- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

One of the benefits of a well-functioning marketplace is that new technology, although often initially expensive, becomes cheaper over time, as innovations are absorbed and new competitors crop up.

That’s well and good if you’re satisfied with a VHS movie collection and that hulking wooden-cabinet television set that could double as a station wagon.

The reality is that, as prices for some commodities drop like water in search of level ground, we’re also buffeted by new technologies and the allure of progress and convenience they bring with them.

No sooner do you chuckle in self-satisfaction at the cineaste suckers who bought those bike tires known as laser-discs in the mid-1990s than you’re overwhelmed by the dominance of DVDs.

This endless churn of new formats is relentless. It picks your pocket and addles your head.

If you’re anything like me, your passion for free Napster downloads in 2000 was later matched only by the acute frustration at having to convert your existing CD collection into a digital library that could interface with a portable MP3 player.

I don’t know whether to invest precious thousands in a sleek plasma TV, or wait until some genius figures out how to project high-resolution images onto plaster walls using rays of sunlight.

And I thank heaven I quit playing video games in the halcyon days of Sega Genesis.

The fiercest grudge match now appears to be in the digital-video market, between HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Like a Marxist, I’m content to let history (also known as Netflix) sort this out before I fork over any cash.

Of course, I’m not a really a Marxist. Nor am I a Luddite. I like technology. These days, I’m especially pleased by the various video-capture devices that can digitize VHS tape. I don’t own it; don’t know how it works; don’t care. All I know is that someone out there does and that I benefit freely from it via the wondrous archival paradise that is YouTube.com.

My instinct in these matters is to linger and mooch for as long as possible — which is why I never leapt at Super Audio CDs. When, in 2002, a portion of the Rolling Stones catalog was issued in SACD format, everyone agreed: This was a feat of audio fidelity; the clarity was revelatory. A slate of Bob Dylan SACDs, among others, soon followed.

The catch was, you needed a dedicated — and highly expensive — playback device to fully exploit their value.

Unless you’re a classical music buff or an affluent audiophile, you don’t hear much about SACDs today, in part because they’re cost-prohibitive, but primarily because, well, they’re made of plastic: No matter how superior they sound, they’re of limited utility to the MP3 addict.

What’s most maddening about the burn-rate of new technology is what doesn’t change: Content. We’re essentially paying for the same song or movie twice or three times over. We assure ourselves that we’re dazzled by the freshness or expediency of the medium, even as we’re often underwhelmed by — or already intimately familiar with — the substance.

That crack of the snare drum that opens Mr. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sounded pretty exhilarating in 1965. How much will a fancy new laser beam improve this?

And really: Don’t you “Star Wars” buffs wish sometimes that you could permanently park George Lucas in 1983? Wouldn’t you gladly give up the sensory euphoria of watching, say, “Attack of the Clones” in your state-of-the-art home theater in exchange for three or four more “The Empire Strikes Backs” — sticky floors, wobbly projection and all?

The will-they-or-won’t-they guessing game over whether Apple Records will finally cut a deal to sell the Beatles catalog online is particularly illuminating. What, honestly, is everyone waiting for? This is not some well-kept secret or an underexposed treasure; this is the greatest-selling discography in the history of rock music.

Who doesn’t already own these records?

What the industry is counting on, of course, is for everyone to buy them again. For the old to become new.

Is it unrealistic to think we could ever force this genie back into its bottle? Perhaps.

Yet I still get a charge out of the motto of the conservative magazine National Review, first published in 1955, at a time when it looked like the sphere of government was expanding unstoppably. The magazine’s founders said their job was to “Stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop.’ ”

I’m standing athwart the format revolution yelling the same thing.

Come on. Who’s with me?

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