Clouds in my coffee: A continuing contemplation of the new impermanence.
What follows is an attempt to corral some ideas running loose after reading Easy Ed’s blog about the new Apple gadget, and the coming of what is called cloud computing, which I take to mean that all the software (programs, music, video, etc.) is housed on a server outside your computer, and you simply interact with it through your various electronic devices.
Should that prove an inadequate summary, I’ll trust my better-educated brethren to correct me.
I’ve gone down this road before, and shall try not to repeat myself too often. Clearly, I’m a Luddite who has difficult appreciating, apprehending, and adopting new technologies. Except that I’ve been writing and designing on a computer since 1986, so maybe that caricature doesn’t quite fit.
Instead, let’s try starting from the novel notion that just because something is new doesn’t inherently mean it’s better. (I’m mostly quoting Ed Ward there, to give credit where it’s due.) Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Like software, say. My first version of MS Word saved a document the size of these first few paragraphs at 4k. My outdated version of Office saves those same words at 24k. Granted that memory is dramatically cheaper than it was for my SE-30, my question is: Is MS Word eight times better as a writing platform than it was in 1988. And my answer (boy, this will come as a surprise) is, No. It’s not. It does a bunch more things I don’t know how to do and never want to have to do, but in terms of writing and editing text, it has done very little to make my work flow any easier. To improve my writing, which is all I really care about.
Y’know what really improved my writing (besides getting older)? Moving from a manual typewriter to an IBM Selectric.
(I am mindful, per a James Fallow piece in The Atlantic, back when I could afford to subscribe and had the time to read, that Microsoft really designs software for the users who buy hundreds and thousands of licenses, not for we poor suckers working at home. I know it’s not about me, that I’m just collateral damage.)
Same thing with design. At a certain point PageMaker could do every single thing I needed it to do so as to design a professional-quality magazine. (To the extent that I was ever competent to do so.) And then they replaced it with InDesign, and have kept upgrading that platform to the point where even if anybody wanted to hire me as a designer I may be too far out of date to do the job.
But what’s really changed is the notion of what a designer is and does. Not simply is a designer now also expected to do the job of a typographer (which I used to be, as well) and an editor, and a copy-writer, and a photo-retoucher, and all the rest. (Psychologist…) A designer is now evaluated and hired on the basis of technical proficiency with software. Has been for a decade or more. Not on the ability to think and solve problems, and certainly not on the quality of his or her work. In part this is because very few people hiring designers are capable of distinguishing good from bad design; they buy the presentation, the suit, the look, the rap, and what their friends say.
What has driven that change? Software. Technology makes things possible, and so we do them. Notice a lot of gray shadows adorning objects in the magazines you read? InDesign makes that easy, so people do it now. I’ve never seen it done well. Why does software constantly change? Because if it doesn’t, the software developers have nothing to sell.
But the real question is, has all this technical prowess improved design? I don’t think so. I think it has made it increasingly dishonest, more decorative, and less connotative. Design is not about anything, it is cobbled together with no sense of the history or connotations of images and typefaces and colors. It’s just pretty and attention-grabbing.
Take, for example, the recent Rolling Stone cover with the stars of “Mad Men” on it, which isn’t even pretty. Instead of hiring Annie Leibovitz or Kevin Westenberg or Marina Chavez to photograph them, Rolling Stone settled for a bad PhotoShop job. Instead of documentary photograph which shows what actual people actually look like, we are now treated to such egregious retouching that the actual human beings only barely reseumble their published avatars. (Now contrast that with the classic George Lois Esquire covers, for example.)
This is somehow better? I have a seven-year-old daughter, and I don’t think that these unreasonable representations of the female form are in any way good for her, nor for our society. There are designers who can use PhotoShop to pull together found or rented images to good editorial effect. But not many, and they’d be good designers regardless the tools they use. It’s the ability to think that’s important.
Or, since we’re here, let’s talk about music. It is argued that MP3 files and all the rest of the gadgets and transitions which have gone with that have somehow improved our range of choices and listening experiences. Even though, of course, we accept the fact that MP3 files are a degraded form of the recorded original. It is argued that the dissolution of the filtering mechanisms which were hallmarks of the first century of the recorded music industry – record store clerks, paid critics record labels – has made it more possible for musicians to be heard, and to make a living.
This gets said a lot: We have more choice, as listeners, and the musician has a better opportunity to make a living.
I don’t read trade magazines any more, but I have difficulty accepting the second half of that sentence without proof. And I’m not aware of the proof. Are there more artists succeeding in making a decent living from their work today than there were ten or twenty years ago? Don’t point at the success stories of people who have used the wisdom of the web to build an audience (say, Joe Pug, who’s done a fine job). Talk about the average working musician. I’m listening, honest.
It also gets said a lot that musicians are or should be freed from the shackles of major labels, that labels kept good music from being heard. We can all think of examples on both sides of that, but, in the main, I don’t think so, at least in the period of music history during which I was active (say, 1977-2007 to make the numbers neat).
Did the Strawberry Zots benefit from their brief relationship with RCA? I dunno, actually. Did Love Battery survive a bad mix job on their A&M debut? Sort of, but not really. Did onerous label staff stifle Lucinda Williams’ career? Maybe, at times, but her gifts won out.
And that, I think, is the case: If the gift is there, it will get heard. Maybe not by a Dixie Chick-sized audience, but it’ll get heard. Or it would, in the old days. Now…I’m not so sure. Now I’m not sure where the money and input comes from to sustain a young artist’s career.
For a brief moment it was argued that TV placements would fund young artists and open them up to an audience. If my informant is accurate, however, the revenues from those placements were cut drastically when TV producers realized that the young musicians they were paying were benefiting more from the exposure than the money. Or could benefit more from the exposure, and so they could cut the fees. (Rumor and innuendo without sourcing, beware.)
Which brings me, more or less, back to the clouds (a fine play by Aristophanes, incidentally).
Two ideas I want to play with.
First, when books and music are tangible objects for which one pays, they retain some kind of value. Not all of them, to be sure, but when one moves (say) and needs to raise money, you used to be able to sell your LPs and 45s (the ones you thought you could live without), or your CDs, or your books. You wouldn’t make near what you paid for them (just like buying a new car, eh?), but there was money there in your apartment that you could reach out and touch if you absolutely had to.
Which is different from Hemingway first editions and Butcher Covers and all that collector memorabilia stuff, but it all ties together.
There’s no resale value for an MP3 file. Or for a digital book.
Even if we pay for (rent) text or music, we now have a fundamentally different relationship to it. It is no longer money we can reach out and touch. It is, instead, just like TV: a disposable pop medium with no lasting impact.
This may even be a good thing, I hasten to concede. Maybe. But we’re not thinking about it, best I can tell. We’re just rushing higgeldy-piggeldy toward this future because the technology always seems to win. (See: Global warming.)
Why is this important (the paragraph I left out of the first draft posted here; there may well be others)? This is crucial in our society because we only value things that we pay for, and we value them according to how expensive they are. If music and prose are now to be things one rents, instead of buys (or checks out of the library), they are devalued in the commerce of our understanding. If music and prose are devalued — are free, in effect — then why should we value the creation of those things, much less the creators? We come quickly to a world in which only those with trust funds can afford to be creative. Or rich spouses.
Second, I think responses to that first notion will break around class lines. If you come from affluence and ease, the resale value of your books and records is of no import. At one point in our society, having a lot of those things marked you as a wealthy person of class and knowledge. But, just like a suntan (once the mark of the lower class because they worked outside; then the mark of the leisure class because the lower class worked in a factory; now the mark of the lower class because the leisure class doesn’t want to go to the skin doctor), possession of physical media objects is no longer an upper class status twitch. (Unless, for the moment, it’s vintage vinyl.)
Now the status attends to possession and mastery of the latest gadget. Not what you’re listening to or reading, not its condition, not its content. But what device you’re consuming it on.
So status is now conferred by your skill at buying toys. As it always has been, I suppose. By how few actual objects you can get by with in the digital era. (I remember a “Star Trek” episode in which some crewman beams aboard with a small small container of belongings, including one rare, bound book, which marks him/her as…different.)
The problem, if you’re a musician, is that every time you oblige somebody in my income bracket to buy a new device to hear your music, you make it more and more likely that I’m going to choose to eat instead. And every time you presume that because you big city folks have and can afford high speed internet, the rest of the world can too? Well, no. We can’t, and we don’t all. So if you want to build a brave new musical world in which we have to be attached to the internet by some device which will have to be replaced every 18 months because that’s how the manufacturer really makes money for their stockholders, well, a lot of us can’t and won’t play.
Maybe you didn’t want us in your audience, anyhow.
We move further and further down this road selling intangibles, and I am fascinating (and frightened) by how it will play out. We’ve built empires selling flavored sugar water and weeds one burns and inhale. So we know how to sell shit people don’t need, that’s for sure.
When you change music and books from tangible objects with resale value to this other intangible thing, my relationship to it changes. Generations far younger than me will not contemplate this change; it’ll just be the way things are. But it’s our job, as elders, to decide if this is a good thing, to manage the process. Isn’t it?
I work surrounded by objects my wife wishes I would get rid of. Some of which I’ve sold in eBay because even I recognize that the house we’re building is smaller than this one, and I no longer can justify the size office I maintain, and all the stuff in it.
There is talk that I have some acquisitive disease, and should be fixed somehow. I think that misunderstands the creative process, as I understand it. All these things with which I surround myself, they remind me of ideas. They remind me of who gave them to me, of songs, and songwriters, and guitar lines, and maybe I’m not going to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight again any time soon, but I like knowing it’s on the shelf. I like knowing that if I need to hear “Karn Evil No. 9” it’s on the shelf. I realize both of those things can be found online at this point. But I won’t encounter them online in my office unless I go looking; if I turn around, they’re both here, waiting for me.
My way. Different from the future, and this is all a battle big corporations will win and I will lose. But I grow weary with the pace at which change proceeds, nobody asking what it means and how we are being changed.
I heard somebody from law enforcement on the radio today, saying that he feared the instant gratification of our computer age makes kids more susceptible to the instant gratification of Oxy and meth. I’m not sure he’s right, but I’m sure a lot of people around here agreed with him.
At least, we live in interesting times. I wish I had more time to fiddle with this, but it’s already at least a thousand words longer than anybody can be expected to read. Ah, well.