When I Was a Media Student

People smoked in class.

In the first unlecture Adrian touched on the some of the changes in media since he was a student (in the pre-digital dark ages of the mid 1980s). One of the things mentioned was how the video camera was large, very expensive, and that the format was U-Matic (Betacam was broadcast quality, U-Matic was sort of next best). The edit suite needed two separate large video players, one as source the other as destination, and you had to load, fast forward, rewind, to the clips you wanted. Each tape held 30 minutes of video, so if you’d shot several takes you might have 4 or more tapes that would need constant loading, unloading, fast forwarding and so on. Since you edited from one tape to another and tape is linear, you nearly always did butt edits, as an insert edit meant putting video over the top of what was already there and so erasing whatever was ‘under’ it. This often meant re-editing everything from that point onwards, again, so you really only did it if it was so important that it just absolutely had to be done.

So things are, obviously, much smaller, and an order of magnitude faster and easier to do. However, the other thing is that because you dubbed from one tape to another, and it was analogue media, the edited copy would, by definition, not be as good as the original. In analogue media every copy introduces noise and so is less good than the original. Once you’d edited, then made a VHS quality from the original tape, the decline in quality was already noticeable if you looked hard enough. This meant the original tape was treated as something to be guarded, protected, and only used sparingly, as even watching it caused damage (which you would have to admit was taking things a bit far, you can watch a tape 100s of times before the video player heads – which are rapidly spinning metal drums – would wear out the tape) and you never paused it because the tape might have been stopped but the drums were still spinning madly!

So, first enormous now forgotten-take-for-granted of digital media. Infinite reproducibility with no loss of quality. You can copy a video file 1, 10, 100, 1,000,000 million times, and it is the same. Always. This means there is no essential quality or attribute given to the ‘original’ in digital media, since each version, being identical, is the same. (This second point is seriously radical if you think – speculate – about it, we have a culture that privileges the first as what matters, first place, first at something, first in line, first in the class, first film that did x, and in media this continued so the original copy mattered because it was the master that had to be preserved so future copies could be made. There is no longer any privilege, in the artefact – the object – in being ‘first’, does that mean the idea of first as best or better will slowly erode, or change?)

To see the difference, the YouTube clip above illustrates just how much quality is lost each time a VHS video tape is copied.