Let me return to a topic that I mull over a lot, and try to be a little more hard-headed about it.

It goes like this: you can gets lots of stuff, digitally and conveniently, for not much money. Like a lot of people, I’m torn about it: I love getting what I want when I want it. I hate the flattening that takes place, that ‘the more I have the more it’s all the same gray goo’ sensation.

Like the writer of this piece about the pitfalls of the cloud, that sensation leaves me feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied.

But…you aren’t going to stop the march of the cloud. Is it reasonable to think the cognitive dissonance folks like me feel will continue indefinitely into the future, that there’s something inherently off in the great equalizing of all media?

I doubt it. My son’s the same kind of omnivore I am, but has little to no attachment to the objects involved. His new Kindle Fire suits him fine, thank you. He’s maybe an extreme example, but not out of bounds.

No, I think I’m a kind of transitional figure, on the way to having all of our culture atomized. But to the degree that the rendering of stuff to digital implies some kind of drag, some disconnect between the shiny disc, the hardbound book and the faint glow it is transmogrified into, I have a few suggestions.

1.) Keep working on fidelity. It’s axiomatic that people nowadays don’t care about the full-bandwidth experience when it comes to music, may even prefer the slightly compressed sound of good mp3s. But I think there’s something hard-coded in us, something that is vaguely aware of the difference, which is so subtle, so impossible to put a name on, that it grows even more irritating.

Maybe it’s a leftover from when our hearing needed to be extraordinary to make simple friend/foe distinctions. Me, I think the effect of even high quality audio compression is to leave people with what amounts to an optical illusion, like one of those pictures that viewed one way is a goblet and the other is two profiles. It continually, quietly undermines your ability to lose yourself in the experience.

2.) Make the experience  ‘for a limited time only.’ Wilco has posted to its website a stream of a great concert in early December. Among other things, it has Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples joining the boys in a wonderful version of ‘The Weight.’

I could capture the stream to my hard drive. Were I an even bigger Wilco fan  than I am, I might. But my thought is that I valued listening to the show more because I knew it won’t be there forever, and that short of my own measures I will be left with my memory of the music, nothing else.

You can argue – and much of what we do with our gizmos and gadgets is the argument – that we are better off outboarding our memories to our hard drives. Better, the argument goes, to hold onto that version of  ‘The Weight’ forever and be able to enjoy it whenever I want.

Problem is, doing it that way means that I have a harder time, somehow, giving the music a chance to imprint itself on my…soul. Letting it go, hearing it once only, lets me build a memory out of it.

3.) Use the medium. When you buy many things from HD Tracks, you’re told the item (which you may have paid more for) actually has less than the original cd, as in no liner notes.

If you’re not confined to being a cd by other means, why not use some of that extra bandwidth to do interesting things that can only be done online? Here’s a starting point: Scott McCloud worked hard for a number of years on ‘web comics’ that did not rely on the conventional shape of a printed page. Someone can take what he did and use it to do something else interesting, I think.

4.) Do hybrid physical/digital. Jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas did a cool thing last fall – he put out three albums in quick succession, in the spirit of the old Blue Note days. Basically you bought ’em as downloads. But if you wanted, you could also get the albums on a nifty Dave Douglas USB keychain, which include some extras. Yep, it’s a tchotchke, but if you’re of a certain age and mindset, it’s also something that makes the music stand out a little more, makes it less another part of the long list of bits you have.


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