Modern Media Consumption

There is no spoon, and there is no cloud (image via @FSFEfrance)

Now that I’ve finally gotten rid of that horrid analogue video media format named “VHS”, I’ve been thinking about what comes next.

No, I’m not talking about its obvious successor, DVD, nor am I talking about its own follow-up model, the BD, or the impending 4k/UHD discs – in fact, I’m not referring to physical media at all: what I am talking is an all-digital format — an ethereal one that exists not even as files on your hard drive.

I’m referring to “virtual” media. Perhaps it’s this “Cloud” thing that I’m on about. Truth be told, I’m not really sure — because definitions of “the Cloud” vary.

What I am getting at is much more sinister, and I’m not sure I like what’s coming.

Bear with me on this one. It’s a lengthy tirade wherein I’m trying to gather a few thoughts. There will be a point made in the end. I think.

Let’s start with a history lesson:

In the 70’s when devices named video cassette recorders appeared on the market and in ordinary folks’ homes, studio executives started shitting their pants. “Home recordings will kill the film/TV industry,” they claimed because, until then, ordinary folks were entirely at the whim of the local cinema or regular TV programming. Viewers had little choice in what to watch (fewer channels) — let alone when to watch (dedicated time slots).

If you wanted to see the News at 8, then you had to be in front of the TV at 8. If you were a devoted follower of Kojak or Hill Street Blues and you were on the road at the time… well, tough!  You missed your one chance and became the outcast around the water cooler the following day. All you could do is hope for a re-run or that somebody had taped it with one of them fancy-schmancy VCR gadgets the night before. Of course nothing beats programming your own VCR to record your favourite TV shows automatically and view it once you got home — rewinding in case you wanted to see a part again and skipping through those irritating ad breaks. It was now the advertisers’ turn to shit their pants.

Back then it was known as recording stuff off TV. Today we call it “time shifting”. Ooooh!

An important message from the global entertainment industry (image via the Pirate Bay)

Universal sued Sony and their supposed copyright-infringing Betamax device but soon enough the idea of a “home theatre” was born. The video sales- and rental industry provided new outlets for second-grade material that would have otherwise never seen the light of day (or the darkness of a cinema): “straight-to-video” those are called — something even Disney milked for all its worth. On the less wholesome end of the scale, lore has it that it was the adult movie industry which was the biggest driver behind the fledgling home video market (according to some reports, more than 50% of all video rentals were porn). Indeed, many horror movies and other video nasties would never be given a cinema screening (let alone TV air time) and found fame (or infamy) as video cult classics instead. John Carpenter’s The Thing, for instance, didn’t fare well at the box office in 1982 but coined it in subsequent video rentals and sales for years to come. Viewers could now “own” movies and series. The entertainment industry realised that “box office” isn’t everything.

Physical media requires storage space in the real world

New business opportunities popped up in ways they hadn’t expected; old material dutifully got restored, remastered (or so they claimed) and repackaged — heck, there were many manufacturers of plastic boxes and entire ranges of shelving to showcase your growing video collection. You had “accessories” like head cleaning tapes and video cassette rewinders and oxygen-free dubbing cables which came in all shapes and sizes although, being analogue, video piracy wasn’t a worthwhile commercial venture because, well, we’ve all seen the quality of Xth-generation dubs of “verboten” flicks that eventually found their way into the hands of the desperate or less-discerning viewer on the other side of the planet. PAL vs. NTSC had become a non-issue.

The world was still a much bigger place — but there was a global village waiting right outside a narrow doorway.

The digital revolution

Fast-forward a few years. The DVD has replaced VHS as far as rentals and sales is concerned. Media remains physical, still takes up shelf space, and still can get re-sold should you not want it any more. You still own your media.

No sooner was the DVD’s CSS encryption scheme cracked and the payload of that physical carrier reduced to a mere container file, did it become child’s play to re-encode movies to fit on regular CDs (S/VCD) or other cheap data carriers; those files could now be easily “duplicated” and shared with your friends in the neighbourhood or, as the narrow doorway became a wide highway, with just about anyone else on the planet. The world had suddenly become a much smaller place.

Piracy ran rampant, and the hell with region codes!

But why? What is it that turns an ordinary citizen into a global pirate?

  • Availability: “…the real reason movies are being pirated: They’re not available for purchase.”
  • Convenience: “The 15 minutes of unskippable previews and ads on this DVD is really just a 15 minute commercial for The Pirate Bay.”
  • Accessibility: “Instead of lobbying for more copyright laws, why not just give users what they want?”
  • Immediacy:  “…windowing — the industry practice of selling exclusivity periods to certain markets and platforms, with the result of staggered launches.”
  • Cost: ’nuff said!

GErman MAfia HQ, Berlin

Monetising the safe harbouring of stolen property

The MPAA, RIAA, IFPI, GEMA and Lars Ulrich shit their pants. “Napster and file sharing will destroy the music/film industry,” they cried in unison because not only was it possible to make bit-perfect copies, suddenly it was big players such as AT&T, Cisco, Megaupload, Seagate and Verbatim who had become unwitting accessories in the very crime of transferring and/or hosting of copyrighted materials. In fact, they indirectly profited from piracy. Soon enough, companies like Apple, AVM, Google, Poppstar, Rovi, Synology and Western Digital jumped on the bandwagon because DLNA/Samba, network attached media tanks and video streaming servers became things that people needed and that could be sold to those who had acquired gigabytes of movies through questionable means.

While until recently the mere mention of “downloading music or movies from the internet” may have easily received you an intimidating letter (with fixed “settlement fees” from a self-appointed legal firm of dubious morals (see “Abmahnindustrie“), the availability of devices like the TiVo and the Dreambox along with services like YouTube, Netflix and LOVEFiLM effectively legitimised the practice.

It’s become “normal” to download movies, except now it’s called “Video-on-demand”.

Viewers have all their movies within reach of a set top box, PVR, or MPC’s remote control. Further absolution came in the form of iTunes Match which legitimised your old downloads from dodgy Russian sites and MP3 rips. Not long after, Amazon’s AutoRip allowed many of our own old rips to become as obsolete as the physical carriers they came from. The media and entertainment industries seem to have caught up with consumer demands — almost.

Size does matter

I remember that weekend when I hauled my entire stash of video tapes over to a friends’ place for a serious binging session. The act involved piling five boxes of VHS tapes into the car (the remaining two of which are pictured below), unpacking them at the destination where they would get admired and ogled at, and then we’d all gather around a big-ass tube TV to watch a selection while eating, drinking and being merry. It was a major social event — where the keyword is “social”.

The last remaining VHS tapes

Today, I’d simply grab that hard drive (also seen above and stored in a padded VHS box, no less) and a SATA/USB adapter, and we’d all sit around a bigger flat-screen where we’d pick something from a media player’s newly-discovered media list and do the same although, somehow, I just don’t see this happening any more: No, not because I’d much rather take my external 2.5″ USB drive along but because we seem to have become less social — despite “social media”. Here, I’ll share my playlist with you, fast-forward to the good parts, we don’t need to get together to share…  let’s dispense with all this physical proximity stuff. And if there really is a desire to mingle with the sweat of other humanoids, let me take this android extension of my hand and just “throw” a movie from the cloud onto your screen.

There is no need to own or carry a physical media carrier, just passwords and credentials. Dump your media into one of many clouds.

Trust the cloud. Trust the service provider.

Be like Jennifer Lawrence and trust your corner of iCloud-cuckoo-land to be impenetrable. Trust them not to make mistakes, declare you dead or accidentally remove your own data. Trust them not to spy on you.

Trust Amazon not to delete purchases from your device or Nintendo not to lock you out of your own system should you disagree with the updated EULA.

How can you trust anyone not to profit from your metadata or personal info (let alone advertisers or government agencies) if you can barely trust yourself to always have a backup and/or network coverage? Fuck the cloud. Do not trust them with your precious and private stash. Do not trust them to always be available, never go bust, and to have an export function if you choose to go elsewhere. Do not trust your account not to get hacked or suspended because of some overzealous takedown request based on obfuscated DRM violations that become valid once you cross international borders.

But you have a local copy of everything, right? And if your terabyte drive of movies take a dive then, well… who cares, you’ve got it backed up someplace else. Drives are cheap and therefore less precious, just like the media on it. It’s just some band’s album, just a bunch of files… easy to backup, easy to duplicate, easy to share, easy to stream, easy to delete, and therefore of little to no worth.

Even Iggy Pop conceded that everyone wants “Free Music in a Capitalist Society“.

Because it’s “just some album”, right? It’s just a movie. Everybody’s got a copy.

The $100,000,000 movie becomes just a commodity in the eyes of digital natives, just another worthless file getting streamed. Its physical counterpart, the one you pay for, the one that takes up real physical space in your home — somehow that’s precious and worth paying for. Taylor Swift proved it recently by pulling her latest album from Spotify, thus creating scarcity and demand for her CD.

The elephant in the room is this: Wasn’t the perceived value of media in the past horrendously overblown to begin with?

We want it all, we want it now, and we want it cheap!

“On demand” isn’t soon enough, downloading is passé, so we stream. We watch and listen live, as it comes through our increasingly insatiable fat pipe before EOF. YouTube is the first port of call for user-generated content, it’s the guerilla that eats into media produced by multinational conglomerates. Immediacy is the new norm, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s at home, at the office, on the road, or in a subway tunnel with no reception.

“In the US, streamed music accounted for 27 percent of music sales in the first half of the year, up from just 3 percent in 2007 and 15 percent in 2012, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Streaming sales have nearly surpassed sales from physical music — mostly CDs — which stand at 28 percent. Digital downloads made up the biggest chunk at 41 percent of total revenue, but both downloads and physical sales are dwindling.” – CNET

The heck with bandwidth caps, right? Nobody tells me what to download, listen to, or watch. All bits are created equal. We want net neutrality.

Well, guess what, sweethearts? It ain’t gonna happen!

ISPs are stuck between the rock of providing and the hard place of policing, applying quality-of-service and traffic shaping policies as necessary evils that ensure HD-Voice and wide-band audio quality as well as glitchless video adhere to service level agreements. Everything else is transmitted as “best effort” because (let’s be realistic here) it doesn’t matter if your banal Pinterest profile takes 3.5 seconds to load instead of 3.3!

There’s music in the air

And if it’s anything less than high-definition on a 5-inch phone display or on Beats headphones while you’re listening to compressed hip-hop in pedestrian rush-hour traffic, you wet your hipsters blaming your service provider’s supposed inability to keep up with the demand for unnecessary, fleeting bandwidth that you share with a dozen others in your current 3G sector.

“Streaming brings infrastructure baggage. Bandwidth is lacking. In order to compromise for that, you compromise with the picture quality. So why bother? In a next-generation Blu-ray environment we’ll be looking at anywhere between 50-70Mbps off the drive. Going down to 15.6Mbps (as required by Netflix) just mandates compromise, and that’s if you can get sustained 15Mbps. Even with good infrastructure that’s hard to accomplish…” – TechRadar

Bravo, we’re fucking up the networks because you MUST see this funny 10-second cat video posted by a stranger NOW! In hi-def. While walking.

Welcome to our Cat Video Portal (image source unknown)

Or while sitting on the couch, whatsapping strangers friends as some ignored TV stream is gumming up your flat-rate DSL.

Instead of reading books (a too-often ignored form of media in current analyses) while the TV is running in the background, we’re now preoccupied with another device – a second screen.  It could even be an e-reader.

“The rapid adoption of a second screen has transformed the traditional TV viewing experience. Consumers are using smartphones and tablets in ways that are natural extensions of the programming they watch, like looking up information about the characters and plot lines, or researching and purchasing products and services advertised just minutes before. Using social media to engage with other viewers has also transformed the live viewing experience for millions of consumers across the country.”- Nielsen

According to the 2013 Ericsson ConsumerLab TV & Media Report, “75 percent multitask by using mobile devices while watching TV and 1 in 4 watch multiple video sources at the same time”. By the following year, according to Nielsen’s Digital Consumer Report, the number had increased so that “Eightyfour percent of smartphone and tablet owners say they use their devices as second-screens while watching TV at the same time.”

The TV is on but there's nobody home (image via Nielsen)

The intrusion of social media

Many of the very devices on which we view and listen to our digitised or downloaded media files today are the very same devices we use to keep in touch with the world outside our home cinema sofa. Smart TVs and media players don’t just play media, they are permanently connected and track everything you’re watching or listening to (often whether you like it or not): calls it  “scrobbling”, device manufacturers call it “quality control”, service providers call it “market analysis”, LG calls it “targeted advertising”, the NSA/GCHQ/BND call it “counter-terrorism measures”. The world has suddenly become so small and interconnected that everyone is informed about who’s listening to what or which movie or album is released where and when, and then we all want to see it at the same time so we can click “like” in a frenzied bangbang  for fear of being left as the freak who’s never watched Game of Thrones or seen the new Star Wars teaser trailer.

I’m really at odds with modern media storage and consumption. Items such as Google’s Chromecast or Amazon’s Fire TV look interesting but I, like many contemporaries, always seem to arrive at that same conclusion — that same holy grail which always points me in the direction of XBMC/OpenELEC and/or a Raspberry Pi. Local storage. Portable. Flexible. Networked. Configurable. DIY.

Wanted: One box that does it all (image via Ericsson)

For a ready-made and complete package, my money would be on the attractive Slice Media Player (instead of an overpriced Intel NUC) — if it also had a Blu-Ray player, or better.

“…a spokesperson for the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) has used IFA 2014 as the stage on which to announce that 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and compatible hardware are destined to become a reality by Christmas 2015.” – What HiFi?

Format War 2.0: Physical vs. Digital

As a small-time archivist/researcher/collector/hobbyist/fan, I keep finding myself at media consumption and storage crossroads. There’s always something better, something faster, something more convenient, more digital, cheaper, clearer, better, smaller on the horizon and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having to re-purchase my favourite movies or albums because the old hardware players with moving components are slowly going faulty. The benefit of our drive for digitisation and streaming delivery methods, though, is that most modern playback devices are solid-state, cheaper, disposable, smaller and consume less power.

Extreme VideoLAN

Video, being primarily visual content, seems to work well in digital format. As for music, I maintain that physical is my preferred format, theorising that this could be on account of it naturally lacking the visual aspect — which is made up for by packaging and liner notes.

Does changing the medium change the message?

Music demands to be heard; music wants to be felt by way of sound waves and by way of the tactile enjoyment of touch and feel. Humans hear with more than their ears.

Downloads have seen a slight decline in overall value globally, although digital album sales remain on an upward curve as consumers still show strong demand for owning the album format. The digital market has continued to diversify with revenues from subscription services, such as Deezer and Spotify, growing by 51.3 per cent, passing the US$1 billion mark for the first time. Although the industry is less reliant on income from physical format sales, with their share declining from 60 per cent in 2011 to 51 per cent in 2012, they still account for the majority of industry revenues. Despite the overall transition to digital, physical music sales still account for a major proportion of industry revenues in many major markets. Gifting and deluxe box sets remain popular while vinyl continues to grow as a niche product. In the US, vinyl sales increased by 32 per cent in 2013 (Nielsen Soundscan), and in the UK, they increased by 101 per cent in 2013 (BPI). – IFPI Digital Music Report 2014

“Will subscription and access models be the de facto way that the majority of people will end up consuming music at some point in the future? Yes, 100 percent, I’m absolutely convinced that that will be the case.” – Rob Wells, Universal Music Group

“…given that the main providers such as Amazon Video and Netflix came out of distributing movies on DVD and had huge film customer bases, the top reason for signing up is still to access movie back catalogue, in both UK and US. However in the US, television back catalogue has almost caught up and it will be interesting to see how quickly these percentages shift with a massive young audience that grew up on iTunes and has no conception of anything except instant gratification.” – The Guardian

Personally, I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to this “licensing instead of ownership” thing.  I own my cars. They’re paid for. I own my media. I do with them as and when I wish. Did I miss something? When did it become easier to lease, to rent, to subscribe?

Linear TV itself might be on its death bed but we’re effectively going back to over-the-air radio and TV — except now it’s over IP, very viewer-specific and personal, consumes bandwidth, and there are more men in the middle that are listening in, too.

Maybe Douglas Adams (“The Salmon Of Doubt”) was on to something when he wrote…

“… a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

We’re giving away control of the media we consume by choosing not to own any.

Image credits: hmvhDOTnet (unless specified otherwise)

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