Mod 5: Red Queens, Increasing Returns, and the Fine Art of “Sharing”

Among the forces that drive innovations in technology, two are closely connected by their competition for the hearts and wallets of the consumer. Red Queens are seen where two technologies that compete with each other leave everything else behind (Laureate Education (Producer), 2014g). Thornburg gives the example of PC and Apple, the two main competitors for the personal computer market. I might also point out the iPhone and the Android cell phone operating systems, both of which are continually improved and enhanced to meet the newest demands of their consumer bases.

Increasing Returns refers to the rather illogical tendency of one technology to win over its closest competitor to the point that the competitor fades away entirely. Chaos theory, the mathematical study that defines the unpredictability of predictions, works at its finest in this situation. Often it is not the superior technology that wins, but rather something almost as good but for some reason more appealing to the potential customer. Thornburg (Laureate Education (Producer), 2014e) uses the example of VHS video tapes and Betamax. As illustrated here, Betamax produced the better picture, but because of its lack of variety in pre-recorded material, it never became the public favorite it could have been.

Betamax vs VHS Picture Quality
Betamax vs VHS Picture Quality

This brings me to today’s discussion of how we view video now. In the early days of the pre-recorded video movie, we bought a few, but we rented dozens. Video stores were cropping up everywhere, and we could rent everything that had been popular over the past year for a fairly small fee, certainly less than the price of going to the movies. Some video stores were so eager for folks to rent movies that they also rented portable players. Back in 1984 my favorite store not only rented the movies and the players, it also delivered, just like pizza.

Portable VHS Player
Portable VHS Player

And we were reminded to “Be Kind – Rewind” so the next renter would have his tape starting at the beginning. bee kind

As with all good ideas, the local video stores were soon competing with national chains, such as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster. We had memberships, and the stores offered specials so we would rent more. In the meantime, movie formats underwent a change yet again. The DVD allowed video rentals on a much smaller footprint, and with improved clarity, additional features, and no need to rewind. The video stores changed gradually, and most phased out their VHS offerings over time. Then in 1997 – Netflix arrived.

blockbuster closing

Netflix combined the technology of the DVD with the technology of online rental, and a mailing turnaround time that made movie watching, if not instant, certainly more convenient than driving to the video store, hoping one’s favorite was in stock, and then driving back to return it. An urban myth says that one of the co-founders of Netflix came up with the idea after a huge late fee for a Blockbuster rental; it isn’t true, but it certainly represents the feeling of the time, that there had to be a better way to rent movies (CNN, 2014). In 2007 the company moved into a new realm, offering streaming of video over one’s own broadband service, so we can now watch movies on our computers, or display them from various video game consoles and internet-connected “smart TVs.” Blockbuster has struggled to keep up, with a mailing service and online streaming, but Netflix remains ubiquitous.

And for those of us who don’t have sufficient broadband for streaming, there is still a rental venue, and it has the advantage of allowing internet reservations. RedBox kiosks are found everywhere now, from grocery store lobbies to McDonald’s, and offer an automated, if limited, DVD rental service for a dollar a night.


In McLuhan’s four Laws of Media (Thornburg, 2013c), DVDs have their place both in replacing older technologies, and in giving way to newer ones. As the following tetrad illustrates, the DVD made movie watching better for home viewers, and was a smaller and more durable format for saving movies for the long term. DVDs have not yet disappeared; in fact, they are now generally sold as sets, with one normal DVD and one BluRay, the later technology which offers a clearer, brighter picture.

Video-on-demand, also known as video streaming, is rapidly taking the place of DVDs, particularly where the viewer only wishes to see the movie one or two times. DVDs are the preferred medium for ownership, while streaming offers more choices, including whole seasons of favorite TV series at a fraction of the cost of boxed sets. DVDs still offer additional features such as subtitles and short related films. When these become available on demand, the streaming format will very likely give way to DVDs entirely; for now, while there is still a shortage of broadband access for many movie viewers, DVDs remain the best choice.

slide 2Slide 3

A few weeks ago I want to watch the Philip K. Dick movie, A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006). Netflix doesn’t have it. The newer Amazon Instant Video service has it, but wants $2.99 to rent it. My son, who is a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, mentioned that he had the movie on his portable hard drive, so we hooked that up to my television via HDMI cable, and I have enjoyed it several times now.

I try not to ask my kids (who are all grownups and don’t have to answer to me about their life choices) where they get the videos they have on their many terabytes of hard drives. But I have a pretty good idea. Just as I believe that all information should be available to anyone who wants it, they believe that piracy of audio and video files is an acceptable practice. They justify this position thusly: if I buy a book, and read it, then lend it to a friend to read, there is nothing wrong with that. I could lend my best friend my Cat Stevens CDs and that would be ok. Libraries lend millions of books at no cost. So it follows (they say) that if someone buys a video, they should be able to lend it to anyone they want for as long as they want – and thus it is not actually stealing, but sharing, that is taking place. I can’t argue the legalities of this, and certainly the history of Napster and the jailing of the founder of Pirate Bay in Sweden would say that this is still a legal area not fully resolved by the courts or by copyright law.

"Sharing" at Pirate Bay
“Sharing” at Pirate Bay

I, for one, am not going to take on the legal system over the right- or wrong-ness of the sharing websites where nearly any digital media of any sort can be found. I’ve bought (so far) three copies of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and they have each been borrowed, never to return to me. Does that give me license to pirate? No, not really, but it does make a good argument for the practice. I pay my $10-and-change to Microsoft every month for the privilege of using MS Office in its newest iteration legally, even though I could probably get a usable full version from a sharing site. I also have a Pandora subscription, and Amazon Prime and Netflix are my main sources of movies. But I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, a great deal more media offerings will be free; I also hope for an open and free internet and free education, but at my age, I won’t hold my breath.


CNN. (2014). A brief history of Netflix. Retrieved from CNN:

Laureate Education (Producer). (2014e). David Thornburg: Increasing returns [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Laureate Education (Producer). (2014g). David Thornburg: Red queens [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Linklater, R. (Director). (2006). A Scanner Darkly [Motion Picture].

Thornburg, D. (2013c). Emerging technologies and McLuhan’s laws of media. Lake Barrington, IL: Thornburg Center for Space Exploration.

Photo Credits

Beta/VHS picture comparison:

Portable VHS player:

Bee kind:

Blockbuster out of business: