Format Junkies

This is an extension of the musings in the post Vinyl Records are Still Mind-Blowing Technology.

While thinking about vinyl albums and the blink-of-an-eye format switches that have occurred since, I realized how people have been turned into “Format Junkies.”

Now, I’m aware that it seems a bit strong to use that term. It might seem that this discussion immediately bends toward the audiophile and the cinephile/videophile looking to get 3 or 4 more quads per channel with the TK421 stereo system enhancement. But it’s about how everyone, and I mean everyone, is played the same way.

It’s always about chasing the “new high of the latest format.” And we were all hooked.

The First Taste

The first DVD that I ever watched, The Usual Suspects, was an odd experience. There was pixelation in the deep shadows. The color balances were off. Certainly there were aspects which were “better” than VHS, but the early adopters didn’t get quite the leap in experience they thought. As with any format switch, the differences in the first releases were on a questionably thin margin.

The same was true of CDs. The difference was in the physical properties of the item. Instead of big, clunky VHS tapes (side note: Beta was better quality!) or large non-portable vinyl albums, or the possible technical mishaps with magnetic tape, here was something that was easy to take with you that was “sure not to fail.” (It still did, with dirt and scratches, but hey.)

Of course the technology improves over time. The home video and audio systems available today outstrip the capabilities of movie theaters that exhibited some of the greatest landmark technical achievements in cinema history.

Star Wars, Titanic, and Masters of the Universe all played in cinemas that had sound systems less crisp than what I could buy for my home if I was so inclined. People loved them still.

I’m just saying it’s not half as important as we think.

But is the popcorn in 4K?
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My Attitude

I used to be a Format Junkie. Whatever latest tweaks or enhancements they advertised with a new edition or format, I was one of the first to snap up the new experience.

A VHS transfer of a favorite film that was produced to the specifications of the original camera operator’s assistant? You’d better believe I needed that post-haste.

Or maybe: “THIS DVD release is better than the one they released 3 years ago because the audio mix was done by the second cousin of the person who worked at the processing center that handled the movies for the studio that made this movie.”

It was never quite that ridiculous, but it bordered on it occasionally.

And then I broke somewhere along the way. Like smoking, I realized it was just another addiction. The difference is that while I still care about formats progressing and experiences improving…it has a different place in my life. They’re not going to stop making 4K televisions anytime soon, I can can “upgrade” once my current television stops working.

I think it’s why I have the attitude I do when one of my friends decides to “chastise” me because I’m so apathetic about the “quality of streaming” or “compression rate of mp3” versus the “quality of [CD/HD-DVD/Laserdisc/DVD/Blu-Ray/4K].”

It all depends on what my situation is at the time I’m consuming the content. Audio cassettes weren’t a great format, but they were darned convenient. (They also beat out 8 Track because they were more portable.)

And if I can pay $X a month to get a slightly-degraded library of movies to play with the touch of a button, as opposed to having to rent or own every damned thing I want to see, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just have to trust that the content will make up for having to suffer with a simple HD image and TV sound.

More to the point, I don’t care if I’m not seeing Christmas Vacation in the crispest picture quality. That movie is overrated anyway. Besides, once they start mutating our cells with ubiquitous 5G signals to turn us into lizard people, I’m sure the quality will catch up.

But I will buy the 4K release of any David Fincher film I want, thank you very much.

Coda: The Down Side of My Attitude

The worst part of my own attitude, actually, is that it gives companies even more power than before. The march of technology is putting us in a position that gives the added power to the companies to act as de facto censors.

Let me explain.

Once we’re weaned off physical media, and companies like Disney®©™ decide to migrate away from next-gen releases, then the companies will be able to make as many shadow edits to content as they’d like or drop things down the memory hole once social mores change.

Whether you think that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, it is most likely a thing, or sure to be one. I’m curious to see how quickly we find ourselves in the situation.

“No, no. No one is outside. Put the VHS of RoboCop on!”
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