I am down to a single machine that plays videocassettes, which for a time in the l980s after my return to the States from Rwanda I bought voraciously, thinking I was stockpiling my own personal movie theater. For a while I will be able to watch them, should I be so moved, because a few machines that play them will be manufactured somewhere in the world, and someone, somewhere, will still fix them for a while—as I found the one man in town who could fix the IBM typewriters I typed my PhD dissertation on 30 years ago. Progress has begotten progress, and moved on, making the last cat’s meow faint indeed, and then inaudible.
But the saddest thing is that I didn’t end up ever looking at most of these videotapes even when I had machines to play them. I watched several handfuls at first; some I’ve used later for film classes at the US Naval Academy, where I have taught for a quarter century—and a few others I’ve watched more recently on rainy Saturday afternoons, the rare times when the family was gone. But the fact is that videocassettes didn’t turn out to offer the brave new world I had thought they would. Too much intervened, for one thing. How to move from feeding the baby to watching Eisenstein’s October or Bergman’s Persona again? How about Da Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis after the boys’ soccer game? The ability to leave our own world for the intense alternative reality of a great film seemed to have been taken for me, immersed in my family life, where once it was as effortless as diving off the shore into the stream.
More deleterious to my interest in these frozen worlds on my shelf, however, was the very quality that had made them seem so vital: their availability to me. Because they were lined up on my shelves, there was no urgency in playing any single one, if not for the external motivation of a course I had to teach. Being my possessions rather than part of the world external to me, and fixed in time—waiting to be played; they never went away and I never left—they lacked the urgency that the “see them now before the trip back to Rwanda” films in Paris had. Someday, I told myself, I’d watch them; for most of them “some day” never came.
Thus the problem with the videocassette turned out to be precisely what made them progress. Of course videocassettes made films available, but precisely as a result, no individual one could have the degree of urgency that the more laboriously found and more evanescent films in Parisian Left Bank cinemas had for me: all have now been downgraded from “have to see” to “on the shelf for someday.” I may have thought each videocassette would retain the pull of its cinematic big brother, but in the end there were too many of them. So I catalogued them, and forgot them: too many of a thing we enjoy individually inevitably, I discovered, results in our demoting them to a lower, background, level of interest.
This is turning out too to be the problem with the equally evanescent “progress” of the Internet—indeed, of any technological change that initially seems to give us more that turns out to be less: we can’t pay this higher level of attention we’re used to giving to more data, so we downgrade the increased data we have to the merely existent. It loses its hold on us. After all it’s here, under our control: we can look at them any time. And so, like New Yorkers who go to their graves without ever having been to the Statue of Liberty (we’ll go some day), we never do. It’s what East Germans after the fall of the Wall called “die Qual der Wahl”—the pain of choice. Things were easier when car choices were limited to two, Trabant and Wartburg. The wait list was longer for Wartburg, but what a long time looking forward to it that gave!
The rapid loss of interest on our part in things that once seemed the bee’s knees is clearest with gizmos. On one hand, the shrillness with which the newest toy (or, as it’s sold to us, necessity) of the season is shilled is intended to make us think we’ll be left behind if we don’t have it: indeed, newness itself is the commodity being sold, with people lining up the night before at stores or ordering online (itself another novelty quickly growing passé) months in advance. Yet how long does a gizmo seem indispensable? Frequently we find that they have too steep a learning curve to be worth it, entail a whole other set of problems of their own that nobody foresaw or at least talked about, or are in turn supplanted by other steps in our technological “progress” before they make much of an impact. And if Moore’s law is correct, that holds that technology alters at an ever-increasing rate, we’ll soon find that the level of “gotta have it” we can afford to offer each new gizmo will diminish too like my boredom with the too-readily-accessible videotapes, the gadget version of “donor’s fatigue,” the fact that the milk of human kindness dries up the more often it’s pulled from the teat.
Books have long ago also reached this stage of being so numerous and so available they’re just background noise. The only books people pay attention to, if they pay attention to any, are new releases touted by celebrities, course books for students, or the book club’s selection: the rest are catalogued in libraries. They exist, but not for many people. This is of course fabulous if you have a reason for wanting one particular book, because there it usually is—or inter-library loan can get it. But the fact that there are so many means we can’t pay attention to all. Plus we can get them any time we want to. So typically we never do. The world itself no longer gives us a reason to care: this is the nature of progress.