ANOTHER VIEW

Hoarding in the Squirrel Society

People desperately want to watch all those programs they have recorded and read those articles they have copied

CHARLES GORDON March 6 1989
ANOTHER VIEW

Hoarding in the Squirrel Society

People desperately want to watch all those programs they have recorded and read those articles they have copied

CHARLES GORDON March 6 1989

Hoarding in the Squirrel Society

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

People desperately want to watch all those programs they have recorded and read those articles they have copied

Contrary to the fears of the political prophets, we have not become a society of sheep. We have become a society of squirrels. Helped by modern technology, we expend enormous amounts of energy and time copying things and storing them away. We know why the squirrel stores things away. It is not entirely clear why we do, except that we can.

Ten years ago, no one would have predicted that our homes and offices would be overflowing with paper. Computers were taking over the workplace, memos and reports were being turned into “files” that could be read on computer screens, transmitted from one office to another, one city to the next.

Paper suffered a temporary setback. But it did not disappear. Quite the reverse. The same technology that created the computer created the high-speed printer that could be hooked up to the computer. Suddenly, people were printing out their reports and memos—several copies of them. And, if more than several were needed, improved photocopiers could sort, collate, enlarge or reduce them and pump them out in the hundreds. The latest toy, the facsimile transmitter—or fax, as it is more commonly known—made it possible for people in one place to increase the amount of paper in another place, without waiting for the mailman. The latest threat is that people can do this from their cars.

Why have we allowed the technology that promised a reduction in the pile of paper to expand it instead? Psychology comes into play. When technology makes it easily feasible to send copies of a newspaper clipping to 15 people, then 15 other people feel left out if they don’t get it too—not to read, necessarily, but to have and to be on the list. The photocopies flood in, and we squirrel them away—sometimes after making other copies or faxing them to other cities.

Paper is not all that we store. Someone not

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen

content to let us stew in all the other modem juices has invented the term “video guilt.” Video guilt seems to apply to what we feel when we don’t watch the television programs we have carefully videotaped. You can understand it. Something worthwhile is going to be on television—something like Part 3 of Patrick Watson’s epic The Struggle for Democracy series—and we are due for dinner at Grandma’s.

But no fear. This is the moment for which the video cassette recorder was created. This is why we spent $499 on it and studied how to work the controls. In fact, that was the pitch in the electronics department. Eager spouse to reluctant spouse: “You know those good public affairs shows we’re always missing. If we buy this, we can tape those shows and watch them when we’re in the mood.”

Everyone who has made the investment knows what happens. The machine records cartoons, music videos, the first two hours of two-hour-and-20-minute movies. On rare occasions, it preserves on videotape entire featurelength pitches for beauty products on Channel 6, recorded at the same time as a great Peter Sellers movie on Channel 7.

Video guilt occurs when Part 3 of Democra-

cy is on tape and is not watched. The tape is there. Part 3 is on it. Someone has checked. Someone has written “Democracy-. Part 3” on the box containing the videotape. But, as Part 4 turns to Part 7, as winter turns to spring, one thing leads to another and Part 3 is not watched. Video guilt sets in as the eager spouse ponders how he has betrayed the noble ideals he expressed in the electronics department.

It is happening all around the world and all around the house. Children with squirrel tendencies tape-record music programs off the radio, often without listening to them. They buy records in order to record them on tape. It is alleged—although it is difficult to believe— that children of a certain age now study together by faxing notes back and forth. Such things are going on under our very noses in the Squirrel Society, and we have to adapt to them. For a start, remember that the homes most of us live in were designed and built before faxes, VCRs and photocopiers were invented. The space allotted was just enough for a few people, some canned vegetables and a hi-fi system. So where is all that other stuff going to go?

Finding space is part of the problem. Finding time is another. People consumed with video guilt and its teenaged equivalent, audio guilt, need more time than has been allotted to them by the inventors of time and clocks. They desperately want to catch up. They want to watch all those programs they have recorded. They want to read all those articles they have photocopied. But there is no time to do it. The time they do have is spent setting the VCR and running the photocopier, fifing the photocopies and indexing the videotapes. Unless a person is fortunate enough to suffer a mild illness that allows him to stay home for a month watching videotapes, catching up will be impossible.

The Squirrel Society starts from the premise that people don’t want to miss anything. If they can’t see it, they want to tape it. If they can’t read it, they want to copy it. What is important is not to watch or to read, but to have. What makes the premise of the Squirrel Society work is that technology makes it possible not to miss anything—or, at least, to seem not to miss anything.

In fact, we may be missing more. We skip reading articles in newspapers and magazines because we know we can copy them and read them later. We don’t go out to the movies because we know we can get the movies on tape. We skip television programs because we know we can tape them. Perhaps the only thing worse than that is the reverse—that we wind up watching twice as much television: viewing on one channel while we tape on the other, then watching the tape.

In an ideal society, technology sets us free, allows us to pursue other interests while machines store what needs to be stored. But this is not the ideal society; this is the Squirrel Society, where fife is recorded rather than experienced, stored rather than shared. An irony is that technology has given us, in the form of the lightweight videotape camera, the perfect instrument for recording real fife just at the time when there is less and less real fife to record.