by Richard White
I was out walking with a friend of mine the other night along Hillhurst and happened to stumble into High Fidelity records. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but vinyl is making a comeback, and the stacks of records in this place had attracted a few evening shoppers. And even though I don’t own a record player anymore, I worked for a number of years in the early 80s at a southern California record store chain called Licorice Pizza, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for music stores of any kind.
I was a bit surprised to see a sign in the store advertising that their CDs, already in short supply, were all 50% off. I grabbed a couple of discs that I’d been meaning to buy—the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, in case you’re curious—and chatted with the girl at the register who was ringing me up. “So, you guys aren’t going to carry CDs anymore?”
“Yup,” she said, flatly, and the logic of that decision didn’t need to be explained to me. The store has a higher mark-up, greater volume, and better profit selling rare vinyl than trying to compete with Amazon, Wal-mart, and Target selling CDs. The rack space where their dwindling supply of discs remained was losing them money.
I did what I do with all the CDs I buy these days: I scurried home and ripped them into flac files on my Linux box using the abcde utility. Because that CD isn’t going to last forever…
And neither is the CD player, right? My primary computer, the one I’m using to type right now, certainly doesn’t have a CD player, and Apple retired their “Rip. Mix. Burn.” iTunes advertising long ago. Most of my students with Apple laptops no longer have access to anything with a CD drive in it (with the possible exception of a parent’s car), and instead are more than happy to listen to and share music via iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora.
All of which leaves us with an interesting question. In a world that no longer provides physical media, does one even need to keep media? If so, where? and if not, why not?
If you ask Netflix, the answer is clear, where their DVD delivery business has been on the decline for awhile now, even as their streaming business is on the increase. I’m one of the many people who eventually ditched my delivery subscription in favor of the curling up in bed with my iPad and their streaming software, even if the selection of movies available to stream if inferior to their stock of physical disks.
And if you ask my students, the whole idea of physical media is almost foreign to them. I recently conducted an activity in my computer science class where students were required to provide evidence that they had three copies of their computer science files: one on their laptop, one on a secondary storage device like an external drive, and one “in the cloud.” (It’s a great activity, and students who are budget-constrained can satisfy the requirement simply by using the 16GB flash drive I provide them at the beginning of the year, and signing up for a free Dropbox account.)
The idea that one needs backups is nothing new, but I had one student who took exception to the requirements. “Look,” he explained, I have a copy in the cloud, and a copy on my machine. Why do I need a second copy locally?”
It took a bit of explaining for him to understand that it was entirely possible for him to have his local hard drive crash, or for him to drop his computer, or for his logic board to fry, or for someone to spill coffee into the keyboard… all of which have happened to students and colleagues of mine in the last year. “I’ll have a copy in the cloud!” he responded, and that’s certainly one of the points of having a backup in the cloud.
“Do you have a backup of your entire hard drive in the cloud?” It’s a trick question that I, the instructor, win either way. Either he doesn’t, in which case he’s lost enormous amounts of data, or he does, in which case he’s going to find out how long it takes to restore hundreds of gigabytes of data over his home Internet connection.
But I digress. The interesting discovery for me was that this young man, articulate and well-spoken, didn’t seem to be able to appreciate the concept of “losing one’s digital stuff.” And while it’s possible that he has simply had the good fortune to never undergo that experience—this is a kid, after all—I think it’s more likely that he doesn’t “have” any digital stuff to lose, at least in the traditional sense. Somebody else already keeps his stuff.
From his class assignments stored in GoogleDocs to his browser-based email to his Spotify playlists, his data is completely out of his hands, but typically available just about anywhere he can find an Internet connection… and he’s just fine with that.
Are the days of “owning” media over, then? Will I come to rely on Netflix streaming for being able to watch my favorite movie? And will I accept its disappearance with reluctant understanding when their licensing agreement with the studio runs out? Will we no longer be able to share a favorite book with a friend (or will we bound to a particular e-book platform/distribution channel if we do)?
Can you even make a mixtape anymore for that guy or girl you like? I tried the other day using iTunes, and it was a complete catastrophe.
In a world where all we have is digitized, what happens to the media that isn’t?
Three copies of your data, people. One on the computer, one on a local backup, and one in the cloud.
And take care of those precious books and records, lest they disappear forever.
P.S. A couple of days after writing this, Apple discontinued their venerable iPod Classic line. This hard drive-based music player had been in production in one form or another ever since it was originally introduced in 2001, and there’s a wonderful eulogy by Mat Honan online at Wired.
For ten years my iPod—in various incarnations—was my constant companion. It went with me on road trips and backpacking through the wilderness. I ran with it. I swam with it. (In a waterproof case!) I listened to sad songs that reminded me of friends and family no longer with me. I made a playlist for my wife to listen to during the birth of our first child, and took the iPod with us to the hospital. I took one to a friend’s wedding in Denmark, where they saved money on a DJ by running a four hour playlist, right from my iPod. And because the party lasted all night, they played it again.
Everyone played everything again and again.
And now it’s dead. Gone from the Apple Store. Disappeared, while we were all looking at some glorified watch.
In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.
Preach on, Brother.