The Moviefone Syndrome

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1999

Blame us “early adopters.” We’re the ones who enjoy using new technologies before they hit the mainstream.. But, in doing so, we end up turning something fun into something mandatory. And then it just isn’t any fun anymore. In fact, it’s downright debilitating.

Take Moviephone. Great idea. In return for listening to a brief advertisement we were granted the free service of finding out when and where any movie might be playing. When it started, Moviephone was an information-only technology. Eventually, over time, the service was extended to include a ticket-buying feature: for a buck or two per person, callers could actually buy their tickets in advance with a Touchtone phone.

At the time – and I know this will be hard for us to remember – buying one’s seats in advance made very little sense. It locked moviegoers into their decisions, and cost more money. The airlines give reduced fare prices to those who purchase their tickets far in advance. Why should movies cost us more?

But, mostly out of a sense of ego rather than convenience, early adopters proudly spent the money in order to impress their dates by circumventing the ticker buyers’ line at the movie. (Of course the real line at a movie theater is never the ticket buyers’ line, it’s the ticket holders’ line. But it’s not true convenience the service offers – just an illusion.)

What happened next is a classic example of the laws of “network externalities” that the techno-utopian new economists love to talk about. As more and more people began to use the Moviephone service, those who refused to use it began to miss out. How many of you remember showing up at a movie with a date, perhaps over an hour before show time, only to learn that it was already sold out? They were sold out in advance, courtesy of Moviephone.

As a result, today it is a sorry New Yorker who waits until he gets to a movie theater to buy his tickets. We already pay $9.50 to see a movie in Manhattan – and we now pay another $1.50 each on top of that in order to guarantee getting in at all.

This is not because Moviephone provides a more democratic method of ticket distribution, or even because movies are so crowded. It’s because we have succumbed to an expensive and automated ticket selling system that favors the rich and unspontaneous. Movies are now more expensive and less available. What a treat! And all thanks to technology.

(Let’s not even get into the social cost. We won’t consider the way these developments change the urban landscape, sacrifice the luxury of an evening stroll, and reduce a “date” to a extraordinarily budgeted set of reservations and computer-assisted negotiations. I got my tickets and dinner reservations for Eyes Wide Shut almost a week in advance. That will only depress us.)

The Moviephone Syndrome is the process by which a fun, interesting, or convenient technology – once adopted by a critical mass of customers – becomes mandatory and imprisoning, ultimately reducing the quality of the experience it was designed to enhance. The reason I call Moviephone and its online brethren “coercive” is because this process is a calculated assault, well-evidenced by the business plans of the companies involved.

The Internet only exacerbates the problem. As plane tickets, recorded music, restaurant reservations and other “luxury” items are brokered online instead of in physical space, only those with Internet connections and the proper browsers will be able to purchase them – at least at the best price. Those who haven’t spent the money on the latest Java-equipped-secure-transaction browser will have to trek to the nearest ticket counter, bookstore, or bodega, and purchase their vacation, novel, and, ultimately, even milk, at a much greater cost.

Why? Because those who want the “convenience” of simply walking into a store and getting what they want, when they want it, will be the ones paying for the luxury of not doing their transactions online. Unfortunately, it will most likely be the poorest and thus latest adopters among us who are asked to bear this cost.