Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shelf Space

My last post was about how all the tiny factors in an experience make a difference, even if their individual contributions do not amount to much. This post is about a concern I have.

At one time you had to be part of the elite aristocracy to hear innovative music, or you could hear the old, folksy favorites if you knew someone who was good enough at singing with a few pints in him.

Later in time you just had to have access to a radio and/or enough money to purchase a record; of course obscure recordings could be hard to find and it's perfectly possible that you could hear a song once or twice and then lose it for the rest of your life. There was a time when you could really be proud of your music collection, who knows how hard it was for you to find some of those recordings?

Then it became a matter of buying CDs, listening to the radio, and watching MTV. You could record the music videos, you could order CDs through the mail, or you could just go to the store and buy whatever music you happened to like. If it was obscure, sure, it was still hard to get ahold of, but for the most part you had as much music as you could afford.

At this point, you do not even need to be able to afford it. If you go about things legally you can probably find whatever song you like on YouTube, and if you're willing to bend rules you can freely download pretty much any song you hear and like. In the past you have album jackets and CD cases, now all you have is data. Free data. Data that can be acquired in between texting. Even if its secured legally, it's still just data. You don't have a shelf in your room getting cluttered with band logos from the edges of jewel cases.

Books are a more controversial case of the same phenomenon. For me, I love my cheap Craig tablet that lets me carry a small library with me wherever I go. And yet, I never turn and look at a bookcase covered in books that tell people what ideas or emotions I'm attracted to, I don't experience a variety of fonts, paper textures, cover thicknesses, degrading book stiffness, and I can't act proud that I display epic poetry (perhaps read, perhaps not) in my room. It's all been flattened down to a cover image and the text. Data.

The book reading community has some who want to fight this trend. They will lose. Books will become antiques and novelties. Data is just better. There is no real argument to be made against them: authors write content that you want to read, now the paper, the printing, and the ink industry are rendered superfluous and can be removed from the situation. The only argument against them stems from the point I was making in my last post that all the little factors count: reading a book will be different now than it was before, because it was never just about reading text, there was always a little more to it.

The central assumption behind the superiority of data over traditional publishing means is that it delivers what we want with less superfluous trappings that used to be necessary. That makes it easier to produce and cheaper to consume. And this assumption will be seen as correct, and in a lot of ways it does correctly describe how we see those “superfluous trappings.” And yet, I think that our lives will get a little flatter. Our lives will be a little less full without cover art and CD cases cluttering up our rooms.

I'm not saying we should turn around, we shouldn't. I'm not saying maybe we will reconsider this transition our society is taking – we won't and we shouldn't. What I am saying is that while we're gaining cheaper goods, more storage space, and cleaning lives we are losing artistic content and we are changing the essential experience of purchasing books and music in a way that makes the experiences more anemic. Our lives are getting a little smaller – maybe that means we should find a very rich way to use that new shelf space?

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