IN case you thought the invention of printing was a big deal, or maybe broadcasting (for good or bad), something still bigger claims to be waiting in the wings. It represents "the most dramatic change ... in the history of mass communications," to quote one of its boosters.
The millenium is coming, apparently, in the form of a wireless receiver about the size of a big serving platter. By putting it on your window sill, you'll be able to pick up a bewildering variety of signals from the sky. The new dishes would be small enough and cheap enough to be used by almost anyone, replacing those huge backyard dishes that look as if ET is calling home.
On the other hand, only last Friday another company was announcing what it called "the first national 10-channel pay-per-view programming service to be offered to the cable industry," something they felt could well transform viewing habits.
It all sounds promising enough, as do several other new receiving techniques, like the fiber-optic wires that phone companies would like to bring into your home. But I'm afraid "video revolutions" don't come as easily as that. If communications history is any guide, the new delivery systems may well prove important, but not that important. These new ways of making a blizzard of TV channels available in your home are part of the same agenda that electronic visionaries have been pushing for decades now. T wenty-five years ago futurists were already gushing about a "wired nation" that was going to be positively sybaritic, the ultimate coach potato's dream, in which you'd lean back as you scanned an endless menu of movies that could be ordered up.
Such a spectrum of choices, claim its adherents, would be the equivalent of "video on demand" and hence would certainly render any other way of getting programs to your screen obsolete.
This would be especially true of movies. If you could sit at home, push a couple of buttons, and magically summon from afar any film you want, who would need, for instance, a little mom-and-pop video store selling or renting anything as mundane as a cassette.
The answer is practically anyone with a VCR. High-tech delivery systems may change the shape of the industry. They may affect the programming of movies seen on regular broadcast stations. They may even make chimney antennas disappear one day. But would "video on demand" drive the corner video shop out of business?
Not as long as viewers still exist in a world of three dimensions, where on occasion you still like to leave your home, go to a store, and browse. Video cassettes are not an abstract list of titles requiring a kind of clerical decision that squelches the entertainment response. They're right there on the shelf in front of you. You can grab one, put it in the VCR, or yank it out to watch the ballgame. You can carry it over to a neighbor's house and view it with other people. You may not be able to copy it
legally, but you can show it over and over. You are the master of time, not the programmer. You don't have to commit yourself to a time and place, ("I'd like to have this film transmitted at this time"). With a cassette, you have the process in your pocket - sometimes quite literally.
And the system is "interactive" in the true sense: You act upon it. You simply rub the bottle (push the tape into the machine) and the electronic genie comes out. You don't feel you're a captive of the electronic world, the way you do when merely operating a control panel. Something picked up and held in your hand is truly yours. Something transmitted in two dimensions from another place is, psychologically, still theirs. They control it. A cassette exists in your world because you brought it there in pe rson, after going out and fetching it on a self-assigned mission. Who knows, that kind of mission might have some primordial connection to setting out from a lair and retrieving food.
None of this, of course, is likely to check the proliferation of new-tech TV delivery, which could well prove a blessing in many ways. But as long as people want, literally, to hold their entertainment destiny in their hands, video cassettes are likely to be around, reassuring viewers of their physical role in the world they live in.