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This Means You!
A recent article about the sad state of our commercial movie theaters read to me like a parable about media work in the digital age.
The problem is not simply that no one goes to the theater anymore for movies. It’s that commercial theaters no longer know how to project them correctly… because they fired all their projectionists.
They fired all their projectionists because digital projectors were supposed to eliminate the need for labor to operate them. And while that might be true to some degree, it turns out digital projectors – like everything else in this entropic world - need at least some attention to run correctly. Attention that is no longer anyone’s job at commercial theaters.
“Now that multiplexes use automated projection, problems fall to house managers, who, in this age of austerity, may be the same overworked employees ripping tickets and selling popcorn,” explains Lane Brown. Those problems include such basic issues as changing projector bulbs in a timely fashion, adding and removing filters for 3-D, adjusting masking curtains to suit different picture formats, and simply keeping the projector lens and the screen clean. Maybe not as skilled labor as traditional projectionists, but crucial labor nonetheless. And no one is doing it.
The result is the opposite of a movie palace. The projected pictures at multiplexes are dim, dirty and flawed. Why would anyone go?
Even the digital projectors themselves – hugely expensive devices pushed on theaters by a consortium of the major studios, and in particular a pressure campaign from their manufacturer Sony in 2009 – are now failing and in need of replacement. But Sony has since gotten out of the projector business, and stopped maintaining existing projectors in 2020. The capital investment theaters were forced to make, as they supposedly left analog behind for good, lasted barely more than ten years. They traded an experienced labor force for a machine that was designed to fail, and would then need to be swapped for another new expensive machine - or a new platform (streaming) altogether.
Switching to digital projectors, in other words, wasn’t a leap into a new stable future for going out to the movies, so much as a planned obsolescence. It started with eliminating jobs at the theater. And will end with eliminating the theater itself.
Labor is always the real story behind these digital fables. In music, we have become so accustomed to digital devices replacing labor that commenting on it feels curmudgeonly, or even regressive. “Democratizing” is currently a buzzword for corporations like Spotify, who routinely eliminate jobs in music – as if the labor of the critic, the editor, the label A&R, the record store clerk, the DJ, or any other human tastemaker is counter to an open society, while their digital simulacra are somehow liberating. These jobs have been branded as “gatekeeping.” But someone is selling the new automatic gates, and I’d bet they aren’t meant to last long either.
“Ready for a brand-new way to listen on Spotify and connect even more deeply with the artists you love?” asks Spotify’s latest come-on. “The DJ is a personalized AI guide that knows you and your music taste so well that it can choose what to play for you. This feature… will deliver a curated lineup of music alongside commentary around the tracks and artists we think you’ll like in a stunningly realistic voice.”
The solitary listener in Spotify’s promotional video advertising this new DJ service is being jerked around by AI informed with personal details gleaned from their browsing history and cookies. They party alone with the digital DJ. They lounge alone with the digital DJ. They mourn lost connections alone with the digital DJ. They console themselves about being alone, alone with the digital DJ.
A human DJ, even at a distance on the radio, is not an automaton providing you with music – they are another person listening to music with you. If you happen to find yourself entirely alone at a dance club – a melancholy proposition, to be sure – there is still at least one other person listening to the same music. And likely feeling just as melancholy as you are.
It’s the same in a traditional movie theater. Before digital projectors, no empty theater was truly empty. There had to be a person back there, in the box behind the bright light, watching that film with you. And you knew they were there, because they drew the curtain to the right format for the film. They focused the lens. They dimmed the lights. They changed the reels. They brought the lights back up.
Maybe, like Buster Keaton’s projectionist, they entered the space of the film. They certainly shared the space of the theater.
The solitary listener in Spotify’s video isn’t sharing space with anyone.
Democracy, like Sartre’s hell, is other people. Sure they chew popcorn in your ear. Yes they might yell back at the screen, or stand up and block your view at a crucial moment, or make out with their date in a way that’s difficult to ignore, or comment on every plot turn out loud, or laugh in the wrong places. That’s what movie theaters are for. Take away all the people, and you might as well stay home and stream whatever AI is recommending you watch tonight.
It’s the same for music. Eliminate the labor involved – the DJ, for example – and you will eventually eliminate the spaces for which those jobs were created. We go to these spaces to be with other people, and that starts with the people who work there. Would you sit alone at a bar and be served by a machine? Or would you just as soon stay home, and let the AI bartender there mix you customized drink after customized drink until you pass out. Cheers.
Listening to: Jon Hassel, Vernal Equinox
Cooking: Salted seaweed from Korea, soaked in water 30 minutes then sauteed briefly with sesame oil
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