Thursday 19 March 2009

'No longer something you own'...

Somewhere in the small hours of last night or this morning, I vaguely heard a piece on the World Service about how, beacuse of the way the technology has developed, music is 'no longer something you own' - it's just out there, a digital entity floating in cyberspace, take what you want and leave the rest (spot the quote there, musos?). So, from 'owning' music as sheet music (a phase which, oddly, lasted well into the pop era - managers still thought that was where the big money was) to owning it on giant discs - shellac 78, the blessed 12in vinyl - to miniaturisation via tape cassette, then to the CD, and then to... Well, to nothing you can hold in your hand and say 'This is the Grateful Dead's American Beauty' or whatever it might be. All you can say is 'This is my iPod.' And it feels - especially to those of us who spent our formative years cradling the mighty gatefold sleeves of vinyl LPs - very odd. But then isn't everything going the same way, into unholdability, unownability? So much 'visual product' is now online and freely available, and it's growing at a terrific rate - YouTube is surely just the beginning. How long before nobody bothers owning DVDs either? Our shelves will be clear of music and movies and... Well, it's obvious what the next step is, isn't it? Books. Or is it that simple? Is there something special about books that will preserve them far longer than other media as 'something you own'. I'm fairly sure there is, but it's hard to say - especially in the light of such innovations as Kindle - quite what it is. Is it just their satisfying tactile qualities? The fact that you can use a physical book in a three-dimensional way - up, down and through - that can't really be reproduced? Over to you?


  1. Well, if the statistics on internet piracy are accurate, then for huge numbers of people not owning music or DVDs has been a fact of life for a long while.

    I suspect books will go the same way, but not for a while yet. Come back in, say, ten years. By then vastly improved e-readers might have the flickable, 3D interface you mention, together with a memory of your favourite pages and, via a camera which follows your eye movements, your favourite lines and passages. And they'll have full audio, despite attempts by publishers to thwart it. I'm not saying any of this will be better; it's just the way the world is going. The main issue could easily be privacy, the e-reader tracking every blink and uploading it to the marketing boys.

  2. Like mercury in the hand, a workable definition of what music actually is ('compressed air' is dull, but accurate) keeps slipping through the fingers. 4.33 by John Cage moves a few molecules around but really, is only a pointer to how we might listen, and find 'music' emerging from the most unlikely sources. Stripped right down, music is of course free. My great sorrow is that, as a result of that gratis, music is now everywhere, usually too loud, and has therefore been tragically devalued.
    And when you meet people who seek to turn a profit from music, you find yourself standing in front of one of the golfing partners of Fred the Shred.

  3. Sven Birkerts has an interesting piece in The Atlantic about the possible disappearance of the book as a physical object and the 'decimation of context' that he fears this would entail:

    "I'm not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it — the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly."

    The full article can be read at:

    (Sorry, don't know how to do the hyperlink thing in blogger.)

    For an equally interesting response, by a medievalist who argues that the printed book is essentially a modern fetish, try:

    These links courtesy of the excellent Stevenhartsite (recommended).

  4. The book will last as long as the wobbly table.

  5. I've just been reading about this webservice called 'HULU' today, which is the next next big thing apparently. Basically it is all the tv channels already online, but in one place. movies will follow swiftly I'm sure

    so yeah, looks like DVDs are becoming redundant damn quickly, which makes the blu-ray vs. HD-DVD war a massive pyrrhic victory!

  6. Jonathan, read Birkerts book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. This was before the EBook was even heard of, thought provoking and accurate. Coming generations will wonder what the fuss was about, those dusty looking paper things. I ain't giving up my DVD collection just yet and books, never, tactility's the thing, the EBook is remote, uninvolving, inevitable.

  7. I have a Sony Reader which is fine for travel and holidays but doesn't have the useability nor the tactile pleasure of a book. But then nor does the iPod over a vinyl LP.

    I think the broad market for books will go digital - especially the paperback market - but there will be a space for high quality books as somewhere between art, interior design and worship objects.

  8. But they should never have taken the very best, The night they drove old dixie down.

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  10. i think what Malty calls tactility will endure in some form. It's hard to persuade people that they don't enjoy holding objects. Personally, i'd have a library of about 100 - 200 of my favourite books and the rest would be on Kindle, but books i'd want to re-read would be real physical books.

  11. ...or books that you want to show off.

    Here is my extensive collection of dense philosphical tomes and difficult literary novels. Do feel free to admire while I fetch the hors d'oeuvres.

    That doesn't work so well with Kindle, I imagine.

  12. And if music be the food Brit...
    'What's that wonderful noise darling?'
    'Oh, it's Vom Winde beweint by Giya Kancheli - do you like it?'
    'It's mesmerizing'
    'Wait 'til you try this loin of pork'

  13. Thanks everybody - bit of a workstorm here at NigeCorp just now - hence fewer posts, even more typos...