pacotelic (pacotelic) wrote,


The sleight of hand that environmentalists need to work out is: how do we get the same number of utils to each consumer without consuming as much stuff?

The evolution of music over the last century may be instructive. I am currently listening to “Belfast” by 808 State on Pandora. I do own a physical copy this song on both tape and record, but I am listening to it through headphones without the aid of either of these.

A hundred years ago, if you wanted to listen to music, you went to a concert, an exhilarating event of organized noise. If you had some skill and money, you bought a manufactured instrument like a piano, trumpet or flute. If you had no money, but liked to make music, you might buy a cheap guitar or even bang on a bucket or log. All these personal ways of getting music into the house required that you learn to play the stuff on physical objects manufactured or found for the purpose. Every household that wanted music needed to get these instruments.

With the advent of the record player, it became possible for one set of instruments, skillfully played, to entertain an indefinite number of music aficionados. All they needed to do was buy a collection of vinyl records and a record player. Over most of the 20th century, the music industry worked to increase the fidelity of recorded sound to the original performance.

This is about when I started paying attention personally. My dad had about three feet of records, a nice record player and huge speakers in the living room. The act of putting the needle on the record was precious and precise. Doing this sloppily could injure the $10 record or the $100 needle. It demanded care. His tastes ran towards Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, so there weren't a lot of tracks per side. Just put the needle on the outside edge, and he was good for twenty or more minutes..

When I began to amass my own record collection, my interests were more pop oriented. As a result, I had to get good at getting that needle in the blank space between tracks. A very tactile act.
The trivial but noticeable trouble of moving between albums was such that LPs. Albums and music were all oriented towards the album, or single experience, because the pain of switching albums was too great.

The tape made the act of listening to music a pushbutton act, but you lost the ability to skip to the tracks you wanted. Just as automatic track detection became perfect, the CD became affordable, and millions of fans methodically refactored their music collections to the new format. For the first time, music was being delivered as digital files, not analog transcriptions. They were huge files, but the CD was engineered to fit the same amount of music as the longest LPs, without having to flip the record halfway through!

It still all required that you had a stereo, a player, speakers and a collection of the music you liked. If you didn’t have the album, you were at the mercy of the radio or your friends to hear the song.

All that changed in the 1990s when computer scientists figured that you compress sound the same way you compress images. The MP3, and its dozens of esoteric cousins, meant that your entire music collection could be stored on a single hard drive. Before, you knew how much music somebody had on hand by how many feet of shelf space were devoted to records, tapes or CDs. Now, a tiny collection of music takes up exactly as much space and wattage as a huge one.

And it keeps getting more abstract. With Pandora, Spotify et al., I can imperfectly access all the music in the world. If I don’t like a track, I can switch to any genre by typing a desired typical track. I am confident that this will get more convenient in the coming months, as I could be assured of listening to the song that I typed-in instead of some algorithmic cousin of the desired song.
Tags: abstraction, book, music
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