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July 16, 2009

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A Genealogy of Tape

After I followed Robin’s link to the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts, I wondered, “why don’t we have ticker tape parades any more?” Of course, it’s because lower Manhattan isn’t swimming in ticker tape. We’ve got the words (a change in a stock price is still called an uptick or downtick) but the telegraph-and-paper-strip-printing machines are long gone.

On Metafilter, someone asked: “How long will it take to remove the word ‘videotape’ from the collective vocabulary?”

I caught myself yesterday asking somebody if his performance was videotaped. Of course, there is no tape involved in this process any more. Why was that the first phrase that sprang to mind even though “recorded” or “digitally recorded” are the technically accurate terms? How long does it take for language to catch up with technological obsolescence?

The short answer is that it doesn’t. Virtually nothing in language goes away, so long as it’s rooted sufficiently deep - it just restructures itself. Tape is a great example of this. The ticker tape era closed; the magnetic tape era opened. Tape itself went nowhere. Even the meaning of the noun - a thin, flat strip of material - didn’t change. The verb did; “tape” no longer meant “to shower with paper” - that would be “TP” - it means (or meant) to record or to stick. It doesn’t matter what the tape is made from, either. Tape used to just mean “ribbon,” especially a cloth ribbon used to tie clothing or parcels - but that sense is now mostly displaced by tape made of paper, cellophane, and metal.

The great thing about tape is that it shuns whatever qualifiers you want to put on it, and it’s still perfectly clear what it means. Tape is equally adhesive tape, audio tape, video tape, paper tape, surgical tape, the tape at the end of a race. And it always means both the physical strip of tape itself, its container, and its contents, as well as the act of putting the tape into use.

Are there other words that carry the same grammatical structures regardless of their contents? It’s almost like speakers intuitively assume, “well, if ‘tape’ is going to mean a ribbon AND to tie that ribbon, then it HAS to mean the sticky tape AND the act of sticking it, the magnetic tape AND the act of recording to it,” etc. We’re effortlessly swapping contexts all the time.

Claude LÚvi-Strauss called this qualiy of language bricolage - instead of starting from scratch, we fiddle with language, we tinker with it, we make do with the parts we have on hand, like using a key to open a package or a knife to unscrew a screw. Or a piece of duct tape to fix a car. A word like tape can stretch and stick to whatever we need it to.

The great tapes that never became tapes are film reels. Celluloid and acetate film is tape, folks. But celluloid is a product that was derived from an evaporation of the collodion film that was used on glass plates in wet-plate photography. So they called it film, instead.

What’s the future of tape? Will the future find need for long, thin ribbons of material? Will 3M find a way to do away with the strips bearing the adhesive altogether? Are wipes the new tape? I’m not sure. But I’ve got a Beckett play and an 8-Track of Five Leaves Left. I’ll catch you guys in the basement.

Posted July 16, 2009 at 5:30 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Object Culture


I still call my audio book on my iphone "books on tape." It just seems to be the most appropriate term to describe the phenomena. I wonder what, if any, the relation is to Indexicality.

I think it's primarily driven by syntax. "Tape" mostly differs in meaning depending on whether it's used as a verb, a count noun, or a non-count noun. So if it's in a verb position, it mean "fix" or "record." If it's noncount, without an article, then it's a thin strip. If it's a count noun with an article, then it's either the container or the contents.

As for "books on tape," this is a syntactic problem too. It's easier to make adjustments to words if the new word is syntactically similar to the old. The fact that "books on tape" went from a postfix to a prefix notation "audiobook" guarantees that the earlier form is going to stick around. See also "mixtape" vs. "playlist."

Ah, and tape's seeming transparency also makes some of its moves seem inevitable. The magnetic tape era could easily have been the wire era. Does wire have similar linguistic flexibility?

Wire is a pretty impressive word. It's a noncount noun, but it can be used as a count noun just to mean a length of itself, which tape can't do. In the telegraph era, wire can apply to content, meaning a telegraph message - and to wire can be to send a message or (still) to install wire. We talk about "wireless" internet even though hardly anybody refers to an internet cable as a wire.

For my money, though, the best info-tech legacy of "wire" isn't with the word wire itself, but in the word "file." It comes from the wires used to string together loose papers (usually letters, sometimes data), like early paper clips.

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