The arc of the technological universe is long, but it bends towards irrelevance. Forty years ago, Sony released the Betamax, a revolutionary new video recording device. “Video recording” sounds primitive today, even archaic. You stream video, capture video, Torrent video. It’s a physical process of clicks across a digital landscape. Betamax was analog — what else was there, in 1975? — and it was, for a brief moment in time, the best and most popular thing of its kind.
Most people never owned a Betamax. Another Japanese company, JVC, developed a competing device. It was called the Video Home System. Did you know that’s what VHS stood for? Anyone who cares will tell you Betamax was the “better” technology, with higher-quality video. That quality came at a cost: The initial Betamax tapes only let you record one hour. Long enough for an episode of Dallas; not long enough to record the CBS Sunday Movie; certainly not long enough to record a football game.
VHS was cheaper, too. Maybe that’s all that mattered. Whatever: VHS became the defining entertainment technology of its era. James Woods inserts a VHS tape into his stomach in Videodrome. Whenever Patrick Bateman isn’t killing people in American Psycho, he’s returning videotapes. When Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights, he codified the dawn of videotape as the decline of a certain grand cinematic innocence. (Ironically or not, he filmed the proto-Boogie Nights short film The Dirk Diggler Story on VHS.)
Nostalgia moves ever onward, so by the time Michel Gondry made Be Kind Rewind, VHS was now the symbol of an earlier innocent time. VHS won the war against Betamax, but lost the battle against history. The last major Hollywood release to hit videotape was — ha! — A History of Violence. Occasionally some cult-minded film like The House of the Devil will hit VHS, but that’s an affectation. You buy a VHS now the way most people buy records. They look good in a room. They fill the space.
Nobody feels nostalgic for Betamax. It was a popular technology, and then it wasn’t there at all. Sony kept making it, though: Who knew? It discontinued the video recorders in 2002, but it kept making new Betamax tapes. The format was in production long enough to watch its nemesis and its descendants rise and decline. After VHS came DVD, a chic and sleek and impossibly shiny new species of video technology. DVD felt so futuristic. (It used lasers, right?) But that era died, too. There was a new format war, between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Blu-Ray won that fight, backed by Sony and its Playstation 3. But the future now is thingless. There’s a shift in our perception, hard to pin down. When Betamax started, it promised you that you could record anything you wanted — one hour at a time. Now, because the Internet, you can have all the video you want. For a price.
Betamax is dead now, or will be soon. Sony will stop producing new tapes in March. This means something to someone, somewhere. Someone bought a Betamax tape, recently. Pause to imagine a single, remote town, someplace between Ruritania and Shangri-La, where every house has a Betamax player — and every house has a shack out back, filled floor to ceiling with Betamax tapes. The young have been raised on Betamax for decades, generations. Around the dinner table, Father recalls with pride how he recorded every moment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, across 10 Betamax tapes, without missing a single second. It took dexterity — and two Betamax recorders, one in the kitchen, one in the basement. Mother laughs. She also recorded Lord of the Rings — but it was the extended edition.
The end is coming to Betamaxville. Soon, the tapes will run out. Soon, everything that was analog will be dust in the cloud.