We shall not see his like again
It’s a generational fact that all my most important cultural experiences were, in one way or another, non-digital. I saw my favourite film (Alien) in a cinema. I read my favourite book (Portrait of a Lady) as a, er, book. My first favourite album, Out Of The Blue by E.L.O, and my second favourite, Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M (what’s with the acronymal band names, Lloyd? No idea, sorry) were both bought and consumed, richly, on vinyl. And concerts – either Iron Maiden at the Hammersmith Odeon or Blur at the Brixton Academy, since you’re asking – were the most analogue, unrepeatable experiences of them all.
As I get older and those days recede and incipient nostalgia overwhelms I’m increasingly convinced that the very analogue unrepeatability of those experiences is what made them so profound, and is what served to hardwire them into my brain. And I wonder if the singularity of those experiences is itself unrepeatable. Is it even possible to have unrepeatable experiences anymore? In a world of infinite choice, massive accessibility and ubiquitous playout devices, is every cultural experience doomed to be less meaningul, more ephemeral – thinner?
I’m a bit haunted by this question, I must admit. I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half working in digital media, and I’ve been a crashingly dull and and consistent advocate for the enormous human benefits which come cross-border networks and digitised content have wrought. Wikipedia, email, Twitter, real-time news, YouTube, distance learning, online banking and shopping – the list of things which I believe have made the world smaller and more interconnected and more free is extraordinary.
And yes, iTunes is wonderful, as is the Kindle, as is the iPod/iPhone. They bring massive convenience to the purchasing and consumption of culture. Being able to download War and Peace instantly to a device the size of a DVD packet is a miracle, and it is, I strongly believe, a good thing for book publishing as an industry.
And yet, and yet….
Read this, by Anthony Lane, on the growth of video-on-demand:
There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.
I think his point about compulsion is interesting, but not quite right. I think it’s more to do with the amount of effort we make to do something, the amount of attention we invest in it and, crucially, the unrepeatability of the experience which gives culture its resonance. Being part of a crowd makes an experience unrepeatable. Being given a piece of culture as a gift does likewise; we have really lost the art of giving music to each other in the shift to digital – unwrapping an album-shaped gift used to be one of the most unspeakably exciting things in the world. Getting an iTunes code to be redeemed by a piece of software is by no means comparable. And don’t get me started on the lost romance of mixtapes…
When culture is instantly accessible and available, it loses lustre as it gains democracy. Part of this is due to a degradation in its quality; we trade high-and-low-end frequencies for the convenience of MP3. But I think this is a red herring. I don’t believe men of my age (and it is almost always men) are increasingly obsessing about vinyl and lossless encoding because of sound quality. I believe they’re hunting for an unrepeatable experience. I think they want culture to be more difficult, more inconvenient, because that way its consumption becomes more of an event. It seems to mean more.
I was already thinking about such matters when I read this, earlier today. It’s from Michael Pollan’s incomparable book The Botany of Desire. He’s talking about cannabis and what it does to music:
All those who write about cannabis’s effect on consciousness speak of the changes in perception they experience, and specifically of an intensification of all the senses. Common foods taste better, familiar music is suddenly sublime, sexual touch revelatory. Scientists who’ve studied the phenomenon can find no quantifiable change in the visual, auditory, or tactile acuity of subjects high on marijuana, yet these people invariably report seeing, and hearing, and tasting things with a new keenness, as if with fresh eyes and ears and taste buds.
You know how it goes, this italicization of experience, this seemingly virginal noticing of the sensate world. You’ve heard that song a thousand times before, but now you suddenly hear it in all its soul-piercing beauty, the sweet bottomless poignancy of the guitar line like a revelation, and for the first time you can understand, really understand, just what Jerry Garcia meant by every note, his unhurried cheerful-baleful improvisation piping something very near the meaning of life directly into your mind.
I love that phrase the italicization of experience, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about here. Digital culture has, I’d contend, removed a lot of the italicization (though not, it would appear, from this post). Experiences have become ubiquitous but endlessly repeatable, just like a sound file has become endlessly repeatable. Spotify makes a world of music available to you, at the cost of sound quality (of course) but also at the cost of memorable discovery and deep, memorable noticing. I’ve tried listening to an album on Spotify. I just haven’t been able to. Whenever I use Spotify, I feel the sort of strung-out dissatisfaction I feel after a microwaved ready meal.
It happens at an industrial level, too. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone recently wrote that there will never be another Bruce Springsteen, not because his talent will never be replicated, but because Bruce is as much our shared experience of Bruce as he is an individual artist. The flipside of the cliff-like barriers to entry of the pre-digital music industry was that those who broke through to an audience by necessity became massive, because our appetite for music was enormous while the supply was deliberately constrained. Bruce was heroin and diamonds, precious and rare and addictive, but the intensity of that experience is gone forever. We traded it for something else.
(This isn’t to say there wasn’t something a bit disgusting about the majestic hugeness of those pre-digital bands. They became rich after all by indulging their hobby. But there was something majestic in being part of a community which worshipped them. There just was. And it didn’t matter how big that community was, either. There’s no-one more dedicated than a fan of The Fall).
So, what did we trade all this stuff for, and was it worth it? We got convenience. We got choice. We got it for less (but are we spending less on entertainment and culture? I’d argue almost certainly not. More, if anything). In some cases and for some people, we gained the ability to adapt and remix the culture to create something new. For people who are creating culture, the tools of creation became ubiquitous, and those cliff-like barriers to entry tumbled into the sea.
All of those things are worth something. What they are worth to you will be different to what they are worth to me. Some people believe (with almost religious fervour) that the ability of more people to create content and to remix other people’s content is actually the dawn of a new era of human culture, an era in which we all become creators and through our combined efforts generate something sublime.
Perhaps that is true – although it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a beautiful vision but also, as of now, one which requires a great leap of faith – particularly for those of the pre-digital generation who made a career out of creating at a time when demand exceeded supply. But I also think we should pay some attention to how we might secure at least part of what made the pre-digital culture so exciting.
You can start to see people doing this. It’s my impression (though I have no data for it) that book groups are more popular than ever, as people seek to replicate a more communal sense of reading just as more and more titles are becoming available – reintroducing scarcity, as it were. A friend of mine organises a monthly record group, in which each attendee chooses a selection of tracks and plays them to the others, and they drink wine and discuss the music and generally have a rare old time. People go to literary festivals, pay huge amounts for concert tickets, and watch more and more culture and review shows.
Also, I think it’s interesting how young people consume music even today. Both my children (now teenagers) do exactly the same thing. They find music quickly and efficiently, often through the lens of radio and friends (no great cultural revolution there). They make playlists. And then they listen to those playlists again and again and again. The playcounts on my iTunes show how my daughter might listen to the same song 10 times or more in an evening. So they’re still investigating music deeply. They’re just doing it on a device with less sound quality, and (crucially) they’re doing other things at the same time. Chatting online, mostly.
For us refugees from the pre-digital dark ages, it’s like we’re reaching back for something. Back for a time when there were more shared cultural moments, when tens of millions of Britons watched a single broadcast of Morecambe and Wise, when there was nothing on television on a Sunday afternoon and we were forced, actually forced, to listen to Out of the Blue time after time after time because there was nothing else to do. And as a result, we knew every chord change, every bass note, every swelling of the strings, as well as we knew the colour of our own front doors.