Uncanny Technology: DVRs in 1998

In a chapter of Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition by David Thorburn, there is an essay written by Tom Gunning, a professor at the University of Chicago. Gunning’s essay mentions, among other things, that generally people react to new technologies with such amazement and wonder because there is an unfamiliarity that these emergent technologies possess. He argues that, while in the past people would have been in this state of amazement for a long period of time, nowadays most people are so numb to innovations that there is only a brief period of wonder before a new technology is assimilated into our lives so completely that the feeling of unfamiliarity is lost forever. I very much agree with this point, that while we are stunned by newness it takes almost no time at all before that newness is seen as completely natural.

There is a specific type of unfamiliarity that seems to extend this period of wonder that Gunning calls the “uncanny.” He states in his essay that, “the specific effect of the uncanny comes from the flowering sense of unfamiliarity in the midst of the apparently familiar,” (Thorburn, 47). This uncanny feeling can often result from remediation when the new technology takes such a leap from the previous generation that it is almost unrecognizable. An excellent example of this phenomenon of the uncanny is the release of the Digital Video Recorder in late 1998.

Recording television with a VCR had been around for a while but DVR promised to be a very large improvement. In its early stages, the technology was very similar to the VCR but was designed to be simpler and more customizable. Recording was an obvious feature that would carry over from VCR to DVR, but the biggest additions were the ability to pause and rewind live TV. However, there were many other experimental features that were difficult for even the companies producing DVRs to explain to consumers. As a New York Times reporter put it, “there are thornier problems [than price], like getting consumers to understand a product that has too many features to sum up neatly in an advertising slogan,” (Furchgott, 1). Because of this the DVR was met with confusion and was slow to catch on, selling less than one million units in its first four years of existence. Consumers didn’t realize how different the product was from a VCR until they tried it out, at which point they asked themselves how they watched television before owning one.

Today, pausing and rewinding live TV is standard with a lot of cable packages showing how technology can be integrated so easily into our lives. But DVR is great example of emerging technologies having an uncanny quality to them, taking years to catch on despite its prevalence today.

An Example Poster for the Release of a DVR

A hypothetical poster for the release of the DVR in 1998. TiVo and ReplayTV were the two pioneers of DVRs for public use.

Sources:

Thorburn, David. “Re-newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century.”Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. 39-60. Print.

Furchgott, Roy. “Don’t People Want to Control Their TV’s?”The New York Times 24 Aug. 2000, Technology sec.: G7. Print.

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By ginginese

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