Writing And More - A Blog by Alan Devey
Say “the corporations are modifying our behaviour” and you sound like a crank, a conspiracy theorist, one of the tinfoil hat brigade. In fact it’s reminiscent of those politicians who tend to blame every hostile thought the public has of them on “fake news”. I’m not talking about the outliers here, those filter bubble inhabitants who buy up billboard space to assert the earth is flat. Nor am I referring to tooled up nutjobs storming pizza restaurants because they think such outlets are home to Hillary Clinton-organised paedophile rings. No, the behavioural change our multinationals seek is far more subtle, and often it relates to the consumption of entertainment.
This behavioural modification isn’t achieved in the traditional way either, through advertising or peer pressure or government collusion that creates monopolies and the kind of cartels we see, across the UK energy industry and railways. No, this is far more covert and not particularly well thought through, so far as I can tell, while the clearest example relates to our enjoyment of music. Everyone knows a smart phone is simply another example of planned obsolescence; effectively disposable and quickly becoming nightmarish as technology geared to the latest model falls foul of constant upgrades. Software supposed to make your life easier soon proves unsupported or unwieldy, and just as irritating are those peddlers of the fetishised symbols who force me to listen to music on their devices.
When it comes to digital, portable music players, I’m perfectly happy with an iPod of a 120 or 160gb capacity. I can fit my entire collection of songs on there, something that’s never going to happen with a smart phone. Then I don’t have to worry about confusing updates or losing everything when the thing gets nicked by some North London moped gang or falls from my pocket into a urinal. But Apple stopped making iPods, despite a market remaining (you can still buy cassette players, for goodness sakes) - why was this? I suspect Jobs and the boys wanted to focus instead on whatever rubbish idea they had just thought up, like hi-tech watches no one wants or 3D V.R. goggles or self-driving holographic jetpacks. Apple’s corporate mission isn't to focus on the modest profits of a reliable winner and besides, everyone streams their music nowadays don’t they? Who cares about sound quality or the risk of ‘the cloud’ going down? So Apple have now succeeded in making it more difficult for me to listen to the music I love, because records bought at gigs out of some commendable urge to support the artist are just so much dead media to them, even if musicians only get a pittance from endless plays on Spotify.
It’s been one of my bugbears for a while, but something equally annoying recently happened in the world of visual entertainment. The LoveFilm brand, owned since 2011 by Jeff Bezos’ behemoth Amazon, announced it would no longer be renting DVDs or Blu-Rays by post. Again, there’s no suggestion the demand for this service has suddenly vanished. It's likely declined with changing technology and become more expensive to support with the Royal Mail profiteering, post-sell off. But I’ve been renting new releases and classic movies this way for more than thirteen years, first through Screen Select then via LoveFilm’s initial incarnation. At first glance Amaozn's move might seem reasonable – Netflix stopped posting out discs long ago – and everyone streams their movies nowadays, don’t they?
Well no, not if they don’t possess ‘superfast broadband’ they don’t, and even those with a perfect connection will be familiar with the hanging pinwheel of death when trying to watch a favourite show of an evening. I could pay through the nose in the hope of getting a faster service from BT (as yet unproven), but even then I'd be replacing a modest monthly fee covering unlimited rentals with £3.49 or more to stream each new release, and plenty of films still remain unavailable from this provider.
In addition, the real fanboy will want to watch the extras, whether that’s ‘The Emoji Movie’’s deleted scenes or Keanu Reeves’ commentary on ‘John Wick 2’ (“In this bit my character um, kills a bunch of people…”) It seems like only yesterday we were being told Blu-Ray was the entertainment medium of the future, propaganda resulting in close to half of First World households purchasing a player. Now, if we follow the logic of Amazon’s approach, Blu-Ray adoption suddenly becomes the pursuit of outmoded junk. Instead you have to get a ‘Fire Stick’ and cross your fingers for a consistent internet connection. But even this isn’t logical. Adverts still pop up telling you to own the new Hollywood blockbuster on DVD or Blu-Ray, with the Amazon logo suggesting you buy it from them. So Blu-ray is the technology of the future if you’re going to buy your films at fifteen quid a pop, but I can’t rent discs for a more modest sum. In those instances, I’ve got to stream.
Such inconsistency when it comes to the ephemeral is merely a symptom of course. For years we’ve been urged to forget physical books and get a Kindle, favour online subscriptions over newspapers, listen to music on Spotify even if our favourite bands, from the Black Keys to Bill Callahan to Adele, don’t actually permit their songs to be featured there. Infinite choice, my hairy arse.
The other, often contradictory message, major corporations give out is to get over owning anything at all. Culture should be accessed temporarily, via a screen, and because of this entertainment is no longer given as birthday or Christmas gifts. I can understand this might work for someone trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs; be cost-effective for nomads or travel addicts who can’t accumulate stuff. But follow this logic all the way through and you limit yourself to a couple of pairs of shoes, end up doing without furniture; eat only takeaways or space food. Only then can you obey Lennon’s platitudinous call to “imagine no possessions”, in your late-capitalist abode that possesses the empty, minimalist vibe of an identikit hotel room, prison cell or junky’s squat.
I‘m being facetious here of course, I abhor clutter as much as the next man, and yet I enjoy collecting. The films and books and albums I love are an extension of me, and these belongings act as visual aide memoires, increasing my repeated enjoyment. I’m older now, more settled, and I don’t intend to have removal men round on a regular basis. I can afford to sprawl out a little, enjoy my library, alphabetise the CDs and maintain a shelf of fine movies or favourite TV shows.
That’s the problem when companies think changing a policy will make loyal customers suddenly bend to their will, when they expect us to shell out on whichever faddish idea some corporate type has pitched at their latest board meeting. Multinationals will often sweep away modest-but-profitable services in pursuit of fresh frontiers like Whole Foods, with superannuated departments too time-consuming to maintain. If LoveFilm subscribers want to go on enjoying what was once so simple, they now have to shell out for the technology, upgrade their systems, spend time trying to make them work, hope the web remains stable enough and take once-cherished possessions to the charity shop. And if you don’t want to conform with these directives, what kind of throwback are you?
Problem is, it doesn’t always work like that. After a period when e-books looked like taking over, sales have now fallen and paperbacks are back on the rise. Today the Kindle occupies the niche, not the physical item. This is less likely to happen with music of course, but already there’s a backlash against streaming, manifested in a resurgence of vinyl and bands putting out songs as physical objects in limited edition. Fans like to examine an inlay, study the lyrics, adopt a ritualistic approach to playing the songs. It doesn’t hurt that music sounds better through ‘decks’ rather than crappy phone speakers either.
After all, which is the more enticing scenario? Your find yourself on a date that’s going well then invite the person back. But all you’ve got to soundtrack your evening is an ill-thought out playlist on your smart phone. Meanwhile the books and films you love are up in the cloud, sitting there with precipitation and Care Bears, so it looks as if your taste is non-existent or needs to be hidden from public view. In the old days your intended might have browsed the bookshelves, found a tome they love, become convinced the two of you were meant to be. They would notice your favourite comedy then ask to watch some of it together. Perhaps they would sort through your vinyl, find a record that led to conversation, shared listening that leaving them with respect for your taste, loving new music that opens the ears as well as the heart.
Being seduced by this scenario doesn’t mark you out as a refusenik or killjoy, just someone with too much scepticism to become an early adopter of whatever entertainment fad is being pushed this week. Those who fall for the corporate, scorched-earth utopia might regret betting the farm on a new channel of consumption, just as past generations did with the betamax or minidiscs, both of which were once ‘the technology of the future’. As for me, with no rental stores left to patronise and Netflix terrible when it comes to movies, I’ll be doing what I should have done when Amazon bought LoveFilm six years ago and pretended to believe in the brand, long-term. I’m moving to the independent Cinema Paradiso, continuing to borrow discs by post for as long as I’m able, maybe even going back to the pictures occasionally. We remain beholden to the internet for so many things, through work and play, but I don’t want my enjoyment of culture restricted by the upcoming cyber-wars. If it all comes crashing down, I’ll be only too glad of the postman enabling my old-fashioned, lo-tech set-up.