Discover more from This Too Too Solid Flesh
The 5 core assumptions of the “content” label
As explained through (some very old) video games!
In August 2021, I bought an Analogue Super NT. This device is a hardware clone—a type of machine meant to behave, for convenience’s sake, almost exactly like another (typically much older and difficult to find, use, and/or support) machine. The machine it’s mimicking is the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), a video game console released in 1990.
The SNES is a relic of the age of analog electronics, a time when no one called video games (or anything else) “content.” It can only output video over pre-HDMI connectors such as composite video, plus, its audio sampling frequency (30 KHz), most common video resolution (256x224), and refresh rate (60.09 FPS) are all problematic on modern TVs.
Moreover, SNES games were built to harness the unique qualities of CRT displays. Simply displaying them on a newer LCD panel can’t capture what they’re supposed to look like, because they’re meant to be blended and softened by scan lines while also benefitting from the “truer” blacks of CRTS, which aren’t backlit. With no CRT, they don’t have the right contrast, texture, or color, nor do they take advantage of the super fast response times of CRT monitors compared to LCD ones.
These technical oddities mean you can’t get a smooth, authentic playing experience with a genuine SNES console unless you have it hooked up to a CRT TV, which you probably don’t have lying around in good working condition. An art perfected within the lifetimes of people under 40 now seems as ancient as dinosaur bones.
The Analogue Super NT is an attempt to excavate this art and recreate something close to an original SNES playing experience, using authentic cartridges and peripherals, on modern TVs, as I’ll explain. But it’s a niche product.
The main way that SNES games, like video games more generally, live on is as digital “content,” detached from any particular physical experience or form. In this case, SNES games today are mostly experienced in a space far removed from their original hardware context. They’re emulated and rereleased to be adored as as superficial nostalgic totems— “content”-ized, if you will—whose severe technical and artistic compromises (due to the emulation) show off the core ideology behind the “content” label—an ideology of control, disposability, and rent-seeking on the past.
What’s in the “content” name, anyway?
I’ve defined “content” both in my opening newsletter and on several episodes of the podcast, but to recap, there are five essential assumptions inherent in the “content” label, which now gets applied indiscriminately to anything from paintings to video games; I’m going to focus mainly on the latter in this post:
1. The container and who owns it are what’s most important
Etymologically and practically, “content” implies the existence of a container. Content is contained, and today, that means on a server somewhere. Someone controls the access to that server, and they can decide what stays up and what gets removed.
The purge of shows from HBO Max by its container owner, Discovery, shows the fragility of anything unlucky enough to get branded as “content.”Likewise, the infamous removal of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, at the time a digital-only game, underscored how even beloved games were just a click from oblivion.
Its eventual return was accompanied by a physical release from Limited Run Games, a boutique vendor dedicated to preserving both new and old games on high-quality physical media. The case for enduring physical media has never been stronger, despite (or rather, because of) the ongoing shift to digital distribution in gaming.
That’s because “content” as an ideology resents any work taking any physical form. Physical objects such as DVDs and SNES game cartridges give people more control over what they’re doing than a centrally managed server and digital distribution do. And anyway, “content” isn’t really meant to last—it’s meant to be rapidly distributed and also tightly controlled, and any staying power it has is secondary, which brings us to…
2. These container owners see “content” as disposable and interchangeable
It’s no accident that the shift from physical media to digital distribution has coincided with the surge in usage of the “content” label that inherently indicates disposability.
With SEO content writing, the lack of any physical form is so built-in that we don’t even notice it; no one would ever think to make a throwaway content mill piece like “The 10 Things Every CIO Wants From Their SOC” into a paper pamphlet that could survive for years, instead of a blog post that’ll likely disappear or at least need heavy edits within a year.
Such material is meant to become obsolete and forgotten. Its only purpose along the way is to keep the audience and the content mills themselves on the SEO treadmill. Increasingly, other types of media, including games and movies, are also becoming all-digital, with all that that entails: Easy censorship or outright removal on a whim, hostility to consumers, and the ability to extract ongoing rents, in the form of subscriptions that continually become pricier.
Yet the people making all this money from such centralized “content” don’t assign it any special importance or sentimental value, even if the content’s creators (a different class) do. The HBO Max example is one manifestation of a widespread condition:
For example, most SEO writing is ultimately just grist for the content mill—words are produced under great mental and physical duress, with numerous compromises on quality, and for literal pennies, by writers (who may actually get their egos attached to it) and then published into Google’s no man’s land to maybe get a few hits and then be forgotten about (except for on our podcast).
Likewise, buggy video game DLC (that’s short for downloadable content!—the video game industry was ahead of the curve in adopting "content" lingo) is churned out under the often-awful “crunch” labor conditions of game development and then fated to be ignominiously removed from storefronts or even from the internet-connected machines of people who had purchased them.
This content is interchangeable: Its main purpose is to become a vehicle for advertisements (as on social media or cable TV or even most streaming services now) or for the container itself. In a way, such interchangeability goes all the way back to the origins of TV as a medium, which has been reletenlessly commercial since inception.
However, modern “content” is delivered at much greater scale and volume than anyone could’ve envisioned during the Ovaltine era. The existence of algorithms that can sift through millions of items and force them on you is one of the key differentiators here.
3. Algorithmic sorting determines the shape of the contained “content”
Everything you search for on Google, Facebook, or any other massive content aggregator, including gaming-centric ones such as Xbox Game Pass, is the product of algorithms deciding what is and isn’t “relevant.” Although you may feel like you’re discovering things with a useful tool (e.g., a well-designed search engine), in reality you’re the tool.
That is, you adjust your behavior to how the algorithm works, all while the algorithm itself is gathering information on how people like you search and then using that toward the goal of turning everything into a calculable process.The algorithm is learning more about you than you are from it, and it's pushing you down paths that it has pre-defined for you.
By the way, the Game Pass slogan is “Discover your next favorite game.” But is it really your favorite game? Or just the “content” that a powerful container owner (in this case, Microsoft) has ensured gets in front of you?
Let me put it away: Anything called “content” is being labeled as such under the assumption that it can be easily flattened into 1s and 0s, sorted and retrieved digitally, and rapidly monetized.
If it’s not digitally native, such an old film or an SNES game, then this content-ization process can be awkward, due to anything from complicated rights to technical performance. Note, respectively, the lack of classic movies on Netflix and the inaccuracy of many video game emulators, which can struggle to reproduce the exact look and feel of an old game despite having modern hardware to work with. But content-ization gets attempted anyway.
4. This “content” has to “work”
“Content” is a commercial concept, and a labor-intensive one at that. It needs to pay off for the container owner, and that means, above all else, generating sufficient volume (“scale” if you’re more of a techie). Any given piece of “content” is unlikely to find a major audience, so it has to work as part of a larger set of content:
Streaming services are built to overwhelm. You could never watch every single show on Netflix, and you’re not expected to. Many Netflix original shows have abysmal viewership. But the sheer presence of so many options is the draw. If one leaves the platform, it shouldn’t matter (though in reality, people do notice when, say, The Office departs Netflix). The flip side of this strategy is that content creators are under immense pressure to churn out tons of material, even when they know that no one is likely to see any of it. Getting it Out There and keeping the choice charade up, rather than having it actually appreciated, is what’s important.
SEO content mills similarly saddle their writers with impossible workloads of 2,000 to 4,000 words per day. Most of these articles won’t be read by even a single human, but in the aggregate they might generate enough traffic that they let content mills point to what look like pivotal shifts in analytics (e.g., site traffic) when trying to land or re-sign their clients.
For individuals, content creation is inherently stressful. Everything is done under the burden of wondering if it’ll “work,” whether that means resonating with a fickle content mill client or showing acceptable marks in the right analytics. Breaking through can feel like such an arbitrary process that the content creator is left to simply churn out as much as they can in the hopes that something’ll stick.
5. “Content” assumes there’s nothing new to be invented
In his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, the late Mark Fisher riffs at length on Children of Men, the 2006 film by Alphonso Cuarón. In it, old “classic” artworks such as Picasso’s Guernica are hoarded by the elite in a safe place amid a society-wide crisis of sterility. Fisher interprets Children of Men as saying that the end times have already arrived and there is no future, a state of affairs seen most clearly in how the elite turn everything into empty “content.”
The fate of Picasso’s Guernica in the film—once a how of anguish and outrage against Fascist atrocities, now a wall-hanging—is exemplary. Like its Battersea hanging space in the film, the painting is accorded ‘iconic’ status only when it is deprived of any possible function or context. No cultural object can retain its power when there are no longer new eyes to see it.”
He also unearths T.S. Eliot’s argument that this type of foreclosure of the possibility of anything new also destroys the past, because no one can engage with it anymore:
The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new. Eliot’s claim was that the exhaustion of the future doesn’t even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified.
Content mills are very much in the business of exhausting the future.
At the level of SEO writing, overworked writers are expected mostly to rehash press releases and existing articles. My entire time at an SEO content mill was repeating this task 5+ times every day, 5 days a week. The constraints of time and the burden of volume leave you no room to inject anything new—you can’t take the time needed to do original research or interview anyone. You can only weakly emulate what a journalist does, by crafting an article that has some statistics in it, maybe a quote or two, and seemingly knowledgeable statements about abstract concepts such as “private cloud.” You have to regurgitate what’s already accepted as gospel.
At the level of mass media, the likes of Netflix, Disney, Nintendo, and Microsoft all make most of their money from milking their own existing intellectual property (IP) or commissioning an adaptation of someone else’s well-known “iconic” IP.
Fisher also covers this rehash trend near the end of Capitalist Realism (emphasis mine), noting:
The inter passive simulation of participation in postmodern media, the network of narcissism of MySpace and Facebook, has, in the main, generated content that is receptive, parasitic, and conformist. In a seeming irony, the media class’s refusal to be paternalistic has not produced a bottom-up culture of breathtaking diversity, but one that is increasingly infantilized. By contrast, it is paternalistic culture that treat audiences as adults, assuming that they can cope with cultural products that are complex and intellectually demanding. The reason that focus groups and capitalist feedback system fail, even when they generate commodities that are immensely popular, is that people do not know what they want.
Imagine going back to 1983 and being like “We know exactly what American gamers want: cartoon Italian plumbers jumping onto turtles while chip tune music plays from a machine made in Japan.” You’d had sounded like a madman. People didn’t know they wanted that! But now that they do know that, it’s hard for IP holders like Nintendo to break the habit of simply serving and re-serving it to them, until some day it stops working. The temptation to content-ize everything by recycling it and overwhelming people with it is irresistible.
This principle of how the entire notion of “content” involves clinging to and monetizing the past may seem like it’s in conflict with the second one, above, about how all “content” is almost immediately disposable. However, “content” today has a become so disposable precisely because the pre-“content” past is too lucrative and durable to be dislodged by anything new.
Consider how almost all dominant mass cultural properties such as Super Mario Brothers, all significant Marvel Comics characters, A Song of Fire and Ice, and The Lord of the Rings are from many decades ago, when writers, artists, and designers had the tailwind of what Fisher called a “paternalistic culture” (to really understand this term, think of how everyone used to watch the same three of four channels on TV in the US, a phenomenon known as 90s monoculture) to engrain their work into cultural consciousness. Now no one has that, so almost nothing can break through, and we’re stuck with the oldies.
Ever think of why Marvel didn’t just invent a new Asian superhero and instead brought back an old character (Shang-Chi) from the 1970s? The totems of bygone cultural eras ironically live on in the age of “content” because they, unlike “content,” were built to last and can, ironically, better withstand the destructive tendencies of the content-ization process.
Video games and content-ization
Video games have become more content-ized in these ways. Overall, the goal for many gaming platform owners now is to create the "Netflix of gaming,” and so you can see that games are becoming something that you:
Discover through search algorithms in online storefronts or platforms.
Pay a centralized gatekeeper multiple times for, even though for something that might disappear at any moment, in contrast to the older business model of paying once for a physical copy that you then owned in perpetuity.
Already know a lot about, either because they’re remakes or entries in a long-running franchise such as Mario or Call of Duty.
Might need to “work” at yourself, by buying DLC or cosmetic upgrades, or “grinding” for hours to get your character up to a certain level.
May lose access to instantly due to unsubscribing or the content platform owner removing the titles.
In fact, the same company, Nintendo, whose products epitomized the highly physical, distinctly analog pre-“content” era of video gaming—the SNES with its big, bulky cartridges that Limited Run Games loves to reproduce—has been instrumental to this content-ization shift.
In the 1990s, the video game industry pioneered DLC, a term for extra levels, characters, add-ons, and so on that can be purchased separately from a corresponding main game—and Nintendo was earlier to DLC than any of its competitors.
The SNES was the first console to have DLC, in the form of the Satellaview, a Japan-only peripheral released in 1995 (!). The Satellaview could download games, many of which were remakes of existing games or continuations of a existing franchises, underscoring how even in the earliest days of video game “content,” the urge to recycle the past became irresistible after distribution was centralized and user control diminished.
Unsurprisingly, many of these titles are now lost to time because they were never released physically. Meanwhile, Nintendo itself continues to mint money by re-releasing “classic” games and drawing upon its large IP library.
Nintendo offers select SNES games as part of its Nintendo Switch Online service, yet another subscription service that embodies the content-ization of gaming by playing the greatest hits. Nintendo Switch Online is an even better example of video game content-ization than Game Pass, because it also relies heavily on emulation, a practice that in the context of video games tries to venerate the past but ends up tarnishing it, while also sapping the future of possibility by turning that past into something “iconic” that we don’t really engage with, so much as involuntarily consume in greatly compromised form.
Emulation, content, and cartridges
If you aren’t familiar with the concept, emulation allows software to run on a system other than the one it was originally designed for. The growth of emulators in the 2000s led to vast centralized (and ad-laden) online repositories of “ROMs,” essentially full games that you could download and run on any PC or Macwith an emulator installed.
Emulation is not exclusive to video games, but video games are perhaps its most famous use case. IP holders hated emulation in its early days, with Nintendo suing some ROM distributors. But the conflict became a "if you can't beat 'em,' join 'em" scenario, and now Nintendo in particular, as well as Sega and Microsoft, love to release emulated games.
By its nature, emulation introduces latency as well as inaccuracy. Emulation is to video games as SEO content is to writing: It superficially seems like the same thing, but it’s actually far removed, with none of the particular time-and-place care given to an original. It can also make certain games unplayable if they had required super-fast reflexes—it’s hard to be fast when emulation causes input lag. You’re never getting the exact original experience, and content platform owners are betting that you don’t care, in the same way that content mills bet that you don't care that SEO articles are word salads written for machines to gnaw on.
For example, SNES graphics that relied on mid-scan line raster effects of a CRT TV are resource-intensive to imitate within software.Some emulators also mess up the animation speeds of certain in-game sequences, due to vast differences in speed between today’s CPUs and the SNES’s humble processor.
In contrast, the Analogue Super NT is all about accuracy. Its CPU is designed to behave exactly like that Ricoh 5A22 chip inside the SNES, meaning it even slows down at the exact same spots in SNES games, such as moments when there’s a gazillion objects on screen. It doesn’t use any software emulation— instead, it natively runs the original SNES cartridges in its slot. It also has its own digital-to-analog converter for connecting to a CRT TV.
The upshot of this bold design is that the Super NT is only for people who have extensive collections of original SNES games. Unlike the passive content consumption inherent in almost all emulation, getting anything out of the Super NT requires effort: Owning carts, keeping them clean, tweaking settings, and so on. There’s nothing to download or stream and no ads to watch. Like the SNES itself, the Super NT is a “content”-free zone.
It’s built not merely to commemorate an “iconic” console and game library from the pre-“content” times, but also to let people re-engage with this past by experiencing it as close as possible to the way it was while also taking advantage of modern conveniences like 1080p video output. Like I said, it’s niche—but it gives me hope for a world beyond “content,” a world attuned to the particularities of specific art forms (instead of eager to grind them all into “content” gruel) and to physical things that endure.
This phenomenon is well-summarized in the essay The concept of algorithm as an interpretative key of modern rationality. Key excerpt: “The bureaucratic algorithm, on the contrary, does not generate an external problem, but one that is intrinsic to the very logic of organizations based upon it. The encapsulation of individuals within algorithmic steps is implicit in the concept of bureaucracy. Thus, in this case the algorithm is the cause of the problem, and hence cannot be its solution. Human beings cannot use the bureaucratic algorithm to solve the problem because it is they who are the tools of the algorithm, not vice versa.”
Given how much money Netflix loses and its ongoing struggles to modernize its business, one has to think that becoming “like Netflix” is first and foremost an ideological, not a monetary, goal.
Over time, Macs have become more hostile to game emulation due to restrictions on what software macOS can run, as well as changes in Mac chip architecture, most recently from x86 to ARM.
Regularly cleaning the gold contacts on a SNES cart is a must. I recommend Barkeeper’s Friend, isopropyl alcohol, and Q-Tips. You’ll also need a special screwdriver bit to open the cart, and plastic tweezers to remove the circuit boards. See? It’s very involved!
The carts in my picture are all at least 25 years old.