Can You Program a VCR? Are You Sure?

Anybody over say, thirty years old, will remember when VCRs ruled the TV recording roost. They were magical machines, allowing you to record your favorite shows at will, and then re-watch them while mostly skipping the commercials. Truly cool. Life changing. Amazing.

But do you remember what your parents (or perhaps your grandparents) reaction was? Do you remember how hard it was to teach them how to use the remotes? How you couldn’t easily explain that there was a separate tuner in the VCR, allowing them to record one channel while watching another? Some of you laughed at their confusion. Some of you no doubt cried in frustration.

In the end we are all tech support for someone, I suppose.

But do you recall the single defining visual of “old people” and their VCR’s?

I do:

The Horror of the VCR!

Blinking Twelves! The Horror!

Today’s VCR (mine is 7 years old, but that counts as current for a VCR these days) sets the clock itself from a signal available on the cable feed. But for years, upon each and every power outage, the VCR would come back to 12:00, with the those digits blinking furiously, announcing your VCR was lost in time. And that you were unable to set it.

You could teach your parents and grandparents to use the VCR. I remember writing out step-wise instructions for my dad when I bought him an HDTV. Do you want to watch Hi Def? Follow these steps. Watch the VCR? Do this. Believe-you-me I made those instructions bulletproof, and it worked perfectly for him for years. I suspect his home theater setup in heaven has explicit instructions too.

But the clock, oh the clock! It would be fine for weeks, until the power failed. Few of us could remember how to set the clock after months and manuals were printed to be lost. No PDF’s in those days. And the clock was especially fraught in the olden days when you set the clock NOT via the remote but using an opaque sequence of tiny button presses on the face of the VCR. Sometimes the buttons were even hidden behind a little door. Lovely.

If you mostly used your VCR to watch rental movies (do you remember Blockbuster?), you didn’t even need the clock! I knew of people who taped over the display so the shame of a blinking clock would go away. Other folks just set the time to 12:01 and let the clock be wrong all the time. Madness in support of confusion!

Our parents and grandparents are not stupid; why did they not learn to set the clock and program the VCR themselves?

I have a theory.

Eventually, if you are not careful, it’s easy to get tired of learning.

At some point, “grown-ups” were just too dang busy to spend the time to learn how to do something. To learn such a thing requires adding yet another abstract model to the brain, another set of instructions and rules to be remembered. This is daunting for anyone who worked all day, or is a little older and tireder, who chased kids around all day, for anyone out there living their life. So don’t excoriate them for this.

Besides, you’ve got Blinking Twelves of your own.

Yes, you.

What are your Blinking Twelves, you ask?

Well. We live in a time where technology explodes at an amazing pace. All around us, new technologies flourish, become important, and die on the vine in what seems like flashes of time.

I started with computers in Junior High (what now seems to be Middle School), acquiring a succession of Timex/Sinclair, Radio Shack and finally Apple computers in the early 1980’s. Modem’s came along, bulletin boards were cool! Bought an IBM PC for college; doing my class projects in Turbo Pascal was much easier than using the mainframe. Jumped into C, released some shareware (still out there!), learned more Unix. Cell phones, Windows, OS/2, Linux, HDTV, TiVo, VOD, smart phones, CD, DVD, mp3 swapping, e-Books, Bit Torrent, and so on; all these things marched into (and in some cases out of) my life.

But you know, I just bagged MySpace and Facebook. I like LinkedIn because it is, well, less social, and takes very little effort to maintain. It’s actually useful career-wise. But Facebook and MySpace struck me as a lot of effort to bare my life to other folks. There’s no one whom I want to know that much about me, or who I want to know that much about. My wife, I see her everyday. Same for my kids. My colleagues. Phone calls to Mom, and my sister. Mostly, that keeps my life full.

So when MySpace, and then Facebook started exploding in popularity, I just sort of shrugged. Ho-hum.

(Interestingly, I love Twitter. Really, really love Twitter. It hits some deep sweet spot for me. I follow some politicos, some actors, and most importantly, a bunch of Yankees writers/fans/etc. Twitter is a great companion when watching a game. And I completely control the investment of time. If I feel like ignoring my timeline for a while, fine. No one cares. Someone tweets too much, unfollow them. Simple. Elegant. B’gosh do I love simple and elegant.)

Similarly ignored technologies abound. Mostly, I completely ignored the Java web application world most of my professional colleagues are enamored of (and earn a living using). Google Wave? Seemed like a lot of work. Google Voice? Looks nice, but … maybe later. Blu-Ray? Not yet, maybe someday. YouTube? Rarely. Flickr? Once, twice, that’s it. StumbleUpon? Delicious? Never. Chatroulette? Now you’re making me laugh. Hard.

For all these new capabilities, the point is simple; I consciously chose not to learn any of them; most of them I chose not to even investigate them and see what their use might be.

I chose not to learn to program those VCR’s.

Now, that decision is OK if I did it with my eyes open. But I never really played with Facebook, or MySpace, for example. And if you are deriding new technologies as worthless because they make you uncomfortable, or seem “too hard”, well, eventually, you’ll be left staring at the Blinking Twelves. And people will laugh.

The Internet, by the way, was the most hugest VCR of my lifetime as far as whole industries were concerned. Newspapers, movies, records, cable companies, radio stations, brick and mortar retail, and countless other industries had market leaders (if not entire markets) crushed because they were afraid of the Internet; they were afraid to learn to program that VCR.

Sad, or not? Got me.

Either way, the important lesson is that there is always a new VCR around the corner. Resist the impulse to throw up your hands and refuse to learn how to program it. Once you stop learning these newfangled things you might just fall off the progress bus. That would suck.

Me, I’ll be heading over to Facebook. Hopefully it’ll be interesting.

What are your Blinking Twelves?

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7 Comments on “Can You Program a VCR? Are You Sure?”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Design By Gravity, Chris Schanck. Chris Schanck said: Can You Program a VCR? Are You Sure? http://bit.ly/bA6pvL […]

  2. Steve Says:

    I think there was a particular culprit that upon arrival divided the world into the “knows” and the “know-nots:” the invisible state machine. Normal people never encountered such a thing until consumer electronics with digital controllers showed up. The VCR was one of the first.

    Before this, devices (cars, TVs, radios, vending machines, etc.) had visible states. Or rather, their visible states were mostly understandable. Not so with the little clock. You had to navigate your way through a rather arbitrary state space where the intermediate stages weren’t always reflected clearly, if at all, in the user interface. This seems to be one of those fundamental skills that like language is most easily acquired in the younger years.

    That’s why your learning Facebook isn’t quite the same thing as your dad learning VCR programming. You’re already familiar with the concepts that underly Facebook (it’s like Twitter, only loaded with extra crap you’ll want to turn off). Likewise, I resisted a long time before sending my first text message, but it turned out just to be like IM for my phone.

    So we’re not in quite as much danger, yet. Until the next cognitively divisive technology arrives. I hope by that time I haven’t given up.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Possibly accurate, though I wonder how much impenetrable mass of moded buttons that festooned all consumer electronics for years contributed to this. Moded buttons made the UI so unrelated to the activity (your invisibale state) that it became a religious event (take it on faith that it might work…).

      Facebook sure does seem like Twitter, only with the added frisson of people being torqued off that you won’t friend them. Sad face.


  3. I rarely leave a response, but i did some searching and wound up here
    Can You Program a VCR? Are You Sure? | Design By Gravity.
    And I actually do have some questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be simply me or does it look as if like some of these comments come across like written by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting at other social sites, I’d like to follow everything new you have to post.
    Could you list of all of all your social pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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