Monday, March 26, 2012

The Death of Stuff

I'm in a weird space these days (no, NOT because of the medication). The music industry has decided to end the standard CD format by the end of 2012, except in cases of special editions, box sets, etc. Amazon and iTunes and others will provide us with all the digital downloads we can eat. More and more films are being released in 3D format, and we're being charged extra for the regular ones to offset the cost of showing the 3D ones (even though Walter Murch has essentially made fun of us dumb humans for even thinking our brains and eyeballs can properly process 3D movies as the technology currently works). I've even seen "3D-ready" stereo receivers. 3D-ready? It's just an HDMI cable, and the other one has the same cables. Different circuitry? Different cable? (actually, yes, but why bother?) Does Monster charge a premium on 3D HDMI cables over regular HDMI cables?

(answer: yes, they probably do - it's the Monster Cable way)

To add insult to injury, it appears Apple is both allowing Blu-Ray movies to be produced in their new version of Final Cut (the software the Coens and the aforementioned Murch like to edit in), but not incorporating the same functionality that they'd previously had for mastering regular DVDs. Steve Jobs was dead set against physical manifestations of digital creativity in a lot of ways (except in Apple's overpriced hardware*) - he was trying to create a world in which the creator could conveniently distribute his/her creations via the interwebs without the necessity of people buying pieces of stuff, like CDs, or DVDs, etc. And there's that whole printed page, thing, as well.

While I deplore the hyperconsumption of our society, and I realize that resources are finite, does anyone else here really believe that a download of the White Album sounds better than the LP? Or watching a movie on your iPhone is as good as going to the movies? Or that staring into the anemic screen of a Nook is somehow an improvement over the physical appearance of the etchings of Gustave Dore?

I know, call me a curmudgeon.

On top of all that, we have the DMCA, ACTA, SOPA, and other Acts that will compromise our ability to use the power of the Internet through corporate fiat. Walt Disney films are now copyrighted out to 75 years after the death of the rights' holder (and when do corporations die anymore). So, when you can't buy the CD or the DVD anymore, and the rights' holders can turn off your connection if they even so much as suspect you've bootlegged something, where does that leave parody? What if you release something on your own, through your own website, and the big labels or studios have the right to turn off your connection by saying they "suspect" you're doing something with their material, and they don't even have to show cause, or ask a judge?

I find myself in a quandary. I like the idea of having the physical book or LP or CD or DVD or whatever form of media it is, even if I can't rip it for myself. I'm downloading the content into my brain anyway. And I own too much stuff, like a lot of people my age. I love the idea of kids having their textbooks on iPads, and not having to go to a chiropractor at twelve when their book bag is heavier than they are. A balance is necessary in all of this, and I feel like the tipping point is already past. Sure, I'll be able to get previously owned copies of books for a while. I might even be able to get small press books whenever I get down to Powell's in Portland (assuming they're still in business).

I HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF. Talk about your stuff owning you, we had thirty or more boxes of books when we last moved, and it hasn't gotten better, I can tell you. I've also inherited my parents' record collections, and they began in the 1940s, buying albums when they really were albums of records. (having the original 78 of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" would be awesome, except I can't play 78s on any turntable I own) But I wouldn't give up these things. They're history, my history, my parents' history, my family's history. When my Dad passed away, I think my brother got the Encyclopedia Britannica. I got the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) with the supplement and the magnifying glass. In England, they joke about the probability that if all the books were taken away, heating bills would go up by 25%.

And how far do we take this removal of reality into the digital world? At what point do we find ourselves in a place where we lose track of the Thirteenth Century, because the computer had a brain fart, or a malicious bastard decided we shouldn't know about this stuff? Buildings burn down, and computers get hacked. No matter what, we lose things to history - it's all a matter of time. But that doesn't mean you can't tell people about such things, and it doesn't mean your children won't ever know the pleasures of listening to Spike Jones on their record players. But if we keep going down the path of digital this and iThat, we're going to lose the physical expressions of human creativity where information is the primary subject - i.e., books, music and movies.

Where am I going with this? I worry about my kid. I waver about whether these gadgets that we've attached ourselves to will become more a part of her life than reality, because they don't represent reality - they mediate it for us. I recall a passage from Neal Stephenson's excellent little book "In the Beginning was the Command Line", regarding a father videotaping his walk down Main Street USA in Disney World, and how the dad was literally having a vicarious experience of the experience he could have been having in person, while being there in person. (and of course, Dad was vicariously experiencing a false history, but that's a topic for another time)

Is this how we want our kids to live - one vicarious moment after another, one more thing to experience through the viewfinder of your smart phone to be posted  on Facebook so that other people can also have the same vicarious experience of something you could have really enjoyed, had you simply stopped recording, and looked up at the face of the world? Is everyone's life meant to be played out on Reality TV? How do we want to remember the great moments of our lives - as a perfect digital copy, or as an imperfect human memory?

At some point, the digitizing of our history needs to be re-mediated by a collective act of rebellion, of oral traditions that we've nearly lost, of a written historical record that (even with all of its' biases) is better than some multi-media extravaganza written by a corporation for the edification/commodification of our children, seen through a glowing screen that they can't live without. We're losing touch with our humanity with every new gadget that removes the creativity from the physical to the digital.

*Apple fanboy here, so please, no flames about my so-called hatred of the Mac - it's more love/hate