The Video is what gives the entertainment industry its power. It's an electromagnetic field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the tech community together. And it bores us to death with our devices, leaving us wanting ever more stimulation.
There was a time, perhaps 20 years ago, when our computers didn't have a lot of supporting infrastructure. We knew they were powerful tools, and there was a sense that they would become instrumental in our lives. But lacking the Internet and modern video capabilities, we were left with the idea that as we prepared for the future we should actually learn how they work. And do something no one had ever done before.
That is to say, owning a computer was stimulating in a SciFi sense. The prospect of what the computer could do was closely tied to how much we learned about it. So we programmed it. We learned about basic graphics. We played primitive games knowing full well that, decades later, we'd have a holodeck-like experience. We were inspired by the prospects of what the future would hold. But mostly in a responsible context.
What happened along the way was exactly what we expected to happen. We have iPads that can display and record 1080p video. (The iPad Pro 9.7 and the iPhone 6s can record 4K video at 30 fps.)
Along the way, there has been an explosion of video content. There is so much video content on cable, satellite, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube, Roku channels, and OTT services like HBO Now that no one can possibly keep up. (Buit many try anyway.) Now Spotify, a music streaming service, is going to get onto the game with its own production of 12 "TV-style" shows. There's no end in sight.
I'm not complaining about the boundless collection of video entertainment to chose from. But I am unsettled by the effect it's having on consumers.
The Surface Effects
I think the explosion of video content is tied to the transmogrification of our video devices, tablets and smartphones, into primarily mesmerizing video instruments. While I am very familiar with people who are technically adept with their devices and either program them or create constructive content, that's a minority.
By and large, I think it's safe to say that most mobile device users are more enthusiastic about playing games and watching video content than they are about learning how the device works. Of course, this is good for business, and it's good for the economy. However, I believe that it has the downside of making all those users fairly blasé about their devices when it comes to actually exploiting their power for some productive purpose.
In other words, it requires a rapid technological rate of change to impress the customers into upgrading, but that rate cannot be achieved and sustained by, say, Apple. The result is that once most consumers reach a point where they can gobble up all the 1080p video they can afford, spurred onward by massive marketing and social media pressure, there is no time to really do anything else with the device. Or appreciate its true power.
Mr. Spock's Dilemma
Imagine this conversation during one of Mr. Spock's time travel episodes back to 20th century Earth.
Little boy: Mr. Spock! What is that?
Mr. Spock: It's a tricorder.
Little boy: How does it work?
Mr. Spock: I have no idea.
Little boy: What do you do with it?
Mr. Spock: I watch movies. Sometimes I play games.
Little boy: Is that all you do?
Mr. Spock. What else is there?
What a dismaying scenario. Anyone would be disappointed in this version of Mr. Spock. Are we disappointed in ourselves?
The Consumer Dilemma
Don't misread me here. This story has another aspect. Every day, smart people are doing incredibly smart things with their computers. Engineers at Space-X are building next generation, reusable launch vehicles that can land tail first on a barge. Apple engineers are breaking new ground with HealthKit and CareKit. Soon our Apple Watch will be, virtually, a medical tricorder. AI agents will breed family service robots and new prosthesis technologies for the handicapped. Smart contact lenses may be on the way. Breakthroughs in medical technologies from very smart people occur every day. Just watch a few TED talks to see what they're all doing.
I also recognize that when hard working people get home, they want to let their hair down and relax with some video entertainment. The Apple TV and similar products are fun, and movie entertainment is part of the American culture. I do it myself.
What unsettles me however is that in the headlong rush into an explosion of video content, for the sake of making ever more money, the end result is a society of people who aren't generally and consistently learning on their own or taking initiatives to use their devices for some other productive end. There simply is no time left after the binge viewing.
Whether it's the latest superhero movie or the antics of the latest political candidates, our society is driven by the most sensational, most outrageous dreams and horrors of the video makers. Network TV floods viewer brains with either silliness or murder for hours on end every night. It molds the psyche of many (not all) into gawking bystanders. Eventually they have no will to do anything productive or to go out and make contributions. Or leverage the tools they've been blessed with.
My final query is this. If our grandparents knew that just about every American would be blessed with a supercomputer in hand, what would they have expected us to do with it?