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My Sunday Column: RIP Blockbuster — and Human Connectivity: Who Needs People in a Virtual World

Dish Network, its shares up 50% since March, soared to new highs on Wednesday just hours before its Blockbuster employees were showing up for work in the middle of the night for the opening day of the liquidation sale of DVDs and video games in the last 500 of what once was a 9,000-store chain.

It was the end of an era that began 30 years ago.

Video stores like chain book and music stores before them are victims of the Internet virus — Sam Goody, Tower, Glendale-based Licorice Pizza, Virgin Megastores, Wherehouse, Borders, Crown Books, Walton Books, B. Dalton… the list goes on and on and the job losses are staggering.

Where have all those people gone? Are they working in the warehouses of Amazon — the most destructive company that ever existed because it prefers to eliminate all competition and avoid taxation by never making much of a profit at least until the day comes when there is nowhere else to turn?

Are we, the consumers, so averse to being among other people, of going out and about, that we have become agoraphobic or maybe just so lazy?

You would never have guessed that at 10 a.m. Thursday at Blockbuster’s “flagship” store in the San Fernando Valley, there would be a mob scene of more than 100 customers scooping up handfuls of used DVDs at a 33% discount and used video games reduced 10% or cover inserts for 20 cents each or anything else that was portable from TVs to display cases.

As he rang up sales and clambered up and down an aluminum ladder to remove equipment hanging from the ceiling, the manager of my local Blockbuster was his usual cheery self, unfazed by getting his dismissal notice in an email, unfazed by being at work since 3 a.m. to get his store ready.

“Pride,” Robert Sprout said, “That’s what makes this store so special, why we survived right up to the end.”

After a pause, he added: “And it’s fun….Wasn’t it Sir Isaac Newton who said, ‘If you love your job you never work a day in your life.’ It’s that way for me.”

Actually it was Confucius, but why quibble. The point was well taken. Sprout loved his job, and created an atmosphere in his well-run store that made it fun. He greeted customers, offered his opinion on movies, asked what movies they liked lately.

It isn’t quite the same on Netflix, which suggests you watch movies based on algorithms of what you picked in the past, not on an open-ended conversation that might lead somewhere unexpected. We are dehumanized by our lack of human contact, by our willingness to respond to our computer-determined definitions of who we are as if we were incapable of change and growth.

Sprout loved his job so much, loved the movies so much, loved talking movies with customers, that he worked for Blockbuster for a dozen years, the last 14 months as manager of the Topanga Canyon store in Chatsworth.

“How about a fridge for your man cave, $50,” he suggested to one customer.

“Would you like any popcorn? It’s a dollar now,” he told another.

The customer responds, “We’re sad you guys are going.”

Then he said a few minutes later, “It’s like losing a thousand friends.”

Sprout got the bad news in an email a week ago like the managers of the other remaining stores. He has eight weeks to finish the job of closing the store. Then, he is going to drive to Iowa, visit his grandmother, “have time to watch all the movies I haven’t watched” — and figure out what to do with the rest of his life like thousands of others who will be looking for work when there aren’t very many jobs.

The genie is out of the bottle. The Internet, globalization and so many political, economic and other factors have changed the world we live in and we, in our self-indulgence and narcissism, are active participants in feeding trends that are as toxic to our futures as the greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere and the poisons we spew into our waters.

America doesn’t create wealth anymore; we consume. And the disparity between rich and poor grows and the middle class shrinks and we are as indifferent to the plight of others as Marie Antoinette was before she was beheaded.

Yet, there still are odd enclaves that survive the trends even in video rental, businesses like Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee on Vineland in North Hollywood, where 100,000 movies in DVD and VHS formats are available, many of them available nowhere else.

Brandt, a legendary Hollywood figure, died in 2011 at age 90 and the shop has been run successfully by Alex Van Dyne for the past five years.

“We survive because we deal with the old films, all the way back to the beginning of cinema,” Van Dyne said. “We deal with the films people can’t get ahold of, the old movies that people want. That’s our customer base.”

He sheds no tears for the death of the video chain: “The future of rentals is online. That was determined years ago. It was bound to happen, just a matter of time, the path of least resistance. Why get in your car when you can just download something to watch at home. It’s the way things are.”


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28 Responses to My Sunday Column: RIP Blockbuster — and Human Connectivity: Who Needs People in a Virtual World

  1. wayne from encino says:

    Ha ha ha! See Ron where progressivism ends? In a sea of illiterate isolation and poverty

  2. Rick says:

    Ron – Thank you for pointing out the loss of human connection from the loss of the video store but I agree that the ability to download movies has other benefits like taking more vehicle trips to video stores off our streets. However, the broader issue of the lack of market restrains on the owners of mega businesses is a real issue lurking here.

    Wayne’s comment that this is a result of progressivism is wrong-headed. It seems like he is your Tea-Party Greek Chorus on this blog.

    Unrestrained capitalism is eating our democracy alive, Wayne, not progressivism. Robert Reich’s documentary “Inequality for All” was in local theatres putting this story together. He worries our fundamental political institutions are at risk of falling apart because the inequality in income enables the very rich to afford lobbyists and campaign contributions that buy our “political prostitutes” (Governor, Senate, Assembly, County Supervisors, Mayor, City Council, State Courts, Neighborhood Council, Non-profits that are political).

    In January, people can organize house parties to show this film to friends. I am organizing one to help spread the word because this film helps frame this issue and many other appalling derelictions of duty by our beloved set of “political prostitutes” that now only dance for the super rich. Amazon, Walmart, Target and others with billionaire owners are perverting the marketplace that government is supposed to set fair rules in which to operate and enforce them. Instead, the “political prostitute” class is bought to rig the rules and not enforce them for the rich and our country continues a death spiral.

    Many of your recent stories illustrate this issue which seems to lurk in the background. Broad changes in the political institutions of this country are at risk — not because of some paranoid concept of a Tri-Lateral Commission as some once argued. But by super rich people using money and lobbyists to relentless rig the system to divert more and more wealth and income to a smaller and smaller number of people. I fear the day of citizen revolt when the people finally figure out how really screwed they are.

  3. H wood says:

    I suggest that we learn from the past, and the lesson which I draw is that one has to build a life in the future. Who is the make the future? Greedy crooks like Garcetti and his friends whose sole goal is to loot the public treasury?

    By default, Garcetti and his cronies are bringing a a future like Biff created in Back to the Future II, and most Angelenos are Marty McFlys. Ooops, no we aren’t. The young Marty Mcfly fought back, while his dad just succumbed to whatever Biff Garcetti wanted. Angelenos are like his loser Dad, and they download back to the Future II from NetFlicks to see the type Hill Valley that Biff created.

    Our economic future should lie in Virtual Presence technology (Cisco’s TelePresence), but Angelenos can only envision manufacturing based on yesteryear. Garcetti is a gazillion percent opposed to Virtual Presence as it ends the reign of the high rises and shows how obsolete subways have become. With Virtual Presence, people will want larger homes with more open space. When the family spends more time at home, they need more space. Garcetti will talk about technology and kill any move towards Virtual Presence. Virtual Presence is the enemy of Garcetti’s Manhattanization plans.

    By the City’s own 1993 study, just Telecommuting would reduce freeway traffic by 30% and the need for high rises by 30%. Two decades later, Virtual Presence is for the entire family — not just Mom’s and Dad’s commute to work.

    FIRST — let’s not hear any nonsense about Virtual Presence forcing people to be home 100% of the time.

    SECOND — Virtual Presence is primarily a form of transportation.

    There are many things we do every day which require only our Virtual Presence and which can be done better Virtually.

    THIRD — the key to Virtual Presence is Going BIG!

    Presently, we are fixated on small devices which travel with us, but Virtual Presence is based on devices which are extremely large — video walls in our homes. A video monitor which is life size or greater has many advantages.

    (1) Freedom to Move Around:

    Due to cameras which can follow you around the room and audio which can pick you voice from anywhere in the room, you will no longer be tied to a seat in front of a monitor. When you want to see the other person(s), you just glance up at the video screen — which is no different than you do when you are with some one in the same room.

    (2) World Wide at the Speed of Light

    Whether you are watching a college lecture at UCLA or shopping at a French boutique in Paris, everything is available at the speed of light. Everything attached to Virtual Presence becomes equi-distant. We already know that distance is measured in minutes, not miles. What subway can take you to Paris, Santa Monica, or Sydney in a second?

    (3) Multi Travelers:

    Virtual Presence allows many people who are in different locations to be together virtually.

    (A) A business man in Simi Valley can have Virtual Presence meeting with his designer in Paris, his manufacturer in Hong Kong, his supplier in Singapore, his distributor in San Pedro, and his attorney in Glendale, and they can all see and hear each other simultaneously. Documents can be transmitted via high speed PDFer.

    (B) A mother in Woodland Hills can go shopping for a bridal gown with her youngest daughter in Milan and her eldest daughter in London can join them in the Virtual Store. We’d use avatars. The stores would allow for virtual fittings and for avatars to take merchandize in hand, turn it over, examine it closely and converse with a virtual or human sales person. Worldwide shipping will become a much larger business due to the ability to shop anywhere with equal ease.

    (C) The son can attend his USC biology lecture at 9:00 a.m. and then later physically go to school for smaller class sessions. With no traffic congestion, freeways and surface streets will flow smoothly — PROVIDED we stop this mad rush towards excessive densification.

    The Corruption of Densification:

    Garcetti and his cronies, however, have all their investment in late 19th and early 20th century technology. They want more fixed rail transit which will consume billions of tax dollars and subways will not be 1/1,000,000,000,000 as productive as Virtual Presence.

    They want to cram more and more Angelenos into prison cells in the sky because TODs make money for developers. The more people per square inch, the more their land is worth. That’s the plan behind TODs — build as much as possible on as little land as possible in order to make a very few people as wealthy as possible.

    While council president, Garcetti with the help of Tony V and the other council members brought LA to insolvency. We were financially saved by Gov. Brown’s abolition of the CRA which would have devoured $300 Million in tax dollars by 2013. However, garcetti is committed to spending the same amount of money each year on the developers as the CRA would have spent and to gutting Prop 13 with the help of State Sen. Darrel Steinberg in order to get his hands on more cash for his developer buddies and to revive the NFL stadium, but there will not be one cent for Virtual Presence.

    We can see the two possible futures in front of us.

    • LA Moderator says:

      Wow…you’re sure a big fan of Cisco’s kit…my company’s job-sites have had rooms set up with this for years, though most often when I used it for a ‘holodeck’ meeting, it was a glorified screenshare – we moved from LiveMeeting to WebEx recently ourselves…but I get your drift.

      Interesting that you sought to diffuse they ‘home-bound’ objection first thing…I think that sometimes, “Being There” is important too, sometimes. Particularly as Agile Develmopment calls for daily scrums. Incrediously, while we had been strongly encouraged to consider the work-from-home/vpn option, they’re now starting to make things less flexible.

      I think there needs to be a healty balance…and certainly planning and infrastucture should take into account technological solutions such as this. But the question is whom should be tasked with building and overseeing the core infrastructure. We’ve heard that much of our street failures aren’t pot-holes per se, but too often failed patches from utilities, whose projects are never tracked sufficiently by the city, so as to enforce accountability for later repairs…that’s much of the backlog that the ‘Save Our Streets’ will be asking us to ante up for. Bob Blumenfield is already pushing an initiative to radiate the city with WiFi…is that someting a municipality should be building, or brokering? Maybe they should start with being more tele-transparent in their deliberations…particularly as they decide who gets the contracts for the next great boondoggle.

      Other than that, I can see how some people may be a tad concerned with the potential creep of Big Brother into our homes – your glowing wall desription above reminds me of the staging Fahrenheit 451 I saw in South Pasadena I saw a while back….

  4. wayne from encino says:

    Vote out every liberal from office first! Then scoop out the rinos. Then we can begin.

    • ex valley says:

      Wayne, you are joking around surely. This is LA– no incumbent ever gets voted out. It does not matter how useless they are (sherman is a good example) or how dumb (Janice hahn) or how corrupt (Maxine waters is a prime example ).
      You think garcetti will have any difficulty getting re-elected.
      And yes how about your two illustrious senators? It does seem that it’s more probable that Feinstein will kick the bucket in her office than being voted out.

  5. wayne from encino says:

    Good points! Difi will be mummified and Still reelected.

  6. LA Moderator says:

    I blame it on the talkies! Before that, while you didn’t have live theater, at least there was a small band or organist on site….

    Seriously though, even movie theaters are a shared cultural event. As a musician who plays live a lot, sometimes in a pit orchestera (Come see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Simi through December 1!), I don’t mind the revenue stream from a small run self-produced cd’s, but nothing beats having an audience to interact with.

    My wife was certainly more prolific with buying/renting videos…and collecting CD’s for that matter, she worked for Hilburn at the Times for a while, so it went with the territory. Maybe I was just naturally cheap…er, thrifty…finding plenty to watch real time if I needed to be glued to a screen.

    Or maybe…instead of getting sucked into a virtual entertainment, store-bought or downloaded, I prefer to practice/perform my own gigs…or spend my time at public meetings, trying to create community and keep this city from deteriorating further!

  7. wayne from encino says:

    Communists win 2jobbobs old assembly seat! Valley voters are brain-challenged fools

  8. anonymous says:

    Considering gridlock and all the frustrations of today’s sardine packed cities Van Dyne hit it on the nail. Add to that the high fees and taxation on top of taxation and people are just trying to get a better deal where they can in the fewer and fewer hours of free time they have.

    We’ve become less than human alter egos at our keyboards, invisible enough to bully online in one minute and dash to the ‘fridge another. Add a couple of hours on the phone and some may see that as socializing. In a way it is, at least nowadays.
    So, really, Amazon responded to an ever evolving way of living. Or, more to the point, an ever “de-volving” way of life. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

    • El Quixotian says:

      So what does it mean that pundits are setting Amazon on the gold standard for Obamacare portal design…will we be using Cisco for our exams…to see if we ‘qualify’ (make sure you admit owning guns, because that’s a ‘risk’ factor), and set up a ‘wish list’ for the queue for procedures? Will doctors be evaluated by survey monkey for their screen-side manner?

  9. wayne from encino says:

    Re 45th assembly seat: communist debabneh down to 220 vote lead over Shelley. Next the 11000 absentees are counted. La county does the count

    • El Quixotian says:

      Oooh…keep us posted!

      She should make up the ground!

      • ex valley says:

        Wow. She was outspent 10 to 1.
        But only 10% of your valley idiots bothered to vote.
        You deserve another sherman protege in sac.
        You know he will win, don’t you?

        • El Quixotian says:

          Well, the question is, did she do so well because she’s a ‘moderate’ Republican (pro-choice) who oddly defied the norm and switched FROM the ruling party?

          Or might she have done just a tad better had she not gotten the local GOP ‘machine’ behind her earlier?

          • ex valley says:

            You people are always looking for a perfect candidate. Good luck. Meanwhile just checked the daily news site and the sherman protege has won.

            Congratulations on keeping the super majority intact. It is always better to have one party control everything, isn’t it?

          • El Quixotian says:

            That’s the point Ex…they were splitting the vote in the Primary…

  10. wayne from encino says:

    I demand 10 recounts! I also demand all mail in ballots cast by deceased and illegals be tossed out(for once)! Shelley however is too human to send to Sacramento so well have slavery in CA!

    • ex valley says:

      Not going to happen. You need major moolah for a recount. Of course if the tables were reversed and she was a democrat , then of course a recount would be demanded. It’d be cries of sexism and ” war on women “.
      But she being a repubkican – no biggie. What is most important is to maintain the ruling party power through supermajority.

  11. wayne from encino says:

    Brown might not run! A poll found 67% of all fools didn’t want him back. We might be

    • ex valley says:

      Don’t get too excited. The party central committee probably decided to clear way for somebody younger like newsome. Or they may want to run Villar to generate excitement in the majority minority and get them to the polls.

      • anonymous says:

        I heard Brown does plan to run and is a “slam dunk.” My guess is, if he doesn’t run, Harris would be the next in line and likely to win.

        And I sure hope the disgusting Tony V doesn’t run. If he does, I hope he is embarrassed with a well deserved defeat. The man is so disgusting, I forgot how much he made my skin crawl until I saw a picture of him recently.

  12. wayne from encino says:

    If villar runs well have a Republican gov!

  13. ex valley says:

    When Villar runs for a higher office (and he will, don’t have any illusions there), ask him about BYD

    Ask him how much of that green has lined up his pockets.
    Hey, Ron , how about doing real investigative journolism?

  14. wayne from encino says:

    Our new mayor is a fool! he’s going to move his clan to that Getty house after the taxpayers get hosed for a full redo .of that mansion! then he may alsohave a house guest who may be an “acquaintance!” John Walsh on hisbloghas the goods on rhis blog has

  15. wayne from encino says:

    Yep! Garcetti has a friend! Read how sister got a big commission appointment for this guy. Then look up l.a. city land trust and see how the friend gets paid city and other jobs working on stupid urban parks. Garcettis wife also got involved in the parks deal.

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