Mediating the Past: The Future of Media History

June 27, 2012
By | 4 Comments

**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how the past is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

I had an epiphany at Half Price Books one day last spring. They had placed hundreds of DVDs (including many TV box sets) into special clearance racks, priced at $3 each. These weren’t the usual bargain-bin titles, but mostly major releases of the past several years. While they still have several shelves devoted to DVD and Blu-Ray, this was a significant clearing-out of media with apparently little perceived value. It dawned on me at that moment that if the looming end of the DVD was hitting used book stores, than it was time to prepare for it.

We live in an era of incredible access to media, and an increasingly impressive array of digital tools with which to curate and analyze them. That much is certain. However, we’re also living through an era of media extinction, as physical media forms disappear to the proverbial “cloud.” A four-decade boom in accessible and convenient physical audiovisual media (from the audio and video cassette to the Blu-Ray disc) is clearly ending. Media distributors are more concerned about lining up digital license agreements than securing physical shelf space. Media hardware manufacturers emphasize internet connectivity and streaming apps rather than optical disc drives. Moreover, the newest generation of laptops and even desktop computers do not even have optical drives.

As physical media, and the ability to play it, disappears, we’re told to look to the clouds. The impermanence of the metaphor, as I look out on a cloudless sky, is telling. As longstanding battles over online content distribution have indicated, the content of the cloud will always be contingent. The phrase “on demand” associated with the cloud is best understood as “only what’s available today, under these specific terms, which will probably be different tomorrow.” This uncertainty applies to every ostensibly physical media form we might use, as books and periodicals become e-books, microfilm becomes PDFs, and film and television become streaming videos, and all become locked up  in “the cloud.” Moreover, it applies equally to media consumers at all levels, including academic research libraries.

Thus, this Age of Digital Plenty is at best an exaggeration, and at worst bullshit. Unless you have a hard copy (or an external hard disk) on your shelf, and the necessary hardware and/or software to use it, you’re at the mercy of the clouds. Even the illicit corners of the Internet may not save you (lest we forget what happened to Megaupload).

This shift from atoms to bits corresponds with and exacerbates a more existential challenge: what is history for? More precisely, what is media history for? While this has always been the key question at the heart of every investigation of the past, it has rapidly become even more pressing. Mediated traces of the past keep piling up faster and faster, yet our attitudes towards them reveal a growing separation between instrumental and historical uses. On the one hand, the now-classic postmodern value of remixing and repurposing bits of the past has certainly been a liberating, and at times, provocative practice. However, it has coincided with a retreating cultural interest in the contexts of the past, as “history” is understood more as arrays of “cool stuff” and “cool stories” than as narratives of the present. Our pasts are either mythologized (cf Mad Men, or the retromania critiqued by Simon Reynolds), or deliberately ignored (all the “boring stuff” nobody has yet posted on tumblr). An ongoing debate in television blogging and criticism of late has even seriously questioned whether pre-1990 (or more commonly, pre-Sopranos) television has any aesthetic value, as if it were the primordial muck from which today’s “serious and ambitious” television emerged.

As curators of the media past, we not only need to critically engage with these historiographical ideologies and methods in these times of shifting temporality and materiality; we also need to politically intervene on the past’s behalf, protecting physical media, whether on print, microfilm, film, vinyl, tape, optical disc, digital code, or any other form. While it is essential to also work to convert and maintain online access to digital versions of these media (yes, in the cloud), we can’t assume that offline resources will always be there. Sometime within the next decade, there won’t be any more DVD shelves at Half Price Books.


4 Responses to “ Mediating the Past: The Future of Media History ”

  1. Jason Mittell on June 27, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Nice piece, raising some crucial issues! Two questions emerge for me: first, will we look at the 80s-00s as the exception of our (moving image) media past, the one era when we could actually “own” a material version of a media text? Especially with the recent death of Andrew Sarris, I’m reminded that pre-80s, film scholars & critics were mostly writing about an experience that they didn’t possess, and thus relying on memories and contexts far different than our generation, mistakes and all.

    Second, will future archives preserve objects or experiences? I think of the old Vilas video library, where the off-air tapes chronicled not only a text (raise your hand if you’ve still got a dub of “Betty, Girl Engineer”!), but also a broadcast context, complete with ads, station IDs, and chopped up syndication versions. Our DVD libraries replace that experiential aspect of media with prepackaged paratexts & high-fidelity definitive edits (including some scenes in “Betty” that I’d never seen before). In the post-DVD era, will our archives find a way to recapture the experience of the comment threads, Twitter exchanges, and wiki remnants that define our 21st century media engagement? Or will we try to recapture the definitive object version that DVDs have gotten us used to?

    • Myles McNutt on June 27, 2012 at 7:28 PM

      Your second question, Jason, gets to my call at SCMS for some sort of official archiving project for post-air analysis and the comment threads attached to it. Google effectively serves this purpose, perhaps, but the idea of putting it in one place within a more academic context might push us to consider “Experience” as something we can archive in the digital age.

      As for the point on objects, I’m interested in ways we could try to integrate experiential viewing within a rigid screening environment. I wonder if having students “roleplay” their way through that process (tweeting during the screening, commenting on an episodic review afterwards, and then editing a wiki page on the episode) might serve as a way of at least calling attention to the engaged viewing that you speak to.

    • Derek Kompare on June 28, 2012 at 11:44 AM

      Thanks, Jason. I’m a bit wigged out at the moment after a marathon moving day yesterday and not much sleep, so my synapses aren’t healed yet. But I appreciate both your points. I agree that we always have a relationship with media that evolves as technologies and expectations change, but that also holds onto “residual” forms of engagement to varying extents. So while it’s true that individual ownership of film and TV texts has certainly only been part of the culture since the late 70s, both the paradigm of individual media ownership and consumption has a much longer history (e.g., the concept of the personal library), and other forms of textual circulation kept materials out there. In Sarris’ era (60s-70s), that would be art house revival theaters/screening series, and the ubiquitous broadcasting of old movies on local and network television.

      The second point about objects and experiences, and Myles’ comment, is more interesting in the long run. Our media consumption is (cliche) a perpetually moving target. So, yes, post DVD box sets, I’m much more interested in the ads, promos, etc. from old off-air VHS tapes than in what I was allegedly archiving at the time. I may still have some tapes with 90s Menard’s ads, for example (“Save big money!”), whereas I was trying to hold on to (say) Star Trek: The Next Generation. With the sorts of experiential viewing going on today (which aren’t the sorts which went on circa 2002, nor will they be circa 2022), it’s the same thing: can you capture the process? Would it be desirable to watch a 20th anniversary video of Breaking Bad around 2030 with an option to watch the Twitter feed from the original airing scroll by in a sidebar? I’m not certain, but I am intrigued.

      However, at a minimum, I do think it’s essential that we preserve the object itself, if at all possible. The context and response to works are certainly important, but without ready access to that object itself, it’s a donut-shaped analysis, with a large hole in the middle.

  2. Megan Ankerson on June 28, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Great post, Derek, this raises some big questions. The crucial one—what is media history for?—offers a great chance to take a broad view of media studies, an opportunity to account for where we’ve been as we figure out where the field might go from here. Adding to Jason’s fine points above, this post also brings up a few additional points for me.

    First, I think we need to interrogate the tendency to take media content (“the text”) as the history of media. Paddy Scannell has a nice piece (“Television and History: Questioning the Archive” in the Communication Review) where he talks about the contribution of television itself to the historical process, arguing that technologies like microphones, cameras, and teleprompters play a crucial role in structuring the overall social meaning of radio and television. What is the experience of television today? Certainly digital licensing and content partnerships are vital, but hardware is still a top concern. Apple’s coffers are full because we like the way media feels in our hands. Microsoft’s recent unveiling of Surface speaks to this, as does Apple’s move to corner the global supply of high-quality aluminum to make iPads:

    I too share the cloud-fueled anxieties about the encroaching extinction of physical media forms, but hope that these circumstances also might provide a platform for a thorough re-thinking of how we do media historiography in the era of digital archives. Of course it’s always been the case that we will never be able to preserve it all—even with the Library of Congress acquiring the public Twitter archive, what about the context, the links, the URL-shortened pointers that are necessary to make sense of it all? (Initiatives like recognize how serious the problem is). In any case, all of this invites us to reconsider what “preservation” even means. What should we try to preserve? For whom?

    I’m still hanging on to my VHS clip tapes from Vilas, including my copy of “Betty, Girl Engineer”! I just don’t have a means to play it anymore.