Volume 33 Number 9
[Don't Get Me Started]
Time of the Season
By David Platt | September 2018
Autumn is starting to turn here in Ipswich, Mass. As surely as the derivative of sine is cosine, the instant at which the darkness and light become momentarily equal is the instant at which they’re changing most rapidly—half an hour in a week at its height, one waxing and the other waning.
The speed of this shortening photoperiod catches my attention, and I contemplate the cycles of the universe. I realize we modern-day humans are creatures of two cycles, wheels within wheels. Think of them as Ptolemaic astronomy described: The deferent, or outer cycle, of the year, imposed on us by celestial mechanics; combined with the epicycle, or inner cycle, of the week, solely a human creation. The last decade’s technology has altered our adaptation to both. I’ll discuss the latter today, and leave the former for another time.
I wrote in my August 2017 column (msdn.com/magazine/mt493249) about the 50th anniversary of the classic The Beatles album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I noted that when it was released, the playback technology dictated that the order in which the artist placed the songs was generally the order in which the listener consumed them. Therefore, the artist had to compose this sequence carefully, and could create a synergistic whole if he did it well. I would argue that this careful composition is what elevates Sergeant Pepper into a masterpiece. Now that today’s technology has decoupled that order, the artist no longer incurs this burden, but can no longer harness that synergy to improve the work.
This decoupling also affects broadcast media: movies, TV, radio. Before on-demand streaming, we consumed content when it was broadcast. Each program appeared at its customary phase angle of the weekly epicycle, affecting its content.
For example, when I was a kid, “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” was shown at 7:30 on Sunday evenings. My siblings and I loved to watch it even on the black-and-white set we had at the time. (That was so long ago that they showed Walt smoking a cigarette onscreen.) If we were all ready for bed (bathed, pajamas on, teeth brushed), we were allowed to watch Disney. But we knew that we had to go to bed when it was over, and our next conscious act would be waking up for school. The show signaled the end of the fun and the beginning of work. Its creators and producers had to, could, and did, tailor it to the particular mindset that its timeslot produced in its audience. Hence the term, “Disney Depression,” now seldom understood by anyone under about age 50.
Each phase of the week had its own associated content. Saturday morning was for kids’ cartoons. Saturday dinnertime gave us Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on PBS. Sunday morning was a huge wasteland of political talking head shows, barely relieved by the religious claymation show “Davey and Goliath” (whose characters now shill for Mountain Dew, see bit.ly/2LBD5LZ).
VCRs didn’t change these relationships much because they were difficult to use. Even DVRs require forethought, a very rare commodity, then or now. But with on-demand video, every program that anyone can imagine queued up on sites legal and non, we can watch more or less anything at any time we want. It frees us as consumers, but removes a constraint that artists, at least the best ones, found helpful.
The artist had some notion about the particular stage of the weekly epicycle in which their creations would be consumed, so they could tailor them to the audience’s mindset at that time—kids revving up on Saturday morning, kids bumming out on Sunday evening. They don’t have this guidance anymore. They have to guess: Will their audience be at Friday happy hour, or on a Monday morning bummer? Will they be drinking champagne, or thinking about drinking Drano?
The advance of technology provides more choices for customers, which is generally reckoned a good thing. We now get to choose what to watch on Sunday nights. But as we enjoy these choices, proper contemplation requires that we think at least occasionally about the artistry that they now replace. And as Rolex still makes mechanical watches, there’s still one program inseparably bound to its timeslot: We’ve just started another season of Monday Night Football.
Join me for my three-day workshop, “Building Joyful Xamarin Apps,” at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 22-24. See joyfulxamarinapps.com for details.
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.