One of the things I’ve tried to wrap my head around over the past few years is the question of whether the anger and skepticism aimed at media is a relatively new phenomenon, or just one I hadn’t done a good job of paying attention to in the past. Thinking back to the admittedly youthful, childlike, naivete of even my twenties — a time where I could be convinced that working retail could be considered a career path, as opposed to a career death march — I don’t recall the same kinds of angst and incredulity at the actions of the various media outlets that, I think, largely operated the same way as they do now.
Was NBC’s coverage of the 1992 summer games in Barcelona that much better than what is being positioned this year by pretty much everyone as reprehensible schlock? Was the copy protection of twenty years ago, where god help you if you didn’t have your instruction book so you could look up word four of paragraph five on page twenty, really that much less a pain? Did we all walk around in 1986 listening to our Sony Walkmans thinking, “I’m so glad we’re in this golden age of eighties music, and record companies are pretty awesome?”
I have to fight my own urges, compelled by brain chemicals determined to paint decades past as a “simpler time,” and remind those hazy-nostalgic thoughts jumping between dendrites, that those halcyon days not spent dissecting the evils of tape delay and jingoistic coverage were actually spent wondering if today was the day the Soviets picked to nuke us or if some new autoimmune disorder was going to get us all first.
In truth, I think the real answer is more complicated. I think that it is true that even though companies acted in generally the same way as they do now, we didn’t complain nearly as much or vehemently. And, I think the reason for that is that we didn’t really have a choice.
At first, I was going to say that we didn’t know companies were taking advantage of us, but I think if you go back to 1987 and ask people if they thought record companies were colluding to fix prices on music, and manipulating the market to maximize their profit, you would have gotten to hear how people in the 1980s said the word ‘totally.’ But, of course, what could anyone do about that back then? Short of shoplifting, there were 2 ways to get music. Buy it at Musicland or Sam Goody’s (some of you may now want to wikipedia the fact that there used to be entire stores that sold nothing but physical music media), or you could listen to the radio.
Kids, there was a time when if you wanted to listen to a song, and you didn’t have the record or cassette for that song, you had to call up a DJ at a radio station and ask them pretty-please if they would play it for you. Like pilots of the fifties, this was a time when some people aspired to be a disc jockey as opposed to wondering what horrible karmic debt that person is burdened with to have such a job.
It seems logical that with so few options, people would be more upset, not less, by the way a very select number of companies controlled the market. But, in reality, people almost never complained about music, or movies or even video games. At least not in the way of complaining that those industries had a stranglehold on their products. If you lost your instruction book for your game and couldn’t unlock the copy protection, then that was probably it. You didn’t play your game. If your cassette melted on your dashboard, or broke, or got all wound up in the machinery of your Walkman, your options for listening to the music you paid for extended to how well a quick Scotch-Tape repair worked or how effective you were at using a pencil to wind the mangled tape
And then, regardless of the outcome, you went about your day, perhaps less sunny or optimistic, but as normal all the same, because — and this can may be difficult to hear — no one cared.
“Hey, Bill!” You may have wanted to say. “My cassette tape broke, and now I can’t listen to Motley Crue’s ‘Dr. Feelgood’ anymore!”
“Yeah,” Says 1980’s Bill, wearing a jean jacket and an old Ocean Pacific t-shirt. “Same thing happened to Van Halen’s OU812 for me.”
“Grrr,” You say, suddenly channeling the future. “Record companies that make me pay for a whole new, poorly designed and breakable cassette when I really just want to listen to ‘Kickstart My Heart’ are evil!”
Bill just gives you a strange look as he turns the ignition on his IROC Camero. “Dude, no one cares.”
Now, you don’t just have to wait for Bill, who is clearly a twit, to dismiss your claim in a puff of fuel-injected, Detroit-special exhaust. You have a ready audience of people who may or may not be twits at your fingertips ready and presumably willing to suffer your lamentations. And the only cost is that you must bear their complaints as well. Suddenly, not only are you not alone in your frustrations over broken cassette tapes, crappy sitcoms starring Alan Thicke and movies starring John Cusack doing things over summer break, you are part of a consensus.
So, because up until the mid-to-late nineties there was no readily available platform for wallowing in the collective travesty of ten-thousand paper cuts, you either chose to slap another cassette into your player or get on with your life. And, those momentary impulses everyone still had at the time to suddenly shout at the wind didn't have an audience the way they do now, where a passing thought can be broadcast to a universe of online populations and even eventually archived in the Library of Congress.
It's hard to imagine how that kind of platform, that kind of magnifying echo chamber, wouldn't reinforce the illusion that all these perceived slights are bigger than they actually are.
Imagine you lived in a world where the extent of your understanding was what happened in your neighborhood. Where there was no cable news network, no up-to-the-minute reports from far away lands. Sure, it would be an incredibly sheltered existence, but what would your view of the human race be? Would you think there is as much crime and horribleness in mankind? Would you care about corporations, even if they were doing the same things they do now? They say that ignorance is bliss for a reason, and since this is the information age, I think we may be screwed.