The future composts the past. Someone said that once. Things don’t just go away, they get re-purposed and recycled with new cultural uses. How long ago did TV kill radio? There was a time when families would gather round the crystal set for an evening’s entertainment. What about movies. There was a time in the teens and twenties when more than a million people went to a movie every week. More people bought tickets for Gone with the Wind in American theaters than any other movie since. Radio’s still here; movies are still here. Radio became wallpaper for the car. Movies were for date nights, then for big costumed openings, like 17th century balls.
The confusing thing is that when we think of a medium, we tend to combine the physical format and the social function into one thing in our heads. So, when the social function or meaning changes without an equivalent tangible change to the format, we get confused. The medium has died, but still lives. Zombie Media.
But these changes are amazingly common. While we can argue about whether the internet is a bigger deal than TV or the printing press or fire, we’ve gone through other Zombifications pretty much every twenty years like clockwork for most of the recent past. Let’s just take movies: in the 90s, the hyper-blockbuster went global; in the 70s, the studios went bankrupt and VHS was invented; in the 50s, the studios went bankrupt and TV was invented; in the 30s, the studios went bankrupt and the movie star was invented; etc. Throughout that whole time, absolute movie attendance was falling precipitously while other parallel reinforcing business models were being invented, rising, and falling. And movies’ cultural meaning changed dramatically from disposable mainstream distraction, to national popular entertainment, to rarefied foreign art, to international media spectacle.
If we release our false sense of media stability, things seem a lot less chaotic. These changes will never be resolved. No medium has ever actually been stable for any significant amount of time. We’re constantly reinventing what our physical media mean to us: economically, creatively, culturally. Twas ever thus and twill ever be.