Cloud Trouble

Christopher Borrelli, “The trouble with the cloud,” in the Chicago Tribune.

Mom clipped this for me, and Borrelli asks a good quesion; how are iTunes, iPods, and now iCloud and Amazon’s and Google’s cloud-based music lockers changing how we value music?

Borrelli’s concerned that we value digital files less than physical albums. “Each [new digital technology] has undermined how much I actually care about watching, listening and reading … Lately, though I am no less interested in music, excited by movies or anxious to read books, I don’t know what that enthusiasm means when I can access all of those things on a few digital files: Do I appreciate my music, movies and books less when the format is digital? When there’s nothing more concrete than a binary code? If I’ve opted for convenience over shelf space, why don’t I listen to music more often, watch more movies?”

Only Borrelli can answer why he listens to less music than he used to. I listen to much more, and a wider variety, of music since I went fully to iTunes and my iPod. I love using iTunes DJ, making playlists, and running across old favorites, all things I didn’t do with CDs. I also get a huge kick out of digitizing my vinyl LPs, taking that great sound with me on my iPod, crackles and all.

“Ephemeral, that’s how I feel about the media I download … The ease of that download generally lessens its impact and makes it more disposable … ‘Something about the unavailability of stuff, music, art, books, makes me value it more’ [quoting Theaster Gates].” Quoting Gates again, “It’s just fraudulent for people to suggest that … any digital vehicles contain as much historical value or memory or meaning as my things, my books my music, whatever. It’s wrong to say my stuff is being replaced by a things I can’t touch. It isn’t being replaced, because it isn’t the same stuff anymore.”

Gates doesn’t offer a name of anyone who has suggested that digital files have the same historical value and meaning as his own physical books and albums. Perhaps they are in his imagination; it’s a pretty extreme position. It’s not a matter of intrinsically meaningful physical albums being replaced by evil, empty downloads; the questions are what are the tradeoffs between physical and digital music*, and how do we feel about what’s happening and the choices we’ve made? The burden of proof is on Borrelli to explain why so many people have made the choice to go digital that he’s concerned with.

In order to understand Borrelli, I think we should separate how we value objects from how we value music. Mom’s “Meet the Beatles” record means more to me, as a physical object, than someone else’s copy of the record would, but I value the music on the record, as music, the same no matter what source it’s played from. You could replace my “Meet the Beatles” mp3s with identitical copies from someone else’s hard drive, and the music wouldn’t mean any less to me next time I listen to it.

“My long-term fear, I suppose, is that my tastes become nothing more than a clickable line on a file; or as the novelist Zadie Smith wrote in a recent essay, about the way that Facebook undermines, ‘To (Mark) Zuckerberg, sharing your choices with everybody is being somebody.'”

Borrelli takes it as self-evident that his current tastes are something more valuable than a “clickable line on a file” (are they?) (and what kind of file is he grouching about, anyway?), and, I think, implies that sharing choices on Facebook is worthless. Sharing choices on facebook is generally less meaningful than loaning someone a physical copy of an album, but I think it’s worth *something.*

Maybe his fear is that, when everyone’s a critic, his tastes will have to compete on a more level playing field with others’ for attention, which might put him out of a job. In my view, good critics are more important now than ever before, to help us sort through the mountain of media available online. The trick is, having a column at the Tribune doesn’t automatically make someone an attention-worthy critic anymore (as it did before the web made self-publishing so easy); widely-read critics must earn their reputation for finding good media and adding to our understanding of it with their commentary, and they might come from anywhere, including Facebook. (Reputation development and management is an area where I’d like to see huge improvement on the web, but I think it’s coming. Amazon’s Real Name feature is an example of a first step in that direction.)

“The more availability there is, he said, the harder it is to find anything, digital or not, “which leads to the real problem with the Cloud, that there is a threshold to comprehension and you can only have a personal relationship with a certain number of your things anyway … To borrow from Susan Sontag’s 1977 book, ‘On Photography,’ and its prescient essay on collecting, we live in a world ‘on its way to becoming one vast quarry.’ And yet what is the value of a quarry with no bottom, inexhaustible and plundered without much effort and available for mining every day, at all hours?

“There was a time when Laurie Anderson … lamented not having recordings of her early shows … ‘Now I think I’m happy to be the medium myself, that people watch me doing whatever I do and it goes into their memories, and maybe gets lost in there.”

The meaning of physical objects is, in large part, based on scarcity. We like rare, hard-to-find, and one-of-a-kind things. There’s only one “Meet the Beatles” that was my mom’s, so it’s my favorite, but there are an unlimited number of copies available online. I love my copy of Elvis Presley’s self-titled record, because in all of my record hunting it’s the only one I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Yet, apart from these kinds of heirlooms and boutique items, music is a microcosm of what may be coming for all physical objects, leading our way into a post-scarcity society, which will require a radical re-thinking of how we construct meaning.

Meaning will change, but i don’t think it will be lost. To use Borrelli’s metaphor, the value of an inexhaustible quarry seems obvious in musical terms; we can build anything we want, enjoy any kind of structure, experiment and play and push the boundaries of the art of sound. The value of any given stone is no longer much in its existence as a stone, but has become in what we’ve made with it, what we do there, and how we remember and continue to experience the place. The dimension of meaning that is reduced or lost in the transition to a post-scarcity context is real, but is worth trading for the new possibilities offered by digital music.

* Digital music is, of course, also physical – it’s not immaterial! – but I think you know what I mean.