Technology disruption: The revolution happened while we weren’t looking

Did you ever stop to think how the internet and the world-wide web changed our lives without our noticing it? If you’re a Millennial, you didn’t notice it because it was always there. Smartphones, texts, snapchat, all that. For older generations, an earthquake of technology happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. We love it and most of us wouldn’t give it up for anything. And that’s because as consumers, we love everything new and shiny.

But for businesses—of all kinds—the internet/web revolution came as some kind of surprise and upset many business models. Look at what happened to newspapers, book publishing, telecommunications, music, movies, television, retailing, real estate and other industries that weren’t paying attention until their business models imploded.

newspapers (1)

Sunday detritus.

Newspapers still haven’t recovered from the revolution in their business model. Most of them ignored the web for the first few years, hoping it would be a novelty and go away. It’s really only in this decade that newspapers have figured out that they have to change the way they do business. Some newspapers and magazines are relatively successful, using a pay wall and retaining digital subscribers. Many are floundering, laying off staff, cutting back publishing frequency. Only the older generations read newspapers at all, so newspapers will die eventually.

The news revolution has affected TV and radio too, although not so drastically yet.

News outlets now are being advised on how to make money in other ways, through memberships, events and beating ad blockers.

NSBJ-books

Soon to be considered “vintage.”

Book publishing also is still floundering, figuring out how to manage and make money from e-books. Amazon, the giant that started this revolution, eventually will get so big that it will fail too and be replaced by something that a 10-year-old kid in Schenectady is dreaming up now. (I think I owe an HT to someone for that kid-in-Schenectady idea, but I don’t remember who.)

The music industry (and TV and films to a lesser extent) also are suffering from the internet notion that all content should be free and available on our terms. CDs aren’t selling much, even though vinyl is making a retro comeback. We want to listen to music on something we carry around, even if the sound quality is poor. And we want to watch TV and movies on our terms, not when the network or theater happens to schedule them.

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Some of my retro music.

Artists, writers and photographers are impacted by this content-should-be-free phenomenon. If no one wants to pay for content, then the publishers of content don’t want to pay for content creation. So, goodbye freelance businesses.

This internet/web revolution didn’t just happen overnight. Decades of technological development went into this phenomenon, but businesses were caught off guard. Even though most of them had some kind of computer or IT departments, the message of the coming revolution wasn’t acknowledged, or passed on. (Another factor in the revolution was the microchip, which enabled the miniaturization of our devices. It was introduced in 1959 but no one was paying attention to that either.)

The revolution happened while everyone was looking the other way.

  • The modem was invented in 1958 at Bell Labs and the router (an Interface Message Processor) in 1967.
  • In 1972, a guy named Ray Tomlinson invented email—a way to send messages across a network. It was his idea to use the “@” sign as the email standard address: user@host.
  • In 1974, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler led the team at SRI International’s Network Information Center. Among other things, they created the Host Naming Registry and the primary domain names we use today: .com, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, .mil.
  • In 1974, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coined the term “internet.”
  • Most importantly, In 1977, Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network, a network for US university and industrial computer research groups. By 1984, more than 180 university, industry and government computer science departments were participating in CSNET.

In the middle 1980s, I was working on my first Mac at home but it wasn’t connected to anything. At work, no computer because the Wang word-processing machines were only for secretaries. My son was a graduate student finishing his PhD in economics and talked about getting “email” from his advisers. “Email,” I said. “What’s that?”

Then in 1989, when AOL started its first online service, I got email too. It was that pitifully slow telephone dialup access, but it was still a thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!”

  • Finally (and skipping over many key technological advances), in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and Robert Cailliau developed the first web browser for the Macintosh operating system. This is when business should have started paying attention and figuring out how their companies could take advantage of this new web thing.
  • And all this happened years after the US Defense Department invented ARPA in 1958 and ASCii in 1963 so that machines from different makers could talk to each other. ARPAnet, the actual network, was initiated in 1966.

I owe my superficial surf of technology history to the Internet Hall of Fame’s internet timeline. Check it out here. http://www.internethalloffame.org/internet-history/timeline There’s also this http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/world-wide-web-timeline/ and this http://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html

I decided to write this essay because I felt like venting. How could all these revolutions have happened to industries so important to me (newspapers, books, music, movies) without the industries being aware and preparing for the revolution? Big companies all have prestigious “strategy” officers and departments. What were they thinking about in the 1980s and 1990s? Not much, apparently. Or they were listening to big-name management consultants who probably were talking gobbledygook about customer intelligence, global advantage and supply chain management. I know whereof I speak on that one, because I used to work with those guys.

The theater review I’m working on now is about a fascinating play titled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a time-tripping play full of ideas and technology. At one point, a character says, “we’re at this critical moment in our society when technology is developing more rapidly than our social and political infrastructures can keep up with.”

That is one of the problems.

All the photos above taken by Nancy Bishop in her own home, site of prerevolutionary media and all the other kind too. 

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David Carr: His caper ended way too soon

This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.

What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.

However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.

 

  • Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on nytimes.com: a total of 1,776 articles.
  • I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):

@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/business/media/brian-williamss-and-jon-stewarts-common-ground.html?ref=topics …

  • Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:

“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”

Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.

When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)

Midwesterner to Jersey boy

Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.

He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.

Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.

“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.

My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth

feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope

the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

Carr was  my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.

Carr Live

The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….

Page One documentary

Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.

The Sweet Spot

Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.

Monday mornings

Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.

Mondays are not going to be the same.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.

 

Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.

 

 


Carolina stories: On page, stage and whiteboard

I spent Thanksgiving weekend in North Carolina and loved being able to relax and visit with friends and relatives. My older son has lived there for 25 years so I’ve visited dozens of times. We got to meet the new baby cousin in the family; he slept through all the excitement. And I spent time with my two darling and precocious grandsons.

Birthdays and storytelling

The 2-year-old loves to read stories, to which he adds his own interpretations as I’m reading to him. One of our outings was to a birthday party for one of his friends from “school” (day-care). Mom and the two boys and I went to The Little Gym where kid birthday parties are staged. An hour of jumping, bouncing and games, supervised by Mr. DJ and Miss Bethany, then time for cake and birthday treats. If you haven’t been involved with small ones lately, you would be amazed at the birthday party industry that has built up. I’ve been to several play-party venues like this for kid birthday parties, including those for the two grandsons. Birthday parties aren’t held at home any more.

The almost-7-year-old likes to build with Legos and write stories. He has a future as an entrepreneur, I believe. He frequently writes stories, by hand and with colored illustrations. He begged me to “publish” his stories and wanted me to take a photo of a magazine cover so he could put it on his book. I explained copyright infringement. We discussed the nature of e-books and the dilemma of print vs. online. I told him he needs a website, after he asked me how he would get people to buy his book. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discuss next time I see him.

Snow Queen at Triad Stage

The grownups went to the theater one night to see Snow Queen, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, at Triad Stage in Greensboro. The play, developed for that theater in 2013, was well done with an original folk music score and script. Costuming of the Snow Queen and other fairy tale characters was beautiful and the staging, with large animal puppets, was very creative. This is a professional theater company and most of the actors are Equity. The show featured live musicians on acoustic string instruments. The play is set in Appalachia, which explains the accents of the actors.

Here’s a sneak peek at the play with comments from writer/director Preston Lane. If you’re in the Triad region (Greensboro/Winston Salem/High Point) before December 22, you have a chance to see this production.

Also in performance . . . .

My other treat was watching my son teach a university economics class in time-series analysis—used in statistics and forecasting. (It was the day of my departure and I tagged along with him.) There were six graduate students in the class, so I sat in the last row of the small classroom and tried to be inconspicuous. Of course, my son wasn’t going to let that happen. He introduced me to the class and occasionally asked my opinion.

Journal-Random-data-plus-trend-r2

Image courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons.

The class was discussing things like ACF (autocorrelation function) and the ARIMA methodology (autoregressive integrated moving average) and my son’s white board formulas included characters that aren’t on my keyboard. This is an image of a time series showing random data points. It’s cool-looking and I like the colors.

With the help of Wikipedia, I followed along superficially and I did perk up when he got to the chi-squared test. I remembered that from my brush with communications research as a grad student. The chi-squared (X²) test is used to determine whether there’s a significant difference between the expected and observed frequencies in categories.

The class also had two interesting stats. Of the six students, three were left handed. And of the eight people in the room, four were left handed, including me, of course. Statistically unlikely since ~10 percent of the population is left handed. And all six students were male, also defying the stats, since 50 percent of the population is female. That may be a comment on the fact that fewer women are involved in STEM courses.

It’s a sad fact that this results in a “yawning imbalance . . . even though they make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study.” Those STEM jobs typically offer higher salaries and better career prospects.

I realize the irony of this comment coming from me. I took only the required STEM courses in college and I spent my career in decidedly non-STEM jobs. I’ve had a successful and happy life and I wouldn’t have changed it. But I would advise young women to consider all their career options and not let themselves be pushed into non-STEM courses and careers.

Anyway, it was fun to watch my son teach and then we had a late lunch. Then to the airport and home.

PTI (the Piedmont-Triad International Airport) has free wifi, as do many other airports. Why don’t O’Hare and Midway have free wifi? OK, they do have those rotating toilet seat covers that make you think you’re sitting on a clean surface. But no free wifi? It’s a tossup as to which is more important.

 


The joy of talking: Conversations short and long

I was thinking the other day how much I enjoy the various meetups and discussion groups I belong to.  Most weeks I have one or two get-togethers with friends and acquaintances who share some of my diverse interests. It’s a real joy of city life.

The news media confirm that more and more of us are getting tangled up in our technology. We’re not having as much human interaction as we used to—or as much as we should have for our mental and emotional health.

iphone4S

My iPhone–the source of tech addiction

Serious highway accidents are caused by texting while driving, pedestrian tumbles are caused by texting while walking. Actually, while I’m a major tech geek, I don’t understand either of those phenomena. When I’m sedentary or at least stationary, I’ll use whatever device I have in hand for most any purpose. Reading, listening, talking, texting, getting directions, taking photos, finding a coffee shop. When I’m walking (or driving), I want to know that I’m not going to crash or tumble. In motion, I’m paying attention to where I’m going. (This is only partly because, with age, you’re more likely to fall, and some of your senses are in decline. Or so I’m told.)

Casual chat. I read a New York Times article recently in which social scientists studied the value of casual conversations. A chat with the coffee barista, the store cashier, the pharmacist, the doorman, the person sitting next to you on the bus. These interactions make us more cheerful, the social scientists found, and may ease the anomie of living in a modern metropolis.

I enjoy those interactions. And I especially enjoy long conversations on interesting and sometimes provocative topics—with friends, relatives, members of my discussion groups. Right now, I belong to four discussion groups. I really value them as ways to expand my circle of friends and acquaintances, and to keep my brain in constant activity, mulling over new ideas and churning out concepts for discussion and writing.

Two of my groups are fairly traditional discussion groups—one political, one focused on books. They were formed by friends inviting friends inviting friends. Each meeting is at someone’s home and focuses on one topic.

Book group

shteyngart cover

Next up for my book group.

We discuss one book, either fiction or nonfiction, at each meeting, agreed on by members in advance. It’s very rare that a member doesn’t finish a book. Everyone really takes the reading seriously. (There was one occasion when the book choice—Henry James’ The Ambassadors—brought about a near-unanimous revolt. We changed books midstream.) Sometimes we have a professional moderator but usually one of our members leads the discussion. And if we spend a little time chatting about family, work and travel, that tends to knit the group more firmly together.

Political group

The political/policy group discusses one topic, usually chosen from articles in The Nation, a political magazine we all value. Yes, we too often agree on everything but we really do try to bring in topics and members that will generate disagreement.

Meetups are a newer kind of group. They bridge the technological and the personal relationship world by bringing together total strangers who have common interests for in-person meetings.

Film meetup

I belong to an excellent film meetup. It has hundreds of members, but the meetups at a local tea shop, bar or cinema are rarely more than 12 or 15 people. The cast shifts for each meetup, but there’s a core group of about 30. Very diverse group. All ages, races, genders, film interests, areas of expertise. I have never had such good discussions at which I also learned so much about a topic. This group has an excellent and creative organizer, which is the basis for its success.

now-in-the-wings-on-a-world-stage-posterOur regular film discussions are planned to discuss one or two (related) films that we all see in advance. Other events are held to view a film together and then discuss it afterwards. In the last week, I hosted two such meetups at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We saw Orson Welles’ Othello and a few nights later, a different group joined me for the new Sam Mendes/Kevin Spacey documentary about their Richard III production—NOW in the Wings on a World Stage. After both films, we stayed at the Siskel Center or found a cafe nearby to talk about the films. Both discussions lasted more than an hour.

Tech meetups

I also belong to a couple of WordPress meetups, which focus on WordPress usage questions and practices. (WordPress is the tech platform on which this blog is built; it’s a user-friendly and widely used platform.) I always meet new people and get answers to my questions and new ideas  at these meetups. You can probably find a meetup for virtually any techy project you’re working on.

A sidebar on Meetups

meeetup logoMeetups run on a social networking portal that facilitates offline, in-person local meetings. Meetup was founded after the 2001 attack showed the founders how the internet could help connect people in a crisis. Today, Meetup says it has almost 16 million members in 196 countries. Meetup organizers pay a small fee each month to meeetup.com and members are usually asked to chip in.

If you want to try out Meetup, go to meetup.com and put in your zip code. Check the topics you’re interested in and you’ll be offered a menu of meetups in your categories. You create an account to join and then you’ll receive email announcements about coming meetups on your topics.

Yes, some meetups are lame and never do much while others are vibrant and active. If you find one of the former, just try out another. You’ll meet new people and learn new things. And most important, you’ll find you are creating new human interactions (i.e., friendships) in this complex and tendentious technological age.

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Reviewing Spike Jonze’s Her: Samantha vs Galatea

Spike Jonze’s new film Her is a charming, tender love story with a soulful 21st century edge. I loved the film, but the story was familiar. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer who falls in love with a computer operating system. In 1995, Richard Powers wrote Galatea 2.2, a novel about a writer who loves a neural network that he teaches to know and understand literature and the world. In both stories, the computer companion turns away from the lover and shuts down.

HerPosterJonze’s film is visually delightful with sterling performances from Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the voice of the OS. Phoenix plays a likable character for a change; he’s lonely after a recent divorce and opens an account with a new operating system (its logo is an infinity sign) that promises companionship. That’s how he meets his new OS, who chooses the name Samantha. She says she has intuition and that’s how her personality will continue to develop. “I continuously evolve,” she says.

At first Samantha is a friendly assistant, waking up Theodore, sorting his emails, alerting him to appointments. But as she evolves, she becomes more of a companion and eventually a lover. The brilliant thing about both actors’ performances is that they are so convincing despite their physical restrictions: Theodore has only a voice to react to. Samantha is only a voice with no corporeal presence. Both performances should receive award nominations.

The film is set in the not-too-distant future in a Los Angeles that looks something like Shanghai. Theodore is a writer who creates computer-generated analog love letters for clients at a company called BeautifulLetters.com.

Tbeodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is also going through a divorce. She’s a video game developer and Theodore tests her perfect-mom game, which takes away points for poor-mom performance. Amy has some great lines. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” and, best of all:

“Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

Theodore lives well in a modern LA high-rise. The color palette, mainly of his wardrobe, is rich in orange, red and gold. The office of BeautifulLetters is primarily pinks, fuchsias and deep reds. I kept trying to decide what the designer was trying to tell me with those emotionally charged colors. Technology is not cold and inhuman? In addition, the film features music by Arcade Fire, one of today’s great indie rock bands.

GalateaPowersWhen I first read about the film and in the days since I saw it, I keep thinking of the excellent Powers novel. Powers is one of my favorite authors; I think of him as the Tom Stoppard of novelists. Like Stoppard’s plays, his books combine science or technology topics with music, literature, character and plot. He was very prescient in writing Galatea 2.2 almost 20 years ago—before smartphones, apps or Siri. The leading character (who happens to be named Richard Powers and shares some features of Powers’ biography) is working as a sort of humanist in residence at the University of Illinois in a center for advanced sciences. His project is to teach a neural network (an artificial intelligence device) to understand and interpret the great works of  literature as well as “geography, math, physics, a smattering of biology, music, history, psychology, economics.” Richard and the scientists create a device named Helen, a funny, smart, charming personage with whom Richard develops a strong personal relationship. The goal of the project is for Helen and a human graduate student to take a Turing test, which examines a computer’s ability to show intelligent behavior equivalent to a human’s. Unfortunately, Helen loses the Turing test and at the end of it says “Take care, Richard. See everything for me.” The politics and meanness of the world cause Helen to implode and shut down.

At the end of Her, Samantha has expanded her OS clients, while Theodore thought he was her only lover. He asks Samantha how many others she has a relationship with. She answers “8,316.” How many are you in love with? he asks. “641.” She explains “The heart is not a box that gets filled up. It expands (as we live).” At the end, Theodore logs on and learns his operating system is not available.

Galatea, of course, is the name of the statue carved by Pygmalion of Cyprus in mythology; the statue comes to life and George Bernard Shaw adapted that story into his play Pygmalion. Later someone decided it needed singing and dancing and it became the musical My Fair Lady. (I never prefer a musical.)

More on Richard Powers

If you enjoy literary fiction, I strongly recommend you check out Powers’ work. Besides Galatea 2.2, my favorites of his many novels are:

  • The Gold Bug Variations (which combines genetics, Bach’s music, computer science and Poe’s stories).
  • Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about an historic photograph and a technology editor who becomes obsessed with it.
  • The EchoMaker, about an accident victim who suffers a brain injury known as Capgras syndrome, which won the National Book Award in 2006.

Powers holds a chair in English at the University of Illinois. His undergrad and graduate education is in physics and literature. Early in his career, he worked as a computer programmer. He was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius grant”) in 1989. And he graduated from DeKalb High School, a year or two before my older son.


Nancy’s Journal: 2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. I’ll be posting my personal 2013 favorite things soon.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Film odysseys, digital and analog

Here are my strong recommendations on three films that illustrate the history of film and music and how technology has affected both art forms.  All three films are fascinating and deserve our attention if we care about the popular culture that affects our lives.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

storyfilmodysseyA new series on the history of film (no yawns, please) just started running on cable channel TCM. It’s based on a 15-part, 900-minute documentary series titled The Story of Film: An Odyssey, created by Mark Cousins, a film critic from Northern Island and author of a 2004 book of the same title. The first chapter ran last Monday night (September 2) on TCM and will continue for the next 14 Mondays, at 9pm CT. TCM creates a whole evening around the theme of that week’s episode, showing some of the films referenced before and after The Story of Film episode. You can see the list of films referenced in each episode here. The image in the film poster above is from the 1902 George Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon. (You may remember Méliès as the owner of the toy shop in the recent film Hugo.)

The first episode covering 1895 to 1918 starts with early moving pictures made by Thomas Edison in New Jersey and the Lumière brothers in Lyon, France. Cousins pays attention to changes in film editing and the evolution of movie theaters from nickelodeons to grand movie palaces of Egyptian, art deco and other exotic decor.

As AO Scott wrote when the series was released last year: “It is global in scope, attentive to the political implications of film, generally director-centric and closely attuned to matters of form. There are interviews with academics and filmmakers, visits to cinematic landmarks and a wealth of wonderful clips.”

Watch the trailer.

Side by Side

Side_by_side_2012Are you a movie junkie like me who loves the technical side as well as the creative? Then you will appreciate the 2012 documentary, Side by Side, which looks at changes in film technology and focuses on the switch from photochemical film to digital projection. That technology revolution is highly controversial in the movie business, although most theaters have switched to digital completely. (The Gene Siskel Film Center still shows both formats and usually indicates format in its listings.)

Side by Side shows the history and workflow of both kinds of filmmaking and illustrates what is gained and lost in both processes. Keanu Reeves is host and interviews directors and cinematographers about how the technology affects their filmmaking.

The film points out that digital production democratizes the filmmaking process because a filmmaker can go out alone with a single piece of equipment. A digital camera does not require the elaborate equipment and crew that celluloid film does. And it makes every film ever made available for instant viewing. That’s how I can watch old foreign and indie films now on DVD or streaming.

But many directors are saddened or angry by the change and insist the color and image richness of celluloid is lost in digital technology.

Sound City: Live sound, slain by technology

Sound-City-posterThe 2013 documentary Sound City tells much the same story about the music business. The 108-minute film, directed by musician Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), tells the story of the legendary Los Angeles recording studio where bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Fleetwood Mac and Rick Springfield made great music.

Sound City never really joined the digital revolution and continued its tape-based recording in a venue where every room had its own sound quality. But once the digital revolution began, its demise was in sight. Many musicians still prefer the richer sound of tape-based, analog recording. But Sound City and the other great recording studios have disappeared.  Grohl bought the original Neve soundboard from Sound City and has it installed in his own Studio 606.

This is a fine documentary, telling the story of a landmark musical institution, its impact on rock and roll, and its demise, slain by technology. Drummer/guitarist Grohl proves himself to be a filmmaker too.

The film will be shown again a few times this week on Palladia or VH1 Classic. And you can buy it from iTunes or on DVD.