that these tapes produce an image that is pretty as a picture, but vastly inferior to the durable-as-hell clunky old cassettes of yore.

And then you have DVD-r, a medium that is cheap if you buy in bulk, and seems, again, to provide picture quality that is startlingly beautiful and crisp. Well, the silver discs are crap, as we all knew from get-go when we were forced to abandon those big, unwieldy vinyl discs for the silver suckers that were emblems of the two factors that seem to drive all of our consumer culture these days: they were miniature, they were portable! And they had snob appeal. You think you’ve liked your favorite album on vinyl? Well, hey, chump, here it is digitally remastered, and it sounds crisp and beautiful, like never before. Then, the worm turns: how to get the idjits to rebuy the same thing again? Why, another remaster, this time back to the mono/vinyl sound that really has a greater immediacy and is, well, better.

Back to DVD-r: I’ve been archiving the show on these discs for, again, about two years, and now I’ve been informed by my webmaster that I was quite unwise to be labeling them with Sharpie pens, as the solvent in the ink can leak into the disc and cut short its already pretty crappy few years of activity. This can be overcome with magic markers that are specifically for CD/DVD labeling, adhesive labels, and the labeling software that requires you to buy slightly higher-priced discs. Et Voila! We hit up on the ultimate curse of digital — unlike analog, it is a capitalist’s wet dream, as it requires buying and buying and buying, and then (secret here) rebuying and rebuying and rebuying. The effect, visual and aural, is so much more impressive, but the time required to re-acquire and re-dub material, plus the money required to spendspendspend to both buy the media and also acquire the updates of/replacements for the media (instead of the old model, which found you repairing what you bought because it was durable and worth preserving), means that the carnies/rubes equation that does indeed rule our culture is in full effect. We consent to rube status every time we eagerly respond to updated technology that has, oh… a few strings attached.

Thus, I delight in the technological innovations that enable free sharing of visual and audio material. YouTube, the many audio blogs, bit torrent, all of these phenomena are the one way in which the vicious circle of high-tech innovation is actually beaten, for a short time at least. Because, as any good fanboy knows, the way in which this material is kept alive is, to borrow an expression dear to the ’90s MST3K crowd, “circulating the tapes”….

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