Little Injustices

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.

Comments

Ahhh yes, the 80's. What I remember about software and music in the 80's was this: Piracy was commonplace and simple. The number of legal copies of various games and songs were positively dwarfed by the number of illegal bootlegs and copies. In fact, of all the people I knew, the number of legitimately purchased games was miniscule. (Note this was PC, or more accurately at the time, C64/Apple/Atari).

Likewise with music. You know why everyone I know didn't give a damn if their favourite music tape got chewed up? Because they just went out, bought a blank cassette and then re-recorded it onto THAT tape (either borrowing the original from a friend or *gasp* the library).

I had a friend tell me that trying to raise awareness about a certain ecological issue was "a waste of time" the other day. Mainly because they didn't care about that issue.

I guess there are people out there who complain about stuff too much but there's a reason they do.... and if even some of those complaints could be averted we would be living in a better world. We already do and I think the internet is a large part of that.

Sure, it's an echo chamber for all its good and ills... but I'd much rather hear the call for help than live in the dark again.

Ignorance is bliss for those who are scared to care... or scared of the real world.

In the early 90's, if I lost the instruction manual for a game, there was a wide variety of unprotect software floating around for free on even legitimate BBSes that could be downloaded and used to play your legitimately obtained game. The one I saw supported something like 200-300 different titles. There was also a ton of DRM free, manual protect free software in the mid 90's from the likes of iD, Apogee, Soleau, Moraff, Everett Kaser, and Epic Megagames.

They were even digital distribution in some cases, where you would buy it, then you could dial into that company's official BBS and download your registered copy. Sometimes they were nice enough to provide 1800 numbers, sometimes you had to pay long distance. I remember paying long distance to buy my copy of Terminate from a BBS in the UK, since they didn't have a distributor in the US yet. I paid $50 for the software, and $8 to download it.

(I also had a tape-tape and record-tape dubbing setup so I could make my own tapes for the car and didn't have to risk my originals. The sound quality was still OK. My parents actually had an 8-track deck in their car for similar purposes back before cassettes were common.)

Darn kids, get off my lawn.

Hammer, meet nail head. Okay, while I do agree with the whole "ignorance is bliss" thing being true, I agree with Duoae and would much rather live with the knowledge than without.

Back on topic, I think part of the reason people get so riled up about these things is that the march of technology should have made them obsolete long ago. Yeah, selling full albums may have made economical sense back in the days of records, cassettes and even CDs, where there was the physical cost of printing media to consider. But the instant we had a digital platform, that should have gone out the door. Notice how it took Napster and Steve Jobs dragging the record labels kicking and screaming into the present to get it to happen.

Also, yeah the labels were screwing artists and gouging consumers back in the 80s, but you know what they weren't doing? Suing single mothers, old ladies who never used a computer, and freaking dead people for millions of dollars and literally ruining people's lives for downloading a handful of songs off Limewire. That is not a little injustice, and it just might have pissed people off a little more than before.

It's more difficult to excuse bad customer service when we all know the technology is right there to make it great. Back then you'd say, 'What else are they going to do?' Now we know exactly what else they could do, we've seen ten different examples that work in the same situation.

Elysium wrote:
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 have the internet.

FTFY

Also, this. (NSFW)

Tagging for future commentary.

Sean wrote:
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.

See Barry Schwartz's TED talk. Specifically:

Barry's Ted Talk wrote:
Adding options to people's lives can't help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that's going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they're good results.

One of the major differences between 1987 and 2012 is that we have far, far more choices available to us, along nearly all axes of our lives. Clothes, food, entertainment, communication, social interactions, whatever. We're not happier, though, because increased choice does not equate to increased welfare. Paradoxically, it equates to the opposite.

Sean wrote:
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.

Lower your standards. Enjoy what you have, where you are, and don't let so much potential choice into your daily existence. Be f*cking right here, right now.

Barry's Ted Talk wrote:
...if you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don't have freedom. You have paralysis. If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction. Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited -- perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and, I suspect, disaster.

That's an interesting TED talk. I can see that where I am in game design as well. Very generally speaking, you want players to have meaningful, interesting choices. But too much choice - or vague choice - stops them cold.

The '92 Olympics had this thing called the "triple cast" which were essentially three channels each showing a different 12 hours of the international feed every day with minimal commentary and no extra NBC production. Each stream was then repeated overnight.

Similar to the Internet streams this year, except no blackouts for stuff NBC wanted to show in Prime Time later, and the delivery was somewhat more reliable. It also cost money. Apparently it was a horrible commercial failure and they never did it again, once again proving that the consumer of sports coverage in the U.S. is generally a drooling moron.

I can't really recall if it was better than what we had this year. It seemed better at the time.

I think the reason NBC's Olympic coverage this year is considered "reprehensible schlock" is that without trying too hard, it was possible this year to choose to watch the BBC Sports version of the Olympics instead. That version was so much better than what NBC produced that it almost makes it seem like a different Olympic games. I don't think it's a matter of complaining more, I think it's more a matter of exposure to a wider world. When you can see a thing done remarkably well, it's harder to accept mediocrity wherever it rears its ugly head.

Software piracy was so rampant in the 80s that it took me a while to figure out how anyone could make money selling free stuff; and figure out why there were copies of a game that referenced a hard to find manual.

Tapes we copied widely. The chief cost was in blank tapes, time, and storage space.

Speaking for myself, I still don't complain that much. Diablo 3 had features I didn't like. I said that where it was relevant and have moved on. Did the same thing back then.

Posters above have nailed the 'piracy was rampant back then too' point.

But another point is one of ownership. Back then, you were sold the cassette tape. You owned it. As long as you kept the tape in good shape, and your player in good shape, you could do whatever you wanted: copy it onto mix tapes, use it as a door stop, whatever. If your player broke, a new one would work.

But now, I don't have that ownership. I am not guaranteed by the laws of physics that something will work, but instead by promises that are frequently and inexplicably broken for reasons beyond my control. I carefully did NOT leave my download on the dash of my car... but it melted away in a server somewhere.

This is after we have been sold a bill of goods: "It's digital! It will never break, because it doesn't have a physical form!"

So, the frustrations are real, even if the commodities are virtual: ownership is now a broken metaphor.

Nathaniel wrote:
Posters above have nailed the 'piracy was rampant back then too' point.

But another point is one of ownership. Back then, you were sold the cassette tape. You owned it. As long as you kept the tape in good shape, and your player in good shape, you could do whatever you wanted: copy it onto mix tapes, use it as a door stop, whatever. If your player broke, a new one would work.

But now, I don't have that ownership. I am not guaranteed by the laws of physics that something will work, but instead by promises that are frequently and inexplicably broken for reasons beyond my control. I carefully did NOT leave my download on the dash of my car... but it melted away in a server somewhere.

This is after we have been sold a bill of goods: "It's digital! It will never break, because it doesn't have a physical form!"

So, the frustrations are real, even if the commodities are virtual: ownership is now a broken metaphor.


To pick nits, it's supposedly the same now as it was then, just the media has changed, and with that a bunch of other conditions.

There was copy protection back then, more on discs than tapes, but I'm sure you could argue the legalities of 'licensing' versus 'owning' back then too, it's just that the arms race or game of cat and mouse is a bit more complex now with the internet.

Just as the ability to complain about things is easier and more vocal now, the ability to praise when things are done right are amplified too. I think of Steam and how much people promote and care about what Valve has done right. How much have people praised Minecraft or Torchlight? Netflix exists today because it took Blockbuster to task and did things better and people noticed and talked about it.

I feel like overall we are all in a better place. While some of the complaints are frivolous, a lot of people just care and want things to be better. I think if we were locked in a neighborhood it would be the same thing just on a smaller scale.

Dude, you missed the other primary way to get music: copy your buddy's cassette. Everyone had tape copiers because how else would you build your own mix tape??

While in this day and age it's easy to get into echo chambers and feedback loops of negativity and complaining about the small things, I can't even consider the idea that returning to simpler times of less choice, and little awareness.

It's like wishing for a lobotomy.*

Duoae wrote:
I had a friend tell me that trying to raise awareness about a certain ecological issue was "a waste of time" the other day. Mainly because they didn't care about that issue.

I guess there are people out there who complain about stuff too much but there's a reason they do.... and if even some of those complaints could be averted we would be living in a better world. We already do and I think the internet is a large part of that.

Sure, it's an echo chamber for all its good and ills... but I'd much rather hear the call for help than live in the dark again.

Ignorance is bliss for those who are scared to care... or scared of the real world.

This, so much this.

*not to say that anyone specific is specifically wishing for this, but it's my gut reaction to any 'Good old days' comment.

As an antidote to a bunch of comments that seem to push back (slightly):

Sands, you're completely right.

Personally, I think some of this negativity is a bit of a fad that's finally cresting. It feels like there's a groundswell of backlash to it brewing, but maybe that's just me.

I think part of it is because the slights we endure now are the direct responsibility of the people providing us with that media. When your tape melted, that was the sun's fault, not the record companies. When there was coverage you didn't like of the Olympics, that was because NBC didn't have a bajillion side channels in your extended cable line up. If you lost the manual, *you* lost the manual, not the people who put the DRM in. If the DJ wouldn't play your song, that's because they only had broadcast towers, not a broadband connection straight to your home.

The frustration comes from friction. The friction between us and the people making our media because of things like, um, physics; now the friction is added in directly as part of a revenue strategy. I think that's what has changed. We were just as frustrated back then, we just didn't have as many opportunities to blame that directly on the people producing the stuff. Sure the record companies benefited when those tapes got eaten up, but it's not like they intentionally build the Walkman to eat tapes.

At least, I don't think they did.

FACT - 2012 Jon steals a sh*t-ton less media than 1985 Jon did.

To be fair, 2012Jon has more disposable income. But conversely, there's more free media available now, so 2012Jon doesn't need to steal media. If I want to listen to a band, I plug their name into Pandora or Spotify, and away I go.

1985Jon had a box full of blank tapes with Spectrum games copied onto them, and another box full of blank tapes with albums copied from siblings and friends on them.

HockeyJohnston wrote:

Personally, I think some of this negativity is a bit of a fad that's finally cresting.

Some folks always have been outraged and will continue to be outraged at something. The difference now is that you can use your PC and your phone to be outraged right along with them.

Quick access to social media (I'm using the term in the broad sense of rapid electronic media, not specific sites) reinforces the "everybody I know/nobody I know" thing that pops up in closed tribal communities you often see in politics, culture, religion and sports. The debate over the Rep. Todd Akin comments is the latest example of it. There will be a new one tomorrow.

FACT - 2012 Jon steals a sh*t-ton less media than 1985 Jon did.

I'm seeing this as a general response, and it's interesting to me. Realizing this next question can be perceived as snarky, but is definitely not intended to be, does anyone have a credible source that validates this?

You mean, for his personal experience? I think Jon is plenty credible. Let's ask his mom to confirm!

Elysium wrote:
FACT - 2012 Jon steals a sh*t-ton less media than 1985 Jon did.

I'm seeing this as a general response, and it's interesting to me. Realizing this next question can be perceived as snarky, but is definitely not intended to be, does anyone have a credible source that validates this?

Not sure what kind of source you would be looking for. I mean, software piracy rates in the 1980's would be a hard statistic to find, particularly now! You pretty much have to rely upon asking people their personal experiences.

I will say that of all the people I knew with C64's, IBM PC's, TI99's, Atari's and Amiga's (about 10-15 people), I only saw MAYBE 10 legitimately purchased games. I personally knew at least 3 people with pirated video game collections that were in the 100's.

Certis wrote:
I think Jon is plenty credible.

IMAGE(http://i3.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/newsfeed/000/060/909/MemeCitation.jpg)

Are we talking in gross IP stolen, or as a percentage of total content consumed?