A new history of video unpicks the medium's many livesby Josephine Livingstone / July 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Laura-from-across-the-road and I once tried to rent Titanic. When asked her age, Laura answered (truthfully) that she was only 11. I remember the cashier’s expression as a silent thunderstrike of disdain commingled with respect, rolling across Blockbusters in an invisible shock wave. Laura just didn’t have it in her to lie.
For children of the 1990s, walking to the local video-rental shop meant journeying into a cave filled with treasure. Eight minutes’ walk out of the house, down the road, round the corner, through the door: video rental was a quest. At the checkout, we would hand over the long-considered plastic case and hold our breath, hoping a copy was still in stock. If we were lucky, the guy behind the desk would hand us another case, covered in plastic that was always rippling and milkily translucent.
Would the video work? Once I rented a malfunctioning cassette of Watership Down, its picture zigzagged and frayed like the unravelling hem of a cardigan. But technical issues were for later. For now, there was the trudge home—swinging a plastic bag which contained the rented cassette and a packet of soon-to be incinerated microwave popcorn—buoyed along by that feeling that comes in between getting a thing you want and consuming it.
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A lot has changed in the way we enjoy video since then, but not all. Michael Z Newman’s stylish and informative new book Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium hits pause on key moments in the biography of video, freezing them for closer examination, while always keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
Historians of video face an immediate challenge: the story of video is inseparable from the many different meanings the word has carried. “Video” made its lexical debut in the early 1930s, alongside television itself. At first those two words meant the same thing. Newman points to a 1937 Printer’s Ink Monthly’s citation of “video” simply as “the sight channel in television, as opposed to audio.”
In its early days, television was either live or broadcast via kinescope recording, in which a camera would…