I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?
I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player, his piece on metadata and what he calls “the myth of liberation”, a post spurred in turn by David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous.
Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art.
Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world – a world of profound physical and economic constraints – from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it.
That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others.
The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints. When Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records was trying to figure out how long the long-playing format should be, he settled on 17 minutes a side as something that would “…enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.” But why only 90%? Because 100% would be impossible — the rest of the canon was too long for the technology of the day. And why should you have to flip the record in the middle? Why not have it play straight through? Impossible again.
Contra Carr, in other words, the pre-digital world was a world of profound physical and economic constraints. The LP could hold 34 minutes of music, which was a bigger number of minutes than some possibilities (33 possibilities, to be precise), but smaller than an infinite number of others. The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle.
And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.
And it hasn’t.
Here is the iTunes snapshot of Exile, sorted by popularity:
The only way to support the view that Exile is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones. Carr sets about this task with gusto:While we can’t get absolute numbers from this, we can get relative ones — many more people want to listen to Tumbling Dice or Happy than Ventilator Blues or Turd on the Run, even though iTunes makes it cheaper per song to buy the whole album. Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks.
Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night – or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.
Only a fool. If you are one of those people who has, say, Happy on your iPod (as I do), then you are a fool (though you have lots of company). And of course this foolishness extends to the recording industry, and to the Stones themselves, who went and put Tumbling Dice on a Greatest Hits collection. (One can only imagine how Carr feels about Greatest Hits collections.)
I think Weinberger’s got it right about liberation, even taking at face value the cartoonish version Carr offers. Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities.
This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.
In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”
This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.
Genres are always created in part by limitations. Albums are as long as they are because that Wallerstein picked a length his engineers could deliver. Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal.
I’m old enough to remember the dwindling world, but it never meant enough to me to make me a nostalgist. In my students’ work I see hints of a culture that takes both the new freedoms and the new constraints for granted, but the fullest expression of that world will probably come after I’m dead. But despite living in transitional times, I’m not willing to pretend that the erosion of my worldview is a crisis for culture itself. It’s just how things are right now.
Carr fails to note that the LP was created for classical music, but used by rock and roll bands. Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. This kind of transition isn’t a threat to Culture Itself, or even much of a tragedy, and we should resist attempts to preserve old constraints in order to defend old forms.