The Evolution of Experience

February 13, 2016

Since the first painting was daubed on a caveman’s bedroom wall, humans have sought to communicate visually. TV may seem to owe little to those rudimentary sketches (even if Hollywood suggests they presaged the arrival of extra-terrestrial life); but they were the foundation of an evolution that brought us to our current content-filled world.

Visual communication is characterized by two primary limitations: where it can be seen, and when it can be seen. The broader the availability, and the greater the frequency with which it can be accessed, the more influential it becomes. The Gutenberg press process, for instance, transformed a growing literate civilization from one that relied on (primarily) monks to painstakingly transcribe each book by hand, to one that within a few short decades boasted 15 to 20 million copies of over 30,000 different publications.  That printing revolution made it possible to read whatever one wanted to, whenever one wanted to, because it was now possible for the less-than-super-wealthy to own – or at least access – a book that so recently was out of reach.

Video is at the tail end of a similar evolution, moving toward a point at which the where and the when of access are near-infinite.  Relative to human history, perhaps, it has been a rapid movement, but this is nonetheless a process that has spanned more than a century.

The First Age of video was heralded by the advent of News Reels, which could be viewed by anyone with a nickel and access to a movie theater. Movie theaters grew very rapidly – resulting in the movie palaces that characterized the start of the 20th century. These information and entertainment hubs were a consternation – now everyone could see what was going on around the world in glorious moving pictures. However, the where and the when were limited: one had to be at specific location at a specific time, or else risk missing the show.

The Second Age came about in the middle of the 20th century, as television became widespread. Commentators argue about when the scale finally tipped – maybe somewhere in the 50’s on the back of Dragnet and its like, maybe as the first man stepped onto the moon – but it is inarguable that the appearance of the silver screen in the corner of the living room meant a seismic change had occurred. Of a sudden, one did not have to go to a specific place to watch; but one did have to be in place at the right time to see a specific show.

The Third Age dawned somewhere in the 1980’s, as time-shifting became A Thing. It started with the lowly VCR, expanded with the Tivo DVR, and developed way beyond what could have been imagined even twenty years before as cable companies solved the one-way limitation of TV and built a billion dollar business with On Demand movies and shows. On some level, both the where and the when had been solved: sit in your own home and select from a vast library of pre-recorded and available-for-sale titles.

But that wasn’t enough. We were still forced to sit in front of a fixed device (the television), and were limited by whatever content we had either planned for, or were being offered by whatever provider was at the foundation of our TV setup.  And thus we move into the current, fourth, age of video entertainment.

The Fourth Age is characterized by solving, completely, both the where and the when.  Video content can now be accessed anywhere, using any number of devices; and, by scanning the near-innumerable sources of content, pretty much any piece of content ever created can be viewed whenever desired. This was driven home this week by the writing of Justin Peters in Slate Magazine, who successfully tracked down and watched half a century’s worth of Super Bowls (by his own admission, finding most of them on YouTube).

This is a revolution on the same order as the creation of press printing: every piece of filmed entertainment is now essentially available to anyone, anywhere. Any limits are actively placed in order to manage economics through the laws of supply and demand, as best illustrated by the Disney Corporation’s decades long commitment to the Disney Vault.

It is, however, also a revolution for video creators, who are no longer limited to guessing who will like what as they plan out their offerings. Viewers who consume content from their devices provide invaluable information about what they like, what they are engaged with, when they watch, and how their usage patterns shape their interactions with advertisers and sponsors.

The Fourth Age not only solves the where and the when: it turns the viewing process into a two-way communication, where every action taken by a consumer can inform the next steps by the content producer. And when humans can communicate effectively, great things occur.