03 Sep Victims of Technology

Baltimore’s last video rental store, Video American, is about to close. I don’t want it to go away, but at the same time I haven’t helped keep it in business. When I checked into the store last month, to rent a film I couldn’t find anywhere else, the manager looked me up in the system, then said — without judgment — “Oh, you haven’t been here in three years.” Yes, I felt a pang of guilt. I really wanted Video Americain to be in business forever but it

Video Americain has been a film-lover’s resource for 30 years. If you couldn’t find a certain film anywhere in Baltimore, they’d have it. Always. You will recall — if you’re over 30 — that video rental stores used to be everywhere. Even grocery stores rented videos. But selection was always limited. At the video rental giants, like Blockbuster, mostly it was mainstream stuff. Good luck finding foreign films or documentaries. Funny thing is, I thought nothing of driving to the video rental store to pick up a few films twice a week. But the thought of doing so now leaves me cold: it’s too inconvenient. And so it is with so many forms of entertainment. If you’re over 45, you may remember what it was like going to the “record store” to thumb through the vinyl, sometimes for hours. Now, music is just a click away on the internet. And you don’t have to buy the whole album if all you want is one song.

Yeah, yeah, I know: just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s better. The microwave was supposed to revolutionize food preparation and make everybody’s life easier, right? But it turned out that the microwave was terribly limited; in fact, it often ruined food; and, despite later refinements, it was never able to claim a major share of kitchen chores: in most homes, it’s used only for warming up coffee and sometimes leftovers. I don’t even own a microwave any more. So, this is the dilemma: new technology keeps knocking out the old, just as the microwave knocked out the toaster oven (sort of). But are we any better for it?

Let’s go way back and consider white bread. Early twentieth-century technology made possible this seemingly pure food. The finely sculpted factory-shaped loaf with its “enriched” ingredients (because all the original nutrients had been leached out) appeared to be the apogee of refined living. Ironically “refinement” was the problem: corporate bread companies had refined the loaf into a new kind of industrialized food that hardly resembled the original. Eventually, many people who cared about bread’s taste and nutrition returned to the original. That’s why “artisanal” breads and whole-grain bakeries have grown in popularity in recent years. And that’s why, by the late twentieth-century, the term “white bread” came to stand for all that was mediocre and short-sighted. In 2009, the sale of whole wheat breads exceeded the sale of white breads for the first time ever.

So correction is possible. We can revive the things so-called technological advances have obliterated. But it’s not easy. Most of the time, we go along with the changes because it seems we have no choice. That’s the sticky thing about a consumer-centered culture: if nobody feels like driving to the video store any more, then the video store is going out of business. It comes down to money. I want Video Americain to stay open but will I put my money where my mouth is?

It’s just a matter of time before DVDs disappear and, with it, the mail order video rental business. Guess what’s coming next? Streaming. But you can’t stream without an internet hook-up on your TV set. That’s gonna cost you plenty. You ready for that? Maybe you’re already hooked up and paying an extra internet subscriber fee. I’ll resist that as long as I can. But you see the problem: we get swept away by the next big thing, no matter how nice and easy the old thing was. And because we change so much, and because it all comes down to money, we don’t get as much as we could get. There is a dwindling effect every time we change. For example: there are still films on VHS that you can’t get as DVDs. And there are still DVDs you can’t get on Netflix.

So, we in Baltimore are going to say goodbye to Video Americain, and then there will be no archive in town to supply us with those hard-to-find films. A loss. But what can we do but shrug as the starship of our consumer culture rockets on, taking us to new technological frontiers, even as we stare out the window at the many fine stars and planets that we once knew but, soon, will no longer see.