Optical Disc (First Generation)

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” —Charles Darwin

The optical disc is a form of technology that first emerged in the late 1970s and progressively developed throughout the 80s and early 90s. The optical disc consists of a round plastic disc encoded with data through the use of pits on the disc's surface which are read by an infrared laser. The laserdisc, the first iteration of the optical disc format, was capable of audio and video playback through analog encoding. Subsequent iterations of first generation discs were capable of digital playback, but without the ability for video playback. The first generation of optical discs stand as a index of the transitional phase between physical media to the immateriality of today's predominate forms such as MP3.

A historical and analytical account of the first generation of optical discs, such as the one provided here, can demonstrate the various discourses—commercial, geographical, class-based, techno-evolutionary, theoretical—that speak to the influence of the first generation around the world.

LaserDisc

The Inauspicious Rise and Precipitous Fall

Patent for transparent recording disc
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Leonard Nimoy demonstrating the new videodisc player. The fact that Spock is required to utilize this machine emphasized its high-tech nature. "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them." --Spock, in "The Ultimate Computer"

The patent for what would eventually be known as the “LaserDisc”—as Pioneer, the majority stake owner in the format, marketed it; or simply “laserdisc” to refer to the format in general—was filed on April 3, 1967 by David Paul Gregg, who dubbed his invention the “transparent recording disc”: “The invention is particularly concerned with an improved disc-type record for optical recordings, and with a turntable assembly which is particularly adapted to drive such a record. The record is a transparent plastic and the recordings are formed in spiral grooves as opaque coatings” (Gregg 1969).Gregg goes on to describe how his invention is able to transmit video signals: “The video signals are recoded in a spiral track on the record disc . . . by means of a modulated electromagnetic beam, such as an electron beam or laser ray, and this track is sensed by the transducer head during the reproduction operation” (Gregg 1969). One year later, Gregg improved on his design with a patent for an improved “pick-up head,” which “responds to the modulated light beam” in the optical disc “to produce electrical video signals corresponding thereto” (Gregg and Johnson 1970). This new pick-up would “maintain the head in registry with the recoding track on the medium [the disc], as the medium is moved between the head and light source,” thus allowing for smooth and reliable video playback (Gregg and Johnson 1970). Thus, the first optical disc capable of audio and video playback was born and commercially available to the public in 1978.


The laserdisc is remembered (if at all) as the medium of choice for videophiles—that elite segment of the home-video market that demanded the highest sound and picture quality. The 1980s and 90s saw the rise of home theaters. Barbara Klinger, writing in her book Beyond the Multiplex, argues that the modern home theater is a present-day manifestation of a concept in that has been prevent since the earliest days of the cinematic medium: “Contemporary home theater resurrects a notion of media synergy that historians have traced back as far as the late nineteenth century, when entrepreneurs and visionaries speculated about the possibility of showing moving pictures, complete with sound, in living rooms on a mass scale” (2006, 17). Klinger calls those with the financial means to build a high-end home theater “The New Media Aristocrats” (2006, 17-53). Yet, the vast majority of this aristocratic milieu utilized less-than-optimal video-playback equipment, the VHS (or to a much lesser extent, Betamax). Those who truly fetishized the home theater experience “tend to evaluate films through the lens of hardware priorities”; Klinger refers to this as the “hardware aesthetic” (2006, 75). Evaluated through the lens of the hardware aesthetic laserdisc clearly had the advantage over VHS. For example, the laserdisc was able to produce almost twice as many lines of horizontal resolution as the VHS, resulting in a much clearer picture; and because laserdiscs were read with an optical laser rather than heads which physically contacted the picture elements as with a VHS tape, the laserdisc’s image quality never degraded through use. Klinger describes a typical case of a 90s videophile, quoting from a Benjamin-inspired essay on video collecting by Charles Tashiro:

Like many film collectors in the mid-1990s, Tashiro preferred laser discs over [VHS] videos; videotapes are “second-class citizens” because they degenerate. Unlike books or videocassettes, laserdiscs (as well as their successor DVDs) do not embody their own histories by showing their age. It is in fact the physical appearance of the disc that forms a large part of the appeal: “Discs fascinate as objects, their clear, cool surfaces promising technical perfection . . . discs promise modernism at its sleekest, the reduction to pristine forms and reflective surfaces.” (Klinger 2006, 75)

The Criterion Collection

First Criterion Collection laserdisc

Adding to the high-end signifiers attendant to the laserdisc format is the fact that the Criterion Collection began in 1984 by publishing two “special edition” laserdiscs, Citizen Kane (1942) and King Kong (1933). Criterion has been the gold standard for home editions of important works of cinema ever since. As Klinger writes, “These editions might feature digitally remastered versions of films in their original widescreen formats (if appropriate) and provide extras such as the director’s commentary and accompanying background material, including trailers outtakes, and ‘making of’ documentaries. Criterion has been especially associated with film as ‘high art,’ promoting the work of renowned directors and classic films” (2006, 60). Peter Becker, president of Criterion, describes in an interview with Cineaste magazine how the company was founded:

Criterion was conceived in 1983-84 by a group of people in California who had some ideas about how to use the capabilities of the new laserdisc format. The CAV laserdisc could hold a still frame, which meant that you could go frame by frame through a film, or you could put still images and other supplemental material on the disc with the film. It could also discretely handle two analog mono soundtracks, so you could take a mono film like King Kong and add a commentary track. Screen-specific commentary was one of the ideas which Criterion founded. The idea was that you could bring in a scholar, or a film director, or even the entire cast and crew, and you could either script or, in a more documentary fashion, compile a shot by shot commentary on the film. The first time I saw a commentary track on a laserdisc, I remember thinking how magical it was that somebody could be speaking about a film in such a way that right when he said I should look at something, it would appear on screen. What an interesting way to teach film! (Crowdus 1999, 47)

Criterion sought to rarify the home theater experience—to create not just an outlet for a one-off viewing of a given film, but to approximate the relationship that bibliophiles have with their libraries. This involves an affective investment in each individual title, the making-special of each edition. As Becker explains, “We’ve seen our mission from the get-go as that of providing a film archive for the home viewer. If you had this film on your shelf, what would enhance your understanding of it and encourage repeat viewing? What would enable you to see more in the film than you saw the first time you looked at it? What perspective and context would be helpful?” (Crowdus 1999, 49). The concept of the videodisc as film studies tool, to be discussed below, was born from Criterion’s prescient harnessing of the discrete capabilities of the laserdisc.

Discretization

The materialization of discretization

The laserdisc stands on the threshold of the analog/digital divide—it uses analog video stored in a composite domain, but also has the capacity to store digital audio; while at its most fundamental level, sharing the same form of inscription—pits and lands—as a purely digital medium like the music CD. This sense of the hybrid nature of the laserdisc, its bridging of two distinct types of inscription, is captured by Bernard Stiegler’s formulation, “analogico-digital” (Stiegler 2002). Stiegler, though he doesn’t speak to the videodisc format directly, could very well be describing the discrete writing of video (=visual) images in the analogical grove of a laserdisc when he writes, “In fact, the analogico-digital image is the beginning of a systematic discretization of movement—that is to say, of a vast process of the grammaticalization of the visible” (Stiegler 2002, 148-49; emphasis in original). For Stiegler, the analogico-digital image “implies the generalization of this discretization in the domain of animated images” (149). Indeed, it is with the advant of the laserdisc that animated images would henceforth be made discrete. It is this inherently discrete nature of the laserdisc that lends it its unique (at the time) properties, such as multiple audio tracks and the ability to encode a single film frame. Some confusion comes in, however, when assessing the capacities of the format (confusion that, no doubt, had deleterious effects on the general public’s enthusiasm for LD), for there were two distinct (discrete) formats within the laserdisc format itself: Peter Becker mentioned one above when describing what attracted the founders of the Criterion Collection to the laserdisc as a format. Here, William Costanzo provides a useful description of this differentiation:

The difference is between two formats: CAV and CLV. In the Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) format, there is one frame for every spiral track on the disc, and each frame begins along a common radius. This allows the light to hover beneath any frame as the disc revolves, producing a still picture of high quality. In the Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) format, frames are staggered along the spiral from the center outward. Since the innermost tracks are shorter than the outer tracks, the CLV disc is made to revolve more rapidly as the laser beam follows the widening spiral. In this way, a constant length of track (the equivalent of thirty frames) passes through the light beam every second. More frames can be packed into a CLV disc, but at a cost. CLV doesn’t have the freeze-frame and slow-motion capabilities of CAV. Nor does it permit the same kind of instant access. With CAV, you can skip to any frame; with CLV, your search is limited to predetermined intervals. Your choice of format, then, should match your purpose. If you plan to show a movie straight through, you will not mind CLV, since twice as much will fit on one disc. If you want to analyze scenes out of sequence or fix an image on the screen, you will want the interactive, frame-by-frame control of CAV. (1995, 80)

The Death of LD

Back to the Future, Part II: Laserdisc graveyard in the future

Despite being far superior in technological specifications to the VHS cassette, the laserdisc could never approach a fraction of the market share of its chunky plastic cousin. A major deficiency (aside from perhaps their most obvious drawback: a full 12 inch diameter which made storage a serious concern) was the inability of the laserdisc to record. Indeed, the fact that VHS could record while the laserdisc could not may have been its death sentence. Originally, the VHS was intended to be purely a recording medium; as Anne Friedberg points out, “VCRs were first used for recording off the air, but through the 1980s as more and more pre-recorded video cassettes became available, a rental market (an entirely new industry) developed for movies, exercise videos, educational, and self-help material. Hence, the VCR—originally intended by its marketers to be used as a recording and ‘time-shifting’ device—became essentially a playback device” (2009, 806). With the added ability to record programs off of television—to “time shift,” to not be beholden to the tyranny of the television schedule, long before the near-ubiquity of DVR devices like TiVo which have rendered this once revolutionary autonomy mundane—as well as a much lower price point—some Criterion laserdiscs sold for $125 in the 1990s! (Costanzo 1995, 81)—gave the VCR and the VHS a decided advantage. Indeed, it is difficult for a format to survive for long when $995 is considered was considered a “competitive price,” as was the case for the newly introduced Pioneer CLD-V5000 in 1995 (Mundt 1995). The demise of the format was already foreseeable in 1989. That year's Back to the Future, Part II (Robert Zemeckis), which depicts Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) temporally transported to the year 2015, features a scene in which our characters are hiding in a back alley amongst some futuristic trash. Bundled together in huge blocks are reams and reams of discarded laserdiscs. The filmmakers realized that by 2015 LDs would be trash; they didn't realize that their actual demise would come years earlier.

By their final days, laserdiscs were a financial liability; Tower Records recorded a $6 million loss on laser—“nearly balanced by $5.5 million in DVD revenue during the last four months of 1997” (Paige 1998, 71). Laserdiscs found their greatest success in Asia, much like the VCD and the MiniDisc, where, for instance, they were the preferred rental format in Hong Kong, but without much of a market in North America and Europe, and with the subsequent introduction of the DVD format in the late 1990s, laserdiscs all but disappeared by 2000: a new millennium brought a new global standard for video playback.

A Revolutionary Legacy?

The proletariat in a cinematic mode of production

Could we consider the limitations of the laserdisc format as site for revolutionary potential? Take, for example, the issue of storage-per-side. One of the oft-cite drawbacks of the LD format was that one side of a disc held a relatively small (or, temporally speaking, “short”) amount of information (30 minutes for CAV and one hour for CLV). This meant that for a two hour film the viewer would have to get up at least once with a CLV, multiple times with a CAV, to flip the disc or even change discs completely. (For a long movie like Lawrence of Arabia [David Lean, 1962] played in CAV format, one would require 3 or 4 discs, switching between discs and between sides of discs.) Some have seen in this seemingly annoying limitation of the disc a radical potential for subverting the power of the cinematic apparatus over the immobile spectator, as was constantly asserted by 70s-style film theory. Charles Tashiro describes the problems that can arise from locating an optimal place to insert a break in a disc’s side, or between separate discs, but takes this problem as an opportunity for critique. Tashiro writes:

The disruption to narrative is inevitable, though, wherever the break is placed. It can be ignored, but it cannot be overcome. The jolt created by the side breaks becomes an integral part of the text. Moreover, the passive watching of the theatrical experience is replaced by one involving labor, however minimal (getting up and switching sides), encouraging a literal, physical interaction with the medium. . . . This physical interaction involves the proletarianization of the video viewer by forcing him/her to become, in effect, a projectionist. And any suppression of the knowledge of technology thus requires a conscious activity: we cannot pretend that the discourse will proceed without us, because it won’t until we get off the couch and flip sides. (Tashiro 1991, 11; emphasis in original)

When using laserdiscs we are put to work; we become cogs in this new home-cinematic mode of production, to borrow Jonathan Beller’s provocative formulation (Beller 2006). The conscious insertion of the spectator into the viewing apparatus was a first step towards liberation from the psychic hold of conventional voyeurism. The laserdisc, for Tashiro, represents an important advance in the evolutionary development from passive spectator to active participant, one that has reached its contemporary apogee in the freedom’s afforded to audiences to digitally remix and repurpose movie images for radical ends. As Tashito notes, “Videodiscs, as a hybrid medium dedicated to reproducing an experience alien to it, standardizes, fragments, commodifies, objectifies, and segments that experience. You can ‘wait for it on video,’ but ‘it,’ like Godot, will never arrive, because the discs’ high-tech insouciance offers, despite their truckling to the capitalist realities, a revolutionary hop: the destruction of classical cinema” (Tashiro 1991, 16).

Laserdisc as Pedagogical Tool

The discrete nature of the laserdisc made it a value tool for the classroom. With a laserdisc at their disposal, a teacher was able to introduce multi-media learning, a powerful leap in educational technology over a mere chalkboard. A 1996 article in the journal Media & Methods describes the advantages that lie in the laserdisc format over previous attempts at multi-media learning in the classroom:

In the late 1960’s, a dedicated, skillful teacher who wanted to bring history to life through up-to-date media had only one option: reel-to-reel movies. . . . If that teacher were on the job today, she’d undoubtedly rejoice at the versatility, selectivity and adaptability that laserdiscs provide. Laserdisc technology gives teachers the ability to determine precisely how much multimedia material is needed to support a lesson, as well as when and where in the lesson to insert material. Laserdisc equipment is so easy to use. If a teacher is familiar with a VCR, using a laserdisc is a piece of cake. There are several excellent, easy-to-use laserdisc players with barcode readers. The barcode readers allow teachers to instantly display relevant graphics. . . . We are teaching in a time where technology helps us to make our subjects come alive, when students can become actively involved in the design of lessons. Once you begin incorporating laserdiscs into your subject area, you will wonder how you ever lead a lesson without them. (Boehm 1996)

This type of “instant” (that is to say, discrete) form of informatic retrieval would not be possible with a fully analog format such as VHS. Jim Samson, a science teacher at Devils Lake High School in North Dakota, provides a firsthand account of the use of laserdiscs in the classroom:

I teach in a rural high school with a student population of 700 in grades 9-12. I find laserdiscs to be a teacher friendly technology that can be mastered in a mater of minutes. With over 5,000 titles developed for education, there is a wealth of material for every discipline at every level. I realized how powerful laserdiscs were when I was preparing students for a ‘stages of mitosis’ lab. This lab used to take an entire period because I had to run around and focus microscopes on the cross sections to be viewed for 5 to 6 groups per section. With the laserdisc, I now show the whole class what the prepared slides should look like under the microscope using clear, large images. This 30-second addition to my lab preparation instructions has cut the time this lab took to complete by 20 minutes. I have also developed slideshows on skeleton and tissue identification for my anatomy class. Different items are barcoded, like skeletons, and linked to specific images on the laserdiscs. Students love the laserdisc images, asking to see film clips of a beating heart, or an egg passing down the oviducts over and over. I believe that using laserdiscs decreases teacher frustration, motivates students, and most of all, are fun to use. (Samson 1999)

Karen Kasper, a U.S. History teacher at Huntsville High School in Texas is equally enthusiastic about the possibilities of laserdisc in the classroom, “With the use of laserdiscs and CD-ROMs during class, students can see who and what you are talking about. They really respond to that. It just seems that there are more ways of keeping students interested when you are using technology” (qtd. in Penn 1997). Tim Henderson, a social studies teacher in El Centro California agrees, “Using these kinds of materials helps you to reach out to the last two rows of the classroom, to the students who are most likely to ‘check out’ during class. Kids just won’t check out when you are using these devices” (qtd. in Penn 1997). According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, by 1994, laserdisc technology was being used in 50 percent of the nation’s schools. It did not take long for Pioneer, the leader in the laserdisc industry at the time, to capitalize on this trend: “Based on the success in these schools, Pioneer, the home electronics giant, has developed the LaserDisc Explorer edutainment system. Some of the best-known laserdisc publishers, such as National Geographic, Scholastic and the Smithsonian have all included their laserdisc titles in the Explorer package” (Smedley 1994).


Perhaps laserdiscs had their greatest pedagogical influence on the discipline that studies the content of the majority of laserdiscs themselves: film studies. Laserdiscs proved to be an invaluable asset when closely studying the formal construction of films because, at least in the case of the CAV format, they avoided the 3:2 distortion of a film’s frame that resulted from film being transferred to VHS. David Bordwell, the preeminent film scholar, describes how laserdiscs aided his fine analyses:

Those heavy, rainbow-flashing 12’’ discs: Cinephiles loved ‘em. They gave us a sharper picture, properly letterboxed, along with terrific sound. Aficionados today still prefer the rich digital sound of laserdiscs to the compression of many DVDs. Most laserdiscs used the CLV (Constant Linear Velocity) format, which preserved and even exaggerated the effects of the 3:2 pulldown. Counting frames meant stepping through the stills and ignoring the repeated ones, as with videotape, but often the coupled frames (AB and BC above) shivered wildly. But in the high-end CAV (Constant Angular Velocity) format, laserdiscs were able to make each stored frame pristine. This is why people thought that laserdiscs would be used archivally, for storing paintings, photographs, manuscript pages. A bonus of the CAV format was that in transferring motion pictures to disc, one film frame could be matched to a single video frame. In fact, each film frame was assigned its own number, so the counter display spit out digits with blinding speed. During normal playback, the 3:2 repeated frames were added in, but in STEP mode, CAV laserdiscs gave you the original film frames one by one–steady, crisp, and bright. Frame-counting gained a new piece of hardware. (Bordwell 2007)

Laserdiscs also provided film students with a treasure trove of supplemental material that helped them better understand the film text, with the Criterion Collection leading the industry in this regard. Due to their discrete nature, laserdiscs were able to include director commentary tracks, actor and crew commentaries, 'making of' features, interviews with the filmmakers, historical documentaries that pertain to the events of the film in question, and other contextualizing, extratextual discourses. Film professor William Costanzo vividly describes the sort of in-class analytic scenario that would be impossible with a VHS:

You are discussing acting in On the Waterfront. You want to freeze the frame of Marlon Brando before he picks up Eva Marie Saint’s glove, stopping the image but allowing the dialogue to continue so that your students must imagine how the scene is played: the positions of the actors, the gestures, the movement and location of the camera. After listening to your students’ ideas for blocking and camera work, release the frozen image so they can see how Brando, Saint, and Kazan transformed the script into action. (Costanzo 1995, 79).

Laserdiscs represent the first instance of a crossover between the film industry’s home video market and the academy, a trend that has continued with the rise of DVD and subsequently Blu-Ray in what Alison Trope calls a “footstool film school” (2008): these special editions discs allow the home consumer to take a crash course in filmmaking from the comfort of their own couch.

Video CD

VCD: Technical Specificity

The Video Compact Disk (VCD) was first released in 1993 by the Sony and Philips Group. Operating largely like its later cousin the DVD, VCD’s are a 4.72-inch disc with the capacity to store still/moving images, two soundtracks, and digital information files (Sony Philips, 1998). The VCD uses a MPEG-1 format (a process of interweaving video and audio content in to a time based continuous data stream), which yields video resolution comparable to a standard VHS tape. Because the standard VCD can only hold anywhere from 74 to 80 minutes of video and audio content feature films were generally separated into two disks.

Geographical Consumption

Cheng long (Jackie Chan) advertisement for VCD player

While largely an unknown and unused format in the West, VCD’s became tremendously popular throughout Asia with the exclusion of Japan and South Korea. Many have cited the VCD’s rise in popularity to its low cost in comparison to DVD’s as well as its particular resistance to humidity(Meyer, 2001). The combination of these two factors along with the rather low popularity of VHS in China and South-East Asia, provided some of the major factors contributing to the rise of the VCD as one of Asia’s most dominant media disc formats. After the release of the VCD format in 1993, sources have noted that nearly 50 million VCD players had been sold in China by 1998, and by 2005 nearly half of the households in China owned at least one player(Leopold, Yoshida, 1999). With its overwhelming commercial success in China, the format became increasingly easy to access which coupled with the relatively cheep price of the players and disks (due to their mass production in China and the emergence of wide spread video piracy [discussed in the next section]) , by the early 2000s the VCD had become one of the most widely consumed video media formats in countries spanning from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Philippians, India, and Pakistan.

Video Piracy and the VCD: “The Peoples Disk”

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illegal facility for the production of pirated VCDs

When considering the massive popularity of the VCD in Asia, as they were rarely used in the West, it is crucial to understand the historical constellation of technological, social, political, and economic factors that surrounded their rise to prevalence. To enter into an analysis of this phenomenon it will be instructive to explore the impact of the VCD on the media economy of Mainland China, while staying attentive to both the local particularities of the VCD format as it was employed and consumed, as well as its more fare reaching global impact.

On December 12th, 2000 the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Tale of Piracy: How the Chinese Stole the Grinch.” Riffing on the title of the classic Dr. Seuss story “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” that had been released earlier that November in US theaters as a film by the same name, the article goes on to describe the Chinese film market as a “well-oiled copyright piracy machine”(Smith, 2000) that churns out untold millions of pirated Hollywood titles daily. While this may have come as a shock to some of the American readers, the issue of piracy had long been on the agenda for US and Chinese officials who in 1995 signed a “intellectual property rites agreement”(Faison, 1998) that would be a crucial steppingstone for Chinas later acceptance into the WTO. As the author goes on to explain, that despite the early success of crackdowns “on software and music-copyright thieves” that many of those involved in “the counterfeit compact disc industry switched to producing videodiscs instead of software and music discs.”(Smith, 2000) This had been fueled by an earlier decision by Chinese manufacturers to “adopted the video compact disc [VCD] format in the mid-1990's, before many people here [China] had bought… videotape players popular in the West.”(Smith, 2000) With both the players and disks technology widely available, it was only a matter of time until the VCD became a viable format for the production and consumption of video in China. Many commentators from both the US and China have sited the VCD’s relatively cheep price as the reason for its popularity, but this purely monetary reading fails to fully explain the original motivations that would latter make the VCD synonymous with video piracy and as widely popular as it came to be. To explore this we must turn our attention to an early moment in history to seek out the causes of this development.

Controlled Disorder: The Rise of the VCD In Mainland China

Goverment official destroying confiscated pirated VCDs

Soon after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in the 1949, one of the revolutionary government’s first major cultural policy moves was to “solidify its reign over cinema”(Clark, 1987). Stemming from the parties use of cinema as a successful tool for propaganda during the 30s and 40s, the task of reorganizing cinema in the name of the PRC would require nothing short of “reorganizing all existing production studios and centralizing the distribution network into a highly regulated system.”(ibid). In charge of this task would be the newly established Chinese Film Cooperation (Zhongguo dianying gongsi), who was assigned the role of “coordinating all film-related units in China as well as the selected foreign distributors, who supply films to the Chinese people.”(Pang, 2004. pg.105). As a tool of both absolute surveillance and centralization, the Coperation would function ideally to structure both the production and consumption of film in the PRC. But as both the network of film producers and the demand form film grew the CFC soon “evolved into a huge, inefficient, and bureaucratic system detached from the real audience.”(ibid) By 1993 the CFC showed little signs of change, while new cultural policies designed to “open up” the country to capitalist production threatened to overrun the largely closed sphere of Mainland culture with a myriad of new consumer choices and desires.

As the country continued to open to outside influence, the demand for new experiences and entertainment grew. But while a growing number of consumers were “lured by Western entertainment and cultural productions,” the high cost of legal video copies due to international copyrite law, often put such commodities out of the reach of Chinese consumers. Further faced with the tight government control of the production of national cinema and the distribution of international films in theaters, the Chinese audience was faced with a double bind “the lure of Western commodities and the denial thereof.”(Pang, 2004.pg.112). In this situation, “Desires for imported entertainment are only reinforced, and the inevitable result is piracy.”(Ibid).

Set within the matrix of a closed cultural system and an increasingly open space of consumer choice, the evolution of movie piracy can be largely seen as “the result of the global diffusion of consumerism under an unequal distribution of world wealth, on the one hand, and the result of a specific national politics, on the other.”(Pang,2004. pg.102). In this cleft carved out by the confrontation of globalization and a “specific national politics,” the VCD came to fill a very specific role in mediating between the global and the local. In this respect, the VCD while perhaps chosen by the emerging black-market ensembles of movie pirates for its cheep cost, could never have taken on as sweeping a significance without the continual tension between the competing ideologies opened up by both the tight control of the Chinese State and the development of consumer desire. Thus the VCD’s rise to prominence can best be understood by remembering the fact that while the Peoples Government emphatically denied its support of piracy (a position necessitated both by its hard line cultural policies and from outside pressers from the WTO), it was the very same government that through its related economic interests produced in mass the very VCD ‘players’ that supported the rise of cheep pirated VCD’s as a dominant media format. It is within this contradictory terrain, that the development of the VCD must ultimately be understood.

VCD: After Image

Following its spectacular rise in the early 2000’s, the VCD has all but vanished from major urban centers in Mainland China. Much of the reason for this disappearance has been the developing incomes of China’s consumers, as well as the significant reduction of cost for both DVD’s and DVD players (which provide fare superior video and audio quality). But despite its lack of demand in China, the VCD is experiencing a second life, of sorts, throughout many parts of South-East Asia, and still continues to be associated with video piracy throughout the region.

MiniDisc

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Sony MZ-1 MiniDisc Recorder
The early history of sound recording makes visible the ways in which new media emerge as local anomalies that are also deeply embedded within the ongoing discursive formations of their day, within the what, who, how, and why of public memory, public knowledge, and public life. (Gitelman, 2006, 29)
MiniDisc trademark logo

In May of 1991, Sony Corporation announced the MiniDisc system, to be released the following year, as the company’s proposed successor to its Walkman personal cassette player. The format boasted many of the features of its older sibling, the compact disc—random access, high quality audio, and material durability—with a more portable form factor, significant shock resistance, and the ability to record sound. The MiniDisc, or MD, did all of this without compromising the amount of music that could fit on a single disc in a 68 × 72 × 5 mm cartridge.

Geographic uptake diverged greatly between Asia and the West. The MD market appears to have peaked around 2000 (Pride, 1999; Marriott, 2001) and then faded away as the MP3 player became ascendant.

Psychoacoustics and Compression Technology

Disc without cartridge
Cartridge assembly

In order to fit the standard 74 minutes of music onto the smaller MiniDisc, engineers had to devise a way to store audio information at a fraction of the size. Sony developed ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) as a compression method “to decrease the information density, and so increase the recordable time on a small disc, without degrading the sound quality” (Maes, 1996). ATRAC relies heavily on principles of psychoacoustics, the branch of psychology concerned with the perception of sound and its physiological effects. A clear understanding of the range of human hearing permits any excess data representing silence and parts of the audio spectrum not normally perceived to be filtered out with essentially no effect on the audible spectrum. Thus, while Compact Disc data retains a relatively direct relationship to the analog signal it represents, MiniDisc requires a series of complex algorithms to encode and play back media.

This abstraction from an original source is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of the MD format. It represents a new layer of separation between the listener and the act of recording. With ATRAC compression, a reduction to 1/5 the amount of data is achieved at the expense of the invisible—audio information that made up part of an original but is not necessary to experience the piece as such. In the case of the MiniDisc, portability wins over the full audio spectrum. Though music is still near-CD quality, a subtraction and discretization has taken place that will most certainly outlive the format itself.

Inscriptibility

Field recording with an MD system
Digital media inscribe too, and they do so in what are mysterious new ways. (Gitelman, 2006, 19)

Another characteristic of the MiniDisc was its capacity for inscription. Like its predecessor the cassette tape, MD technology worked well for making a variety of home recordings. The technology enabling this uses magneto-optical recording whereby a laser and magnetic field sandwich the disc being overwritten. As Tadao Yoshida of Sony’s Advanced Development Laboratory explains:

When the laser spot is irradiated on the disc, the layer surface temperature goes up to about the Curie temperature (approximately 180° C ). As soon as the laser spot passes on, the layer surface temperature is reduced. This process is continuously repeated. When the magnetic field of N and S are added around the area where the laser spot is irradiated, each “1” or “0” is recorded with the isothermal line of the magnetic-field modulation system. (Yoshida, 1994)

This consequential distinction between MD and competing technologies of the ’90s and ’00s would seem to set it apart in the domain of multipurpose interaction with auditory media. One could both consume and collect on the same device. Indeed news organizations like National Public Radio turned to the MiniDisc recorder for a number of years as the field recorder they provided journalists working on stories (Peterson, 2005). Inscriptibility was a major selling point for the niche market MiniDisc carved out for itself in America, allowing for clear, stereo audio recordings made in real-time. Like Edison’s phonograph, though, it was the consumption of digital audio that would drive the market rather than its ability to inscribe.

Geographies of Consumption

Array of MiniDiscs

Once cost prohibitive for consumers, advances in optical and magneto-optical disc technologies placed the MD recorder within reach of the developed world market. Sony, learning from its mistakes with the downfall of Betamax, adopted an open licensing policy that allowed other companies to manufacture and distribute MD hardware. Coupled with aggressive marketing and the legacy of the Walkman and Discman, Sony put its weight behind the new format and, not surprisingly, attracted a solid user base in Japan. Even through 2005, it was far more common to share music with friends via MiniDisc than other formats and many Japanese cars came equipped with an MD stereo.

Meanwhile, in the US and Europe, the medium appealed only to certain types of people. These were typically affluent, tech-savvy, or young individuals who had been to Japan or who were seeking specific functionality that the MiniDisc provided. This includes the aforementioned sound collectors, seeking an alternative to the bulky DAT recorder. One needed only to pair an MD recorder with a decent stereo microphone to produce high quality field recordings of anything from birdsong to war zones. Another group of early adopters was skiers and snowboarders. ATRAC compression freed up extra space for a buffer to exist between any jostling the player might experience and the audio heard by a listener, making the format much preferable to CD on the slopes.

Perhaps most untenable for the latent portable digital audio market was MiniDisc’s strongest link to its predecessors: linearity. As with mix tapes, the creation of a MiniDisc compilation was not a drag-and-drop proposition. Each recording required patient attendance to the medium of sound. It would seem that, for this reason, MD retains a certain romance for those most affected by analog to digital conversion.

Fade Out

In 1999, Minidisc.org, the de facto community portal for all things related to the format, held an essay contest inviting readers to submit their thoughts on MD’s future. Here is a passage from the winning essay:

In the end, all of that stuff is irrelevant, anyway. Increasingly, the music will be detached and separated from the media itself. The standards will be set in the form of file formats, etc. There will be no standard as far as what you store those files on. MP3 players and Minidisc (and CD-R, for that matter) address different needs. . . . I see Minidisc as the format with the broadest appeal for the average music listener who demands portability and simplicity. And increasingly, even in the lagging US market, that’s proving to be true. (Worrell, 2000)

What’s interesting about Worrell’s anecdote is that, as a consumer, he’s clearly aware of shifts taking place in the digital media landscape. His miscalculation—that people will eventually realize MiniDisc’s merit and embrace the technology en masse—is the result of an overemphasis on the perceived need for a more material format, when in fact, embedded in the technology itself are the very abstractions that conceptually help people take another step away from source material. What the MiniDisc did it did well, and for a very specific demographic.

Toward a Rewritable History

Why fly on VHS when laserdisc is so much more aerodynamic?

In conclusion, the various iterations of optical discs engender various impulses toward the material or immaterial. With respect to the function of production and consumption, we see in the VCD a means of pure consumption, a highly-disposable object which merely serves as a material means to a mediated end, an end of the consumption of cultural experiences that have been marked as inaccessible by the political milieu. In contrast, the MiniDisc presented the potentiality for “pure” production, a form of inexhaustible inscription which empowered the user as a creative agent. In tension with these two polarities established by these two previous media, the laserdisc presents a liminal case, a problematizing of production and consumption as distinct spheres of engagement.

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LaserDisc

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