losers, killers, drugs, cars

What does it mean to say that TV lost to computers, as Paul Graham suggests?  Graham tries to explain why the Internet “won” in the battle of media convergence, but he begs the question of whether media “convergence” was a valid proposition in the first place, or what it was even supposed to mean.

Take a close look at any claim that one kind of media “lost to” or “killed” another.  Were they ever really in competition?  Sure, every kind of experience is a competitor for our limited time, but I’d call this “attention competition” rather than “replacement competition.”

I might choose to watch basketball rather than baseball in the limited time I watch sports, but basketball didn’t kill baseball:  although basketball had a later start and has grown more in recent decades, both sports businesses are larger than they have ever been before.  Things that compete for my attention do not kill each other, they just give me more choices.

In contrast, I use a safety razor to shave my face.  A safety razor is better than its predecessor, the straight razor, in every way – shaving is faster, cleaner, closer, easier, safer – except possibly price, which I am happy to pay for those benefits.  I am not the only person to make this choice, by and large the entire shaving market has.  Although some people stick to the straight razor for reasons of fashion, self-esteem, or violent secondary uses, the straight razor has been replaced by the safety razor to such a large extent that you can say the latter killed the former.  Losers and killers in the market can only exist among things that accomplish the same function.

A lot of media is entertainment, and “entertainment” is not a function, it’s a category.  Historically, there has been a huge amount of attention competition within the entertainment category, but much of this competition has only given us more choices in an expanding market for leisure.  Novels did not replace plays, radio did not replace books, movies did not replace radio, TV did not replace movies.  Most if not all of those businesses are larger in absolute terms than they’ve ever been, even though many are smaller in audience share.

On the other hand, vinyl albums nearly got replaced by 8-tracks and then cassette tapes, then all of these lost to CDs, and now CDs are losing to music downloads and streaming on computing devices.  All of those formats simply fulfill the function of delivering music, so here you really can say that a new format killed an old format, and various businesses were winners and losers along the way.

If you’re thinking that it’s not so simple, you’re right.  Let’s go back and examine the entertainment category again.  TV may not have completely replaced radio, but a certain kind of radio show no longer exists in any noticeable volume:  the radio drama, of the type that the Shadow knows.  Were these replaced by TV shows?  Probably.  And for that matter, books and their predecessor scrolls and tablets did replace cave drawings.  So how can you really tell when you have competitors for attention within a category, rather than replacement competitors in a race to be the best format for the same function?

I think one key is to ask whether the format gives rise to a distinct art form.  I don’t mean to make lofty judgments about art, but more mundane observations about senses and brain responses.  (I could say “neurosensory experience” rather than “art,” but that would be replacing pretension with didacticism.)  The novel engages the brain in conveying a narrative in a way that the brain is not engaged in hearing or watching essentially the same story.  Plays have a sensory experience in a way that is not captured in TV or movies.  But radio dramas never really attempted to deliver any experience that wasn’t the same experience done better by a TV drama, so when people began enjoying TV shows, that did kill radio shows.  There is arguably no distinct form of art tied to radio – music obviously can be delivered well in many formats – so it’s likely that radio will actually be killed by superior forms of distribution for audio content.

So does TV have a distinct art form?  Well, over the last few decades we have seen the rise of ever longer dramas that tell a story with character depth that have been quite distinct to TV (especially as opposed to movies or plays).  From Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos, viewers became accustomed to following character development and story lines over years rather than one-hour episodes.  This “long form passive story viewing” is distinct to TV – and even though you can watch these same TV shows on your computer, that doesn’t mean that the Internet ”’killed”’ TV.  It matters whether we are talking about the art form of TV, or the delivery vehicle of TV.

See, this my objection to Graham’s argument.  He says that “Facebook killed TV,” meaning that the social applications made possible by the interactivity of the Internet led to the downfall of TV.  But this mixes and matches the format and the substance; it is an inapt attempt to make a larger artistic and social commentary.  Social applications are an attention competitor for the long form passive story viewing that is on TV today, but neither will kill the other.  To say that TV loses to the computer is only saying that the screen in your house on which you watch TV shows will also be the screen that you use for Facebook – it’s a somewhat interesting comment, but not more interesting than cassettes beating 8-tracks.

My view here is complex and probably not stated very well, so I’ve come up with a simple question to ask when considering the losers and killers that others see:  Are we talking about drugs or cars?

Popular recreational drugs have distinct effects on the brain, and all are competitors for the attention of recreational drug users.  Some people prefer particular drugs, but in the overall drug market, meth doesn’t kill heroin doesn’t kill cocaine doesn’t kill weed – all of these have their audiences because each elicits a distinct effect on the brain.  (For some reason, only heroin seems to be a popular point of comparison for technology in general, Internet addiction, or porn on the Net.  I think comparisons should be more exact:  TV is heroin, social networking is coke, Internet porn is meth, and so on . . . but I don’t really have the time or social position to research this properly.)

Before safety razors and CDs, cars are the prototypical replacement choice – the advent of cars killed the horse-and-buggy, literally a superior delivery vehicle.  If it’s not this kind of outright replacement, then there shouldn’t be talk of losers and killers.

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