Sync points: No time like the shared

JULY 27TH, 2016 — POST 205

In the wake of news this week that Funai Electric will halt production of VCR hardware, Ian Bogost recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic detailing what is implied as home video’s central legacy. For Bogost, the cassette of magnetic tape used to record broadcast TV — or distribute copies of movies and television series — was a watershed technological moment. The proliferation of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have towed the benefit of viewing anywhere. Critically, as Bogost points out, VCRs and the VHS format mark a moment more profound in the liberty it afforded the viewer. We now talk most about viewing anywhere, VHS enabled viewing anywhen.

Bogost is quick to point out the “time shifting” VHS enabled — that live broadcast could be automatically recorded for later viewing — was limited. Compared with the oft-overlooked anywhen of modern streaming services, VHS practically allowed two-hour chunks to be squirrelled away. It was logistically improbable that any one person would achieve the same temporal freedom we now do in the era of binge-watching. As such, Bogost argues that time shifting affirmed the dominance of shared viewing moments, rather than disrupting it. The VHS, for Bogost, was not a means by which content could be wielded to fit our lives, but rather provided the slack with which our lives could more easily fit to the content. To put it another way, VHS wasn’t used to pull content out of sync, but a way to keep ourselves in sync. As Bogost writes:

“It allowed television viewers to keep in sync with their kin, both to facilitate water cooler chatter about the latest episode of Dallas or M*A*S*H, and to remain in-sync for the following week’s live broadcast.”

As such, Bogost’s philosophically imbued lament of the loss of VHS is simultaneously a lament of the loss of shared (content viewing) experience. Bogost’s contention is that anywhere/anywhen viewing offered by the glut of content delivery services today has driven in the wedge that VHS placed. That VHS’s anywhen promise was kneecapped by brute logistic facts — of cassette capacity, manual cassette replacement, and physical cassette storage — is non-trivial: it’s these limitations that kept the format affirmative of synchronised, shared time. The unbridled consumptive liberty available today — where viewing out of sync is both easy and legitimate — converts the status of shared viewing experience from imperative to optional. We can sit “outside time”, can ignore spoilers for movies and television we’re yet to watch, encasing ourselves in a unique timeline where Game of Thrones hasn’t finished, and wasn’t watched week-by-week. We all can trivially set up a temporal cubby house where the entire first, second, third, or fourth, fifth, or sixth season can be watched this coming weekend.

For Bogost, something like Game of Thrones is one example in only a handful that has been engineered to demand in-sync viewing. Watching Game of Thrones, Bogost would argue, is the kind of shared experience that “is fleeting”, the kind of shared experience “we long for … more than ever”. This account provides us a perspective to dissect the way in which certain cultural products ascend to the hallowed halls of “can’t be missed”. These products — hyped to the point of making their consumption almost a moral duty — have an extremely narrow temporal horizon, require moderate (critically not excessive) investment, and are as much past and future as they are present. These products are the sync points.

Readers of Quartz might be familiar with the iOS app the publication recently released, one that mimics the look-and-feel of a chat app to “step out” the news to you. It uses colloquial language and GIFs aplenty. In checking it today, the story of Harrison Ford’s on-set injury was accompanied by a GIF (SPOILER ALERT): the moment from Star Wars: The Force Awakens where Kylo Ren fatally stabs Han Solo with his lightsaber. By this point, it is a very safe to assume this isn’t a spoiler. But when spoilers for The Wire or The Sopranos are still considered experience-ruining (despite both having long finished), why is it okay to spoil the climactic scene of The Force Awakens only months after the movie was released? Because, obviously, we’ve all seen it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the cleanest example of a sync point. It’s temporal horizon was minuscule — I couldn’t tell you how long it was in cinemas. If you weren’t in within two weeks, you were out. The moment of sync was the length of a movie, requiring minimal investment. And, most importantly, The Force Awakens was as consequential for the past — Star Wars’s own narratives as much as pop cultures — as it is for the future (there is still a lot more Star Wars to come). All sync points are similar. A new season of House of Cards has a horizon of a weekend, the first after it is released. An Avengers movie is just one slice of time in narratives that reach back and forth into the past and future. And Lemonade only takes an hour to watch. These sync points are the clock tower from which we set our own watches — an organic expression of global time that we more than ever understand as distinct from personal time.

VHS never let us escape the gravity of global time. The technology was a bungee cord, one to predictably bring us home. Untethered through Netflix, home DVRs, and piracy, we’re now empowered to maintain a personal temporal hermitage. But these hermitages are as taxing to maintain as being a temporal hermit is lonely. Sync points are how we dip back in.

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