Communications revolution


It is the unforeseen consequences of our actions that result in the evolutionary development of social institutions. This proposition, formulated two centuries ago by philosophers otherwise as divergent as Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith, has been argued by Professor F.A. Hayek to be a central insight into social processes. This proposition does not mean to its propounders that we act at random, stumbling over the consequences of our actions. Rather, it asserts what we do not do: we do not decide that on Monday, we as a society will invent language; on Tuesday, morality; on Wednesday, the political process; on Thursday, money; and on Friday, alcohol. All of these estimable creations are the result of decisions by individuals to solve the problems that confronted them as individuals. These solutions build upon other solutions in an almost geological process of accretion. It is the task of economists and others working in the neo-Mandevillian tradition to untangle the processes, and the state of equilibrium of the process, by which these individual decisions, made for individual ends, serve as something more than this.

There is, I think, a budding social revolution in the works with a marvelous potential for subverting worldwide authoritarianism in communication. This revolution is not being plotted for purposes of advancing liberty—those purposes per se pay very poorly—but rather for commercial-artistic purposes. This is the forthcoming video disk. It is possible that this revolution can be blocked; hence, our attention may be required.

I would imagine that everyone who reads the New York Times, the news magazines, or the audio magazines is aware that it is now technically feasible to produce a vinyl disk capable of carrying the information that a standard television signal carries. It is also technically feasible to produce a relatively inexpensive device, around $500 at the current estimate, for extracting the information from the disk for viewing through an ordinary television set with the requisite plugs.

It is obvious at the outset that the material that is economically feasible for video-disk production is considerably distinct from material that is economically feasible for television. Television shows generally cannot be studied the way books are studied. Presumably, anyone who would pay for a video disk for a home library would expect to use it more than once, since it would otherwise be cheaper to see the program in a theatre.

It has become commonplace to attribute part of the decline of reading ability, shown in decaying SAT scores, to increased télevision viewing. It is not clear whether television per se would have such an effect if serious, thought-requiring programs were commercially viable. In any event, if people are watching television more and reading books less, then something like a video disk, which can be studied, may be required if radical—radical in the old-fashioned sense of going to the root of the matter—social-political discussions are to be widely effected.

There are currently two video-disk systems receiving serious consideration. The most prominent mentioned is the MCA-Phillips disk. This approach uses a low-powered laser to extract information carried slightly below the surface of the disk. (This feature is important, especially for the possibility of video-disk libraries, since the resulting signal is not disturbed by surface defects, the curse of current phonograph records, which carry the signal on the surface.) The RCA system uses an electron beam and a mechanical stylus to extract information. What is revolutionary is that at no time during the process does an electromagnetic wave trespass on the politically controlled airwaves.

The capital market is fascinated by such developments because, among other possibilities, it is obvious that there are immediate markets for home versions of the vast stock of motion pictures. How much would you be willing to pay for a collection of Buster Keaton's films or for Sir Lawrence Olivier's Shakespeare films? My wallet groans in anticipation. There are certain television series that would equally rapidly find a market; the Star Trek series alone would probably sell a staggering number of copies.

The technological advance represented by a viable video disk would allow several serious arts finally to reach a wide market. Clearly, the most immediate beneficiaries would be opera, ballet, and modern dance companies. Just as the income produced by phonograph records for the important orchestras in the United-States is critical, the income that serious dance and opera companies could obtain would presumably be important for their survival.

The potential of video disks should be clearly distinguished from that of video tape. Video tape has been highly successful in professional use, but it has found little acceptance for a home market. It is very expensive—over $10 for 30 minutes—and although tape can be reused, this feature is not very important when the tape is purchased for permanent storage of a film. Video disks may be very much less expensive because they seem subject to economies of scale in production much more than tape.

Even so, video tape is stirring a good deal of interest. At least two television makers, Sony and Advent, have produced high-quality, large-screen models that are directed to video-tape users. The high quality of signals on video tape seem to show best on such equipment. The phenomenon is familiar to those with audio equipment: high-quality records are often relatively undistinguished on low-quality equipment, and poorly produced records can be intolerable on good equipment.

The regulatory restraint on a communications medium that differs only in technical detail from a phonograph record presumably will be minimal, since regulation of phonograph records is almost nonexistent. Redd Foxx found that as a black man he could not work in the nightclubs for white audiences. He was, however, able to produce an eminently disreputable, but not unprofitable, series of records. Political tracts by the John Birch Society certainly could not be broadcast without the station running a grave danger of loss of license, but they can be produced on records. Lenny Bruce found record albums open for vigorous satire when the airwaves were off limits. Nonetheless, the liberating consequences of video disks may well cause more far-sighted authoritarians to rethink the desirability of this regulatory lapse. Indeed, it might be possible to strangle the video disk revolution in infancy, but it probably will not be when it is well developed.

We must sharply distinguish the legal assignment of rights to produce and purchase a phonograph record from the assignment of rights to produce and transmit a television show. If I am offended by a phonograph record, I may complain to the producer or to the store in which it is sold, or I may refuse to purchase it. I have no right to prevent anyone else from buying it. In contrast, if I am offended by a television broadcast, for whatever reason, I may write to the FCC to complain. This complaint will be taken seriously. If there are a sufficient number of protests, the FCC may refuse to renew the station's license. Thus, a vocal minority has the de facto right to block the creation of television shows of which they disapprove.

Freedom of speech entails the right to annoy people. Unregulated video disks will create the right of the producers and the purchasers of video message to annoy anyone they wish. The production of television signals will be freed from the veto power of groups acting through the political process. If video disks are treated in law as if they were phonograph records, anyone who wishes to rent the requisite equipment can produce a disk for whatever purpose he or she wishes.

For example, a video-disk division of Dow Jones might wish to produce a multi-hour documentary on the coming collapse of the social security system. And Dennis Turner might wish to produce a disk on how computer trading models can allow you to profit from the same coming collapse. A television show of this sort would be difficult to imagine because it would be polemical, subject to public protest, and at a minimum, there is the requirement that the stations showing it provide time for reply, and no doubt, the audience would be tiny. But with video disks, an audience of ten million would not be required before such a project would be seriously considered. Presumably, the same people who buy serious books would be interested in serious video material. Those who were annoyed by such a video disk would have no right to block its production. All they could do would be not to buy it. Or, to produce a rejoinder.

There would also be the possibility of an almost scientific discipline, of the type Sir Karl Popper has described, focused on regulated television. A video-disk polemic a la Edith Efron might convincingly prove that the television news programs were biased. Inflections, the movement of eyebrows, and perhaps even the creative manipulation of photographic evidence all could be documented.

The impact on the United States might be far less substantial than that upon European countries with government television monopolies. Unless explicit steps were taken to the contrary, there would be no reason why a relatively free trade in video disks would not emerge. Again, private news services might produce video-disk news programs, especially since there would be no reason that the producers could not sell commercials in the video disks. A commercial-infested disk would certainly be sold for less than one without commercials. The impact of an unrestrained, non-statist video-disk series on a European audience at the mercy of government television might be spectacular. Indeed, there is already a relatively interesting international trade in phonograph records. It seems that European audiences listen to music a great deal more carefully than American audiences; hence, records produced in Europe are often considered vastly superior to what record companies allege to be the American equivalent. State-of-the-art audio magazines are filled with discussions of which European pressings justify the extra expense.

This revolution may be blocked. It is, however, all to the good that the liberating aspects of the video disk have received almost no notice in the press. The exception is, of course, the obvious pornographic possibilities. If the move toward regulation does occur, and clearly the current television networks could take a financial bath if they lost their best-educated audience, it might be well to remember that those concerned for liberty have many potential allies to help effect the revolution. Those who enjoy classical and experimental films, opera, and serious dance; those who have investments in television producing companies; those who are seriously attached to the First Amendment to the Constitution—all are potential members of a coalition to force free expression in video disks. If this opportunity slips through our hands, we may not see its likes again.

David Levy received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He is currently on the staff of the National Planning Association in Washington, D.C. He is the author of "Can New York City Be Saved?" in REASON's May 1976 issue.