The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The weight of digital media

I think Phil Gyford’s observation here is really important:

It wasn’t long ago that buying a purely digital piece of music — downloading a file rather than paying for a piece of holdable plastic — seemed terribly modern. But already I feel like an old fool when I visit Amazon or 7Digital to pay for an MP3. These days, a several-megabyte file on my computer is starting to feel as much of a burden, as much of a physical thing to cart around for the rest of my life, as a CD or a cassette or a record.

I can imagine the Renaissance analogue: “An octavo book printed on paper is starting to feel as much of a burden, as much of a physical thing that I need to store and display and move from home to home, as a manuscript folio book on parchment.”

Via things.


Sounds right to me. There’s now something odd about my music collection being located on particular computers that is starting to feel as cumbersome as the CD – but without the pleasant fetish of the sleeve and shiny disc. And perhaps this is somehow indicative of one of ‘the big changes’ – if the book represented a repository of knowledge that changed what we recall, how we think etc., then what happens when knowledge is, to drag out the phrase, in the cloud? Ubiquity, it seems, is the thing. The web is the public, ubiquitous text, the constantly accessible repository of knowledge, particularly now that the mobile web is actually usable.

So two things happen: 1) first we get a strange sort of ‘return’ to oral culture, as knowledge seeps into everything and everywhere, and the need to remember things fades while the the need for mnemonic speech patters, games etc. returns – we’ll all be ‘talking about the same thing’ because all those things will be hovering the background constantly; 2) but, as you’ve so cleverly argued before, we also get this renaissance of text, as it becomes the easiest medium for the, well, new medium, mainly because it’s the least temporally/materially dependent – it just has to survive for it to be useful.

It’s also interesting how some of the disadvantages of digital music–e.g., the fear of losing files forever when a hard drive crashes–creates more physical space in some cases. I have quite a large music collection that I continually back up onto DVDs. Over the years, the physical backup to my digital files has been steadily increasing in size. It’s like this physical byproduct of paranoia that we produce in response to an entity that for all intents and purposes, is supposed to defy physical space.

(On an unrelated sidenote, I’ve heard that if you collect all the digital information in the world, it would way about 3.5 grams; don’t know how that ties in, but it’s hard to comprehend.)

*weigh* (getting coffee…)

The weight of my digital media is the drag it leaves on my computer performance as it ages and accumulates more clutter. Aging in computer years while carrying a big digital load is worse than aging in dog years.

This sort of explains the vague relief that tinged my sever, almost grief-striking regret during the two or three painful data losses I’ve experienced. You are forced to move on and try something new.

Tim Carmody says…

The next big thing that will restructure this feeling, after the shift to HD-based digital media, is the shift to the cloud. Very few of us, I suspect — at least those of us who use a high-storage webmail service like Gmail — feel as weighed down by our thousands of email messages as we do our hundreds of MP3 files. This is true even though we would be just as disadvantaged, maybe even more so, if Gmail died tomorrow and we lost everything.

Under normal circumstances, I keep my gigantic collection of MP3s (~100 GB) on an external drive at home, along with movies, pictures, and backups. I stream them all over wi-fi, which keeps my laptop light.

Since I’ve been in the hospital, though, I’ve been dying for my music collection — which is, of course, inaccessible outside my home network. My solution? Dropbox. MP3s uploaded to Dropbox have saved my sanity.

I was even able to undelete a whole bunch of movie files that I’d loaded for a class I taught on movies and television of the 90s — which means I’ve got Goodfellas, Three Kings, Crumb, and four of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. I have no problem deleting Dropbox files on my laptop because I can always get them back for local storage again.

The ideal remains Gmail or Google Docs; a total media archive, no local storage required, instant web access, provided by a company that isn’t going to fold tomorrow — preferably for free (or at least something that feels like free).

Our sense of attachment, ownership, propriety towards cloud-based media won’t go away. But our sense that these files are things we cart around inside devices we own most certainly will.

Matthew Battles says…

Getting back to your Renaissance analogue, I wonder when books will relocate to the cloud. Most of us haven’t really let nostalgia for the vinyl and other media get in the way of going to digital dislocation. Of course, it *seems* like the book has had a much richer life as physical object than recorded music has, given its longer history and its plenitude of forms. But more importantly, the book has influenced the size and shape and scope—and not only those, but our sense of the autonomy, even the ontology—of certain kinds of thoughts for a long time.

(Music is more of a fey changeling, isn’t it? It survives not only the physical transmutations of recording media, but its nature doesn’t seem as determined by length or complexity. Generic restrictions in music seems more like games than separat sovereignties, the way they do among books. I don’t want to say it, but it seems like all of music is present in a note or a chord, while all of literature isn’t present in a word or a sentence. *Certain* words and sentences notwithstanding.)

Now, physical restrictions on the size, shape, and weight of books are falling away. Why stick with the book, then? E-books don’t look like the future of the book, not in the cloud. The “E” yes, but not the “book.” Something much more gaseous, interpenetrating, and unbound, is the likely medium of the culture of letters.

Tim Carmody says…

Yes, and this is big. To a certain extent, we’ve pulled this off in reading, with newspapers and magazines. We even have services like Instapaper, which pin down text, appropriating it as the reader’s, but still making it available on any net-connected device.

As for books, I actually kicked this around a little more than a week ago in this post, “One Service For Every Screen.” We’ll have to see if (and how it works). Maybe the length and relative coherence of most books doesn’t fit the attention span and delivery systems of folks using their computers, and (as you say) we’ll gravitate towards something more… modular, like blogs and stories and tweets and links and articles.

Digital music is credited with revalorizing the single over the album; digital television on YouTube, Hulu, etc., has helped create the stand-alone TV clip (virtually from nothing) as a semi-standard unit that can be referred to and put into circulation. Maybe it will be individual chapters, arguments, quotations that become more significant than the total book:

* Think about SuperFreakonomics, which everyone’s talking about — but only, really, about one chapter.

* Think about Tom Ridge’s book, where everyone was talking about a book jacket blurb and a handful of choice sections.

* Think about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which — no disrespect — is largely known for the audacity of its concept and title. Nobody’s praising it as a total work (like the real Pride and Prejudice).

* Think about the Steve Ward diet — something that can be explained in a paragraph, which could never sell a complete book. But you can link to it, and forward it, and everyone who sees it will have time to read it.

In the future, every writer will be famous for fifteen sentences.

Matthew Battles says…

Right! I found Amanda Edmonds comments at Frankfurt compelling along these lines as well. And of course, periodicals have long shown the way in distributed content. Thinking about Google Books. the interface of which promotes connections among books, I realize that in a sense we readers have always done this work of making books transparent to each other. That’s part of the symbiosis of mind and written word, maybe—books get born whole, but need us to remix them, to stir the sperm in with the eggs, in order to ensure future generations of books get born. When Google first started scanning books, I thought I was saying something original when I noted that they were making all books into one big book—but as your commenter points out, John Donne figured that out a long time ago.

In the future, every writer will be famous for fifteen sentences”—that *kills*.

Tim Carmody says…

The instinct to selectively reduce isn’t totally new either! Think about Ezra Pound’s program in ABC of Reading — this might be the best book about poetry written by a twentieth-century poet, so pay attention — that true “literature is news that stays news.”

To that end — to sort through the pile of our cultural heritage and find the fragments that are still news — Pound’s willing to burn libraries, tear apart books, and stick the best bits in a loose-leaf filing system, with the notion that the best material, the true luminous particulars, will stay in circulation, while the rest can go into deep storage.

Take the best six lines of Ovid, smash them up against a troubadour sonnet, a Confucian ideogram, a speech by Malatesta, and a stray line Joyce once whispered to EP while drunk. THAT is your monument to culture. (Which is also the mortar of those Big Important Books, Ulysses, The Cantos, The Waste Land.)

Just want to pause to appreciate both the content & the construction of this sentence: “the best mate­r­ial, the true lumi­nous par­tic­u­lars, will stay in cir­cu­la­tion, while the rest can go into deep storage.”

Then, a question. Can you make a nugget without a chicken? Re: Tom Ridge’s book (above) — would people be talking about any component of it, if it wasn’t a component of a new book? Re: six lines of Ovid — could Ovid have simply written those six lines & called it a day?

The answer is no, obviously, but I’m not 100% sure why. Is it that we don’t know well enough ahead of time which nugget is going to resonate? (So really, when you write a book, you’re sending out a shotgun blast of scraps and ideas and hoping that maybe one of them hits the mark and makes it into history?) Or is it a kind of synecdoche where the six lines from Ovid are just standing in for all of Ovid?

Or something else?

Tim Carmody says…

Marshall McLuhan said that the content of one medium is always another medium. (The best example I can think of to illustrate this is radio, where the default content is, or was, musical recordings.)

I’ll take this in a different direction. Each medium, or rather the institutions of each medium, only knows how to respond to certain kinds of other media. AND media only knows how to target certain forms of other media.

So, for example — if I want to be mentioned on television, I need to write a book, make a movie, or have already been on TV. I can’t get on TV based on a blog post I wrote. BUT, a blog (a whole blog) might get me a book deal. A newspaper might respond to a scientific article — or maybe even, in some circumstances, a blog post.

Generally, however, the internet and its institutions are best positioned to respond to short works and small events. For blogs, YouTube clips (whether they’re shards or stand-alones), newspaper articles, short anecdotes, short stories, comments on Twitter, etc., are the bread and butter. We know what to do with them. They’re periodical like we are. It’s actually harder for us to go back and dig up old books or archives, to do real paleoblogging, UNLESS we can find short advertisements or clever YouTube vids, that effectively by their form as media reduce some of that foreignness.

SO: you need the book to get certain kinds of attention, because TV and to a lesser extent print can only pay certain kinds of attention. But blogs and emails and Twitter actually have a hard time making sense of whole books. Which is why, usually, we respond to the newspaper and magazine articles — or especially other blog posts –ABOUT the books instead. I think this will be true until books are fully digital, and they can be sampled and excerpted with ease like individual tracks from albums.

So far, still, the media chain of attention has largely run downhill — from the big corporations who sell and promote books, movies, TV shows, and music; to the other TV shows, newspapers, and periodicals; and then to the blogs, etc.

Maybe we might see certain kinds of cultural objects — poetry, short stories, video shorts, scholarly writing — gradually shift to the blogosphere model. It used to be that if you were a poet, or an academic you had to 1) get published in a journal and then 2) publish a book based on things you wrote in journals. (Cory Doctorow’s still in that world; his new story collection is a reprint of all periodical pieces). But maybe poets and scholars and people who make short movies will start making short works for the blogosphere instead, counting on the leverage and attention they get from other blogs, who can copy and excerpt their luminous particulars with ease.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

Below, you can use basic HTML tags and/or Markdown syntax.