Goodbye to the Record Store

I spent half of my childhood in the thick of things in Chicago and the other half in rural-exurban Western Massachusetts. It always surprises me when someone says "I can’t imagine you in the countryside" (I often fantasize publicly about living in Vermont or somewhere similarly rural). What, Points of Interest in the Owens River Valley wasn’t enough for you? 

Since my exurban life came during my all-important teenage years, I found it  crucial to visit the city where I’d scour the record stores or to tune into WRPI, a great industrially-oriented radio station, something I could only do whenever the horrific local Christian station was off the air. When I went to college at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I was even further from civilization and without even a decent radio station (the college radio station was obsessed with Phish, infinitely worse fate than even classic rock) and so-so record stores. I invested in a short wave radio to listen to the John Peel show (and, when I could get it, the brilliant, ill-fated Radio Sierra Leone) and took painfully long road trips to the city to the same record stores to collect more music.

All this is gone now. I haven’t been to a record store in years. I’m a bit of an audiophile so I still keep the best music in CDs but no record store is as efficient as the Net so I even that fix takes place online. In any event the record stores have closed down, the staff off to do God knows what. The scene is gone.

Why do I blog this? Simply enough: the old role of cities as places that you go to in order to experience hard-to-find culture is over. The Nick Hornby novel/film High Fidelity is completely foreign to network culture. Ours is the world of the Long Tail. Everything is available. The city is dead.  

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A Chapter on Atemporality

I’ve put a revised version of the introduction to my book on network culture together with the first chapter—on atemporality—on my site. I hope you’ll be as excited to read this material as I am to post it.

I know that I owe my most readers a few words of explanation about why it took over a year to post a chapter that I had initially thought I’d have up within a couple of months.

First, I had the honor of writing a chapter in Networked: A (Networked) Book on (Networked) Art. As part of this project, I agreed that I wouldn’t take the material for the chapter and immediately publish it on my own site. That material, like a lot of the research I  did last year requires substantial reworking to fit the book (little of it is in the first chapter…you’ll see it later, in the chapter on poetics).

Second, I’ve thoroughly rethought the book during the intervening year not once but repeatedly. This is hardly a crisis, but rather the way that I—and many historians—write. Revise again and again as you nibble at unformed parts until everything comes together.

Some of you have asked how the revision process works, so I’ve left the record on the site, just go to the revisions tab for any section and compare the current version with earlier ones. Of all the revisions, the most significant is a new model of historical succession that I find simply works for network culture. Whereas last year I had some uncertainty about just how this book would be a history, the first chapter—which of course is on history—now makes my strategy of relying on Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Nealon’s model of intensification emphatically clear.

Speaking of revisions, make no mistake, there are plenty of rough patches in these chapters. This is, after all, a draft. Don’t  read it if you want a finished product. But also don’t think you should hold back on your commentary. Whether at Networked or at the other ventures including this one, networked books have largely failed at generating comments. Don’t let that stop you. If you see a problem in the text call me out on it wherever you feel appropriate. The more that I can draw on the massive collective intelligence of my readership, the better this project wil be.   

While I’m on the topic of collective intelligence… This first chapter owes much to a dialogue that Bruce Sterling and I have maintained between our blogs (take, for example, Bruce’s discussion of atemporality in his keynote address at Transmediale this year) and on Twitter with many of you. All of the kind attention that this dialogue brought during the first few months of the year makes me think that my attempt to write a history of atemporality is both timely and untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense).

Finally, a word about the book title. It’s very much in flux now, but I’m thinking it might be "Life After Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture."   

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On the iPad’s Fatal Flaw

I’ve had my iPad for a short while and am enjoying it immensely. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed that people who don’t immediately understand how they would want one wind up taking them back to the store or, if they didn’t purchase one, sometimes even get hostile (sometimes, even when they should know better because, say, they teaching in the digital media field). 

There’s no question anymore that this is a successful implementation of a computing typology that is fundamentally different from either a laptop or a desktop. A tablet computer that is ready to go at a moment notice is great for looking up recipes in the kitchen, for reading a newspaper or a book in the subway, and perfect for taking notes in lectures. It’s much less intrusive than a laptop, which can’t be held in one hand when standing and creates a barrier between the individual and others in a seminar or classroom. The multitouch interface works much better on the iPad than it does on the iPhone. Of the two, the latter seems like the unit I can more easily live without. 

I take immense pleasure in being able to haul around hundreds of books in a device that weighs less than a copy of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism book and occupies less space. Highlighting isn’t available yet, but it will be soon and with it, full-text search. At that point, the transformation of academic books into immaterial objects will be just a matter of time. I used to care a great deal accumulating a library at home, but if I can have one with me in my bag, then which is more useful? 

Still, don’t get me wrong. If a comparable product emerges from another vendor, I will defect immediately. I’m no great fan of the walled garden of applications that Apple has created, nor am I a fan of their "Father Knows Best" attitude toward the user. But everything so far is still vaporware or much less capable, so I’m stuck with the iPad for now.

As promised in the title of this piece, there IS a fatal flaw to the iPad, only it’s fatal not to Apple but to the media. There has been a lot of noise about how the iPad would give the media one more chance to survive. I was dubious that the iPad would play Jesus to the media to begin with, but now that Apple has banned applications developed by Adobe’s Flash Packager for iPhone, it’s game over. 

Where a periodical previously would have been able to develop an issue in Indesign, distribute it in print and over the net, convert it to Flash for non-Apple devices and use Flash Package for Apple devices, now the latter are inaccessible unless the media developer hand codes the application. This is much, much harder. At the Netlab, for example, we would have loved to produce periodicals, pamphlets, and books to read on the iPad  using a workflow consisting of Indesign, Flash, and the media packager, but now this is impossible. I’m not lamenting this too much. It’s disappointing, but our material will appear on the Web and as PDFs.

I see no great reason to complain. The Netlab doesn’t make money off its publications. But what about commercial periodicals? They’ll have to struggle to monetize content on the iPad and that difficulty—precisely at a time when they’re struggling just to stay afloat—will prove fatal for many. The rapid pace of creative destruction moves on. 

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Some notes on the iPad

This morning I went to the local Apple store and picked up my iPad. I have been dying for a way to bring my PDF library with me for some time. My work revolves around reading and since I commute and travel it’s difficult not to have texts with me. In fourteen years of teaching, I’ve never had a proper office with a bookshelf and my current office, at Columbia’s Studio-X, doesn’t have room for more than a few books. A tablet full of PDFs struck me as a good replacement for the books in my library that don’t have high-resolution imagery. Moreover, putting PDFs on a tablet for use in during class discussions strikes me as a better way to go paperless in the classroom. I forget photocopies from time to time and a tablet is more like a sheet of paper than a laptop is. I can put it down and it’s no longer a physical artifact between my students and myself.

My initial impression is that this will be a tremendous success for me. I have hundreds of books in Papers on my Macs and can read them in Skim on either computer or in the Papers application on the iPad. It’s frustrating not having highlighting yet, but this will come either via Papers or a competitor.

To be sure, I have mixed feelings. I don’t like the closed nature of the App Store and I am wary of adding yet another product from the Apple ecosystem into my workflow. Still, just as the Kindle spurred the iPad, the iPad will, I hope, spur competitors. And I doubt that calling this the decade in which computing becomes pervasive will be much of a mistake. Computing is already pervasive.

It was enlightening to stand in line and discuss the different usage scenarios with the other purchasers. One individual is an artist who wants to use it as a sketchpad (I’m afraid that I would not buy Moleskine stock after today…my Moleskine is likely to be a victim), another is a photographer who wants to bring his portfolio with him, a third works with autistic children and uses the iPod Touch with them, a fourth thought he would use it for medical applications. I also see the tablet as an ideal device for the aging baby-boomer set whole will use it to browse the Web, make purchases, read magazines, do the New York Times crosswords, see pictures of the grandkids, and watch Netflix on it.

To some degree, it will spur new, media-rich publications. At the same time, these are difficult to make and even more difficult to capitalize. This decade will be devastating to media in this regard—and the last decade was already bad. Recently, I was at a lecture where someone suggested that his students weren’t familiar with CDs, that they used iTunes to purchase their music. Actually, he was grossly mistaken. Young people today simply don’t purchase music, they Torrent it or download it from Rapidshare. There are already large numbers of texts— academic and commercial—available for free from pirate sites. It’s a losing battle to fight this. I’m sure that some sites will be shut down, but others will open up. Moreover book piracy is immensely attractive to individuals doing research or teaching in foreign countries. A colleague from the developing world mentioned that she would use my writing in her courses because so little material on contemporary architecture was on the Web. Today she would have a choice of hundreds of books, all available to download freely, if illegally. Foreign governments will tacitly look the other way. Why should the US, the EU, and Japan have the knowledge? My children’s generation will find books purchasing as foreign as music purchasing is for the millenials.

Having easily searchable text will transform scholarship. Reading scholarly books cover to cover may become as odd as listening to albums cover to cover. My colleague at AUDC, Robert Sumrell suggests that complete availability and the ease of search will undo the need to read books at all. To some extent, I suppose it will. Moreover, the staggering amount of knowledge that will be at your fingertips may well act as a disincentive to create. The music industry hasn’t just collapsed because nobody is purchasing music: there haven’t been any new movements since hip-hop, alternative, and electronica. In part, this may be because technology now makes it possible to produce any sounds you can conceive of so technology is actually not a driver for music anymore and in part, this may be because local scenes just don’t develop the way they used to now that music spreads across the world in minutes. When everything is known, Baudrillard would suggest, we have no need for anything anymore. This is a polemic of course, but I think it makes some sense too.

There’s a lot of noise now about how media-rich magazines will be solve the problem of monetizing content for the press. But who will pay for all that media and all that design? Magazines are already strapped. I am not convinced that this will work, at least not for the majority of publications. 

All that said (and I thought I’d mention that all this was written on an iPad that I am using a bluetooth keyboard with), I can’t deny that the iPad makes me feel like it’s 2010, just as using a DVD for the first time in bed on my laptop in 2001 (and yes, it WAS 2001: A Space Odyssey) made me feel like it was 2001. Welcome to the future, now let’s see how we survive it.  

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