Taping Culture

Isn’t it interesting that we as a culture (at least in the west) used to tape things? In the 1980s and 90s, it was common to use a VCR to record things off TV (or other VHS tapes) or record songs off the radio (or from other cassette tapes). I’m sure not everyone did this, but to my then-child eyes, it seemed like it was pretty prevalent.

What was so interesting about it was we were sort of appropriating media for our own uses. Television dictated “you watch this show when we tell you, or not at all” and taping culture said, “No, I’ll watch it when I please” or “I want to keep this around for reference later.” Radio and the music industry said “You either listen to the music (and ads) all the time, buy our tapes and records, or don’t listen at all” and again our culture had these little tools of defiance where we made audio our own.

The mix tape was a great fallout of this. Not only were we making copies, we were recombining copies as we saw fit! Maybe the perfect playlist for you had jazz and hip hop, but good luck waiting for the music industry to put out a tape like that. Fuck it, make it yourself.

Everything was and is a remix, yes, but without taping culture these remixes were often made and experienced en mass, created and consumed largely via entertainment industries. But now we could remix on our own.

Things have changed today, as they always do. For starters, most video and audio is copy protected (something tells me the industries sorta didn’t like home taping?). And with things like Netflix and Spotify, the need to record something to time shift has diminished. No real need to record something when you can just play it at will from a service, anyway. There’s also Tivo, which seems to fill the same niche as VCRs, albeit with a little more computer involved.

But it seems like the whole cultural idea of “taping” has kind of evaporated. Yes, it’s often technically possible to make copies of things (you can make or download copies of movies, music, etc), but culturally it’s not something we do as often anymore.

The closest things I can think of are apps like Tumblr, which allow you to do a kind of constant drive-by remix of a never-ending flow of “content.” This is similar, I guess, but it feels much less like you’re appropriating the media you want, and instead like you’re just redirecting copies of bits into your own personal ephemeral stream. It’s not that one is necessarily better than the other, just that it’s different.

Also cameras. With cameras in our pockets wherever we go, we now have appropriation devices. We can make crude copies of what we see, visually accurate but otherwise lifeless renditions of the world. I can and do take pictures of pretty much anything that interests me, but I also take pictures of things I want to remember, things I need to do (like travel receipts I need to get reimbursed for). I make screenshots of text conversations I want to hold on to.

The camera + screenshots are a common way we appropriate digital data on our phones, but the OS makers don’t seem to take advantage of this. The camera + screenshot + appropriation culture is brimming with potential, but relatively stunted due to the software available.

Do you think we still live in a taping culture? Has it largely evaporated in favour of large industries telling us when and what we do? Or do we as a culture still do make our it our own?

Speed of Light