I am often accused of being a Luddite. This is because I think I am. I have always been – even as a child – largely suspicious of new technologies, especially those that come trumpeted as the “next great thing.” If everyone is using it, my prejudiced and backward-thinking mind immediately dismisses it. This is probably why I don’t own a smart phone. It’s also why I still own numerous VHS tapes and have two working VCRs in my home.
I was raised in the era of VCRs and VHS tapes. My film education began in earnest when my house began randomly accumulating a select few cassettes, ripe for multiple viewings. The Wizard of Oz was a regular staple in my house, as was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And, since I was the right age, I figured out how to program a VCR right quick, incessantly taping, watching, and re-watching anything that took my fancy. Star Trek, the early days of The Simpsons, and any sort of magician’s special lived in harmony on my own personal VHS collection for many years. Did you know that when films like Blazing Saddles and The Man With Two Brains were broadcast on network television, they had to incorporate deleted scenes to accommodate the deletion of the more adult content? Thanks to VCRs, I’m more familiar with the “alternate” versions than I am with the original theatrical cuts.
But, being motivated by more than mere nostalgia, I still say VCRs were a superior technology in many ways. Today’s tech allows for a newly infinite ease of access, but DVRs, streaming technology, and the popular-slash-frustrating pool of Netflix all have new and unusual problems that VCRs had beat years ago. Here are ten reasons why VCRs are better than what we have now.
1. They’re Easier to Program
This may have less to do with the tech itself and more to do with the ever increasing number of platforms, TV services, and sheer volume of televised content in the world, but it seems to me that VCRs were infinitely easier to program. I have heard many, many complaints from peers about how their DVR somehow missed recording something because of a simple slip of a button. Or that DVRs won’t stop recording something in the middle. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but a friend once told me that their DVR recorded the wrong thing because the title of the desired show and the title of the recorded show were similar.
VCRs required a small amount of planning (you had to check your local listings), and a simple matter of programming the time, the date, and the channel. You were in control. If you were, like me, savvy enough to time out commercial breaks (I knew the exact time codes when commercials showed up in my favorite shows), you could program out the commercials. With a VCR, you were in closer command of the machine. With DVRs, you tell the robot what to do, and cross your fingers that they’ll get it right.
I got my own VCR to stop flashing “12:00” really quick. It was easy.
2. They’re Easier to Edit
I miss the magic of the mix tape. Back in high school, I didn’t have cable TV. I still don’t. Over the years, several concerned friends – worried that I was missing quality programming on MTV or the Cartoon Network – began making 6-hour mix tapes for me, crammed full of a diverse sampling of all their own favorite shows and music videos. Those tapes were great. There were personally curated for me, and were often impeccably edited over the course of dozens of hours of TV viewing. One video led into the next with a strange personal poetry, and often the commercials were edited out.
You can’t do that with modern recording equipment. You can’t construct your own personal mix of movies and TV shows and music videos on a single source. You can’t have your own personal tape that you watch over and over because keeping things so neatly organized is immensely difficult with abstract clouds and DVR memory files.
So how does one make a personal TV playlist in today’s tech idiom? I suppose you can write down a list of your favorites, then visit each of the platforms that has them archived. It seems to me that making a mix tape is easier than hours and hours and hours of editing work on your home computer. I don’t have much experience editing together videos on a computer, but I did try to download some videos once with the express purpose of making my own mix DVD, and my computer caught a virus.
VCRs never caught viruses.
3. You Could Bring It to a Friend’s House
A huge advantage VCRs had over modern technologies was their mere modularity. You could tape something off of the TV – or you could just own a feature film on VHS – and you could slip it into your backpack and ride your bike over to a friend’s house where you could watch it together. The two of you could then, in a fit of enthusiasm, spontaneously decide to leave that particular venue, and go over to a third friend’s house and watch the same tape again. Then you could take the tape home and watch it at home.
There are two things going on here, proving that VHS tapes are superior. For one, there’s the notion that you only need one copy of a video to spread it around. Sure, you can share stuff through cellular telephones, but that doesn’t necessarily account for something one friend thought to record that the other friends didn’t. The discovery of new television has become mandated by tech, rather than the people using tech to organically mandate their own television choices.
But secondly, and more importantly, you had a more social experience with sharing TV and movies. You could recommend this weird thing you discovered late at night on Night Flight, but your friend wouldn’t have access to it. With VHS tapes, you could watch that odd show together, grow closer as a result, develop in jokes based on it. There was something a lot more intimate about sharing TV with VCRs.
It was also the best way to share porn.
4. Finite Space = More TV
I don’t know a single person who has watched everything in their Netflix queue. Nor do I know people who are caught up entirely with their DVR lineup which is recording hours and hours worth of television every single day. DVRs and Netflix queues let us think that we’re archiving a library of TV shows that we want to watch, but what we’re really doing in keeping a long list of shows that we’ll likely never watch. We’ll keep them in our recording lists for months before realizing that we’ll never watch them. And then we’ll either delete them, or realize that the DVR has run out of space and isn’t recording new shows anyway.
VHS tapes, when used in SLP mode, could record 6 hours of video, tops. This forced you, dear viewer, to be stingy and more selective. Rather than just passively recording anything you may want to watch at some point, you had to be more active about what you definitely wanted to keep. VCRs did allow you to slip the bonds of programmed TV times, but they didn’t excuse you from TV passivity. Indeed, VCRs allowed you to curate your TV consumption much more closely.
VCRs let you devote yourself to TV shows differently. With online catalogues, you’re only faced with the paradox of choice: With infinite choices comes crippling indecision. With a VCR, you had to make a choice. And that was a good thing. Ironically, having the capability to record more TV means we’re going to be watching our favorite shows less.
“I missed that” was replaced with “I taped that and got to see it!” Which was then, subsequently, replaced by “I’ve been meaning to get to that.”
5. Tapes Last Longer
How long can you store a show on your DVR? Probably a long time. But I know few people who keep the same DVR system for more than a few years. They don’t bother keeping their archive on a DVR, usually losing all their old favorite shows after only a few years. The notion of building up a catalogue of favorite movies and TV shows is pretty much dead thanks to this technological shift. And don’t get me started on Netflix, a video store that seems to be constantly losing titles. Although the modern technological idiom would have us believe that there will always be an infinite and permanent library of everything stored in computers, my own personal experiences with most catalogue systems have revealed how incomplete and unreliable they are.
A VHS tape sits on a shelf. It just sits there. It doesn’t require tech upgrades, it doesn’t need to be ported over into a new cataloging system, and it doesn’t need to be meticulously categorized just to be located. It’s always on that shelf. For as long as you keep it there. As tech speeds up, more and more is becoming impermanent. The VHS tape would last for a good 15, 20 years. I have tapes from the 1980s that are still in perfect working order. How else could I still view “The Playgirl Morning Workout?” VHS tapes, despite their reputation, last a long time and look fine.
Sure, tapes can degrade too, and I’ve lost a few tapes to mildew, but that’s more to do with the physical conditions in which I store them, and not some ever-shifting landscape of hyperactive technology consumption. In the swirling miasma of new tech, so much can get lost.
Also, do you think that people will be using DVRs in the Mad Max post-apocalypse desert wasteland? There’s a reason they’re listening to phonographs and watching film strips in the future. Older stuff lasts longer.
6. You Can Pick Up Where You Left Off
This has always been a pet peeve of mine when dealing with streaming technologies, YouTube, DVDs and Blu-rays: there’s no way to turn off a show you’re watching, and then pick up right where you left off a day later. I’m not very good at a lot of online navigating, but Netflix always starts the show over for me, DVDs always start the show over, and Blu-rays always start the show over. The disc formats are especially bad because I have to wade through the FBI logos and previews all over again, then find the menu screen, then select the scene I want, or just fast forward to where I was. It’s a mountain of inconvenience that often has me leaving my favorite shows unwatched, just so I don’t have to wrestle with finding my spot again. Modern technology is frustratingly nonlinear.
To be fair, there are some technologies that “bookmark” where you left off; some DVRs can do it indefinitely. But VHS tapes definitely stay where you want them. Since they are constructed in a linear fashion, you can push “stop,” take the tape out of the machine, and leave it on your bedroom floor for literally decades. When you put it back in the VCR, it will start where you left off, no questions asked. This was handy for when I had to leave the family room TV and move to my own. Or when I wanted to stop one movie and watch something else as an intermission. Or when I wanted to watch a really long movie over the course of several sittings. Or if I was traveling (and yes, I traveled with VHS tapes; the Christian Science reading rooms at airports were always equipped with VCRs).
I feel that, with VHS tapes, you had more control over how you watched them. With new tech, I feel beholden to some sort of arbitrarily selected technological mandate.
Has it occurred to you that I don’t want to watch the FBI warning every single time I put a video into a player?
7. Hipster Cred
This point in more aesthetic than practical, but I always felt that VCRs looked way cooler. The modern technological idiom seems to dictate that everything become flatter and thinner; the world is so hung up on the word “sleek,” that we don’t really bother to think of “functional” or “practical” anymore. I can’t tell you how many ultra-thin smart phones I’ve dropped because some manufacturer assumed I wanted it to be ? millimeter flatter than it was before. How about something thick and hefty, something that stays in my hand more easily, with more buttons and knobs that stay in the way I position them? Argh, I hate touch screens. It’s a good thing that Steve Jobs is dead, because if he weren’t, I’D HURT HIM.
Calm down. Deep breaths. Sorry. I digress.
VCRs – especially the old top-loading models – just look cool. They are gigantic robotic boxes that look like they can do some real effing damage. Like something designed to be chucked through the window of a passing truck. They are hefty and awesome. Substantial. What do we have now? Thin black planks with glowing blue lights on them? For one, I hate glowing blue lights (blue pierces through darkness, while white and red more smoothly enter the eye), and for another, I hate insubstantial machines. If I spend a lot on a machine, I want it to look ridiculously large in my space.
What’s more, in 2014, VCRs have a cool edge to them. Like vinyl, VHS tapes have been making an underground comeback, coated in retro cool. Hipsters have been finding, repairing, and using old VCRs for a few years now, rediscovering old oddities that will likely never make their way onto a DVD. Why put up with glowing blue lights when you can have the pleasant mechanical chunk of a tape entering a VCR?
This occurs to me: Have you noticed how often glowing blue smoke is featured in modern action films? Look for it. You won’t stop seeing it.
8. They’re So Much Easier
Back in the day, you needed three things to watch TV: A TV set, an aerial, and an electrical outlet. That’s it. Aside from the purchase of the TV itself, all shows on it were free. There were no contracts, no setup, no calibration. It was just plug and play. To use a VCR, you needed the above, plus one VCR, and a special cord to connect the two devices together. Not so complicated. Now you could tape your favorite shows, watch whatever tapes you wanted, and you only purchased three items.
What do you need to watch TV in the modern age? A certain kind of flat screen TV, a converter box or cable box, a wireless digital internet signal, a cable contract or digital TC contract, a Netflix subscription, and goodness knows how many dongles, wires, widgets, and other ancillary crap. Watching TV is no longer free and easy. It’s expensive and difficult. If you want to watch TV, you can’t just buy a TV. You have to buy all the crap that goes with it. And even then, you may not have access to any of the premium shows or channels. Those cost extra.
I admire the poetic simplicity of the VCR. There are shows on constantly. You choose a few you want to see. You tape them. You watch them whenever you want. There’s less visual noise to sort through. Less garbage. It’s just you and a machine. It’s not you wrestling with a frustratingly abstract “cloud” of ever-shifting entertainment options. More often than not, fewer choices is better than more. The VCR was an uncomplicated machine that could sort through your choices. You had a handle on stuff. With modern tech, no one ever has a handle on anything, because nothing has handles.
This is why it’s good to meditate with a VCR in your lap.
9. Tapes Don’t Rat On You to the Robots
I’m increasingly distressed by the way online ads seem to know where I am. Or at least where my computer is. I don’t see blanket ads for national services as much as I do very specific ads based on what I type into Facebook, look at on Amazon, or merely peruse in my idle hours. There is a chip in my computer that reports me back to the advertising robots 24 hours a day. There’s a camera on my computer too, and I’m guessing the robots are using that to spy on me. They’re cooking up more specific ways to advertise to me, I’m guessing.
New TVs do that too. They know what my local affiliates are, where my TV is, and they constantly keep a record off what I watch, presumably so they can recommend “similar” shows. I like watching TV, but I’m getting the impression that my TV is also watching me. We’ve reached the point where we carry phones at all times, and the robots constantly know where we are.
Call me paranoid, but I’m not comfortable with living under constant robot scrutiny. If I’m lost, I can use a map; I was a Boy Scout. If I want a recommendation for a TV show, I’ll ask a friend. And if I want my TV knowing where I am, I’ll tell it myself. My old VCR never reported to the robots. Indeed, it was designed to be discreet. I could watch whatever shameful videos I wanted, and no record would be kept. It was a discreet friend, and only did what I asked.
Well, except for that phase it went through, when it got a tattoo and lived with that skanky drug addict for a few weeks. But I think we can both look back on that time and laugh.
10. Video Stores Are Awesome
I cannot stress the importance, the coolness, the easiness, and the wonder of video stores to modern youth. They just won’t ever understand the thrill of going to a video store, browsing through the thousands of titles, renting obscure tapes, chatting with know-it-all cineastes, and discovering nuggets of joy purely by chance. Every video store was fun to enter and they offered access to the greats. I often considered a video store’s horror section to be their thumbprint: No two were exactly alike.
That thrill does not exist with Netflix queues, online catalogues, and other streaming services. There is no shock of recognition, no thrill of discovery. Although online catalogues claim to be vast an infinite, they are actually smaller than most of your local video stores. Netflix is coy about how many titles they have, although many reports put them somewhere in the 3,000 – 5,000 range. Some are as high as 9,000. My local video stores have 40,000 apiece. And while streaming services claim to have everything, they only specialize in the popular stuff, really. Heaven help you if you want something unpopular, obscure or recently canceled.
The VHS tape gave us something visible and easy to grasp: a physical, easily browsed library of movies. A video store, provided it was laid out well, would have everything laid out like a book store. You could find things very easily, and get to know the store very well through repeat visits. Netflix doesn’t do that. No online service does. You can’t scrutinize anything in order, and you can’t ask a clerk to help you. You can only vaguely sift through random piles of popular things.
Viva la video.