oulseeking is a column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
Two girls came through my apartment the other day on their way to a European soojurn. They slept in the living room, reminisced about the parts of their lives that intersected with mine, and were gone in the morning—but not before tethering camel-like iPods to my computer and siphoning every second of music they could. As they left, bowed beneath colossal weights to which the hundred-odd albums they'd just taken added not a gram, I wondered at an effect of computerization usually subsumed by flashier ones: the attitude it shapes in me towards my music collection, and whether (this as I waved a cheerful goodbye) such an attitude might be dangerous. It isn't legality that gives me pause—for better or worse, such concerns have been bred out of me—but something else.
I can guess how liberating the first tech-savvy music geek must have found the prospect of DIY digitization. Perhaps he was in a small town; perhaps his collector's fervor bred a regional perception that even if he was strange he could be counted on to competently take the questions that set the Borders clerks stammering, and to make suggestions that might lead you to discover a new bliss. He had a good heart, warmed by an enthusiasm demanding to be spread, and he didn't mind clearing up confusions and opening eyes to back catalogs, and unless trauma had ruined him he didn't mind lending out records to those who deserved them, knowing cassettes couldn't be trusted to deliver revelation. In his duties he was joined by the guys in town with the best bookshelves, the biggest TV, the most pornography—local experts all, resigned to their functions as libraries, making friends and influencing people. But the collector must have felt a pang each time he saw a treasure leave in another's hands; the ability to be as generous without risk must have seemed a godsend.
I am too young to be talking about myself. By the time I had accumulated anything resembling a collection my mother could have digitized it, and the few times I was approached as an expert it was for burned CDs or iPod material while my own copies lay safely down the hall; guests might take my entire collection and never glimpse it. No evaluation was necessary; I risked nothing by giving six CDs to someone who'd immediately set about leaving them face-down on sandpaper; if they provided their own CD-Rs, as they often did without my request, I need not summon any charity at all.
Other media lagged behind. When a friend of mine went away to college I lent him a copy of Douglas Adams' out-of-print nonfiction masterpiece Last Chance to See. The transaction was a solemn affair. I pretended I didn't care when it was returned, but he knew I did. The book came back to me months later, as promised, through the mail; I had to stand in line to pick it up, relieved that I’d chosen a trustworthy recipient. Quaint trappings, all, of times of physicality and concerns about character. (I may also have lent him some music, but I can't remember.)
A utopia, then, this post-physical world! Sort your directories well; turn your bitrates up high; give your precious artifacts the security of solitude; know they need never be touched by unknowable hands, for you are free! We have gone off the gold standard; we are cut down from the cross of vinyl. But as ever, abandoning specie beckons worthlessness. If the Europe-bound girls had asked for books, greater engagement would have been necessary: I would have had to feel as if I really knew them, something undefinable. I would have had to decide, warding off the Scylla of dishonest charity and the Charybdis of miserliness, what I could really bear to lose (for all loans should be treated as farewells). They, too, would have work to do, for there was little space left in the monoliths on their backs: what did they want to read? My recommendations would be more distinct; their tastes would be more careful. This is how friendships are strengthened: scarcity, when it isn't starting wars, is forging bonds. Had they asked for books I might be able to quote our conversation. But they asked for music, and nothing was said.
I'll say before the commentators do that anyone relying on borrowers for social interaction clearly has problems deeper than digitized music. But social destruction does not appear full-formed; it descends by degrees, in the guise of innumerable conveniences, and if each tradeoff seems positive the final equation might surprise. A college student's hard drive might now cradle gigabytes of unheard music, stripped wholesale from friends' computers and available at a word. But it all looks the same; it has nothing to recommend it; it waits unloved. The arrangement has no practical negative side, but collection—love—has always been impractical.
I grew up in the world I decry, and truthfully I wouldn't see it changed; abstract concerns are too weak to keep me crucified. There were days during my separation from Last Chance to See when I would have killed to check a page, and whatever's now soundtracking an exploration of Europe would be trapped in a Portland apartment had purity prevailed. I love music too much to see it hoarded. But to be cheapened is as sad a fate.