An elegy for the analogue
Remember the thrill of entering an old-style record store. If you’re too young to remember, then imagine – or go watch High Fidelity.
For earlier generations, this was a salutary exercise in delayed gratification. You’d heard a single, maybe two, even an album track on the radio (keeping it on in the background, waiting, waiting… no immediate gratification available). You’d pull out the album sleeve (or, slightly less romantically in the 90s, the CD cover) and admire the cover art, get lost in the production and band personnel, and read the track-listing – covetously if you’d not yet accumulated the hard-earned to purchase it, triumphantly if you had.
Then, home for the listening experience. This consisted of a critical engagement with the whole album, an attempt to project onto it a personal sense of organic cohesion (a now-defunct exercise of both creative and interpretive powers). The investment already made, not merely in money but in time and choice and opportunity cost, this investment necessitated a strong sense of commitment – to the album itself and your own listening process – reciprocal to the artist’s in composing and recording it.
There’s no reciprocity required in the face of disposable streaming, with its constant shuffling and moving impatiently from a song after the hook lick or riff has played. The same goes for what digital streaming services have done to the commitment involved in going to the movies or even taking home a video. Once you’ve exhausted the tiny percentage of quality series/shows on offer, it becomes an exercise in five to ten minutes of this or that, I’m not grabbed, this is boring, it’s not what I was expecting, I’m checking out, what’ll I try next, ad infinitum.
These are worthwhile distractions, life-enhancing, and commitment reassuring.
Another thing lost, and a great loss it is – discovery by happy accident. Stumbling on, say, Colourbox back in ’85 while flicking through looking for the Cocteau Twins’ Aikea-Guinea. But happy accident really enjoyed its ascendency in the old library card catalogue. Searching for specific books, to pinpoint their location on the shelves, then being suddenly distracted, perhaps even entirely re-focused, by… Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask… Zulfikar Ghose’s A New History of Torments… Mircea Eliade’s Mephistopheles and the Androgyne (well, who wouldn’t drop what they were doing for that). These are worthwhile distractions, life-enhancing, and commitment reassuring. A far cry from today’s ubiquitous distractions of the phone (which, as some studies have it, erode memory retention just by being in the same room, from an A level to a C).
Digital searching yields no happy accidents. “Customers who bought this also bought…” cons are choice-enfolding rather than taste-expanding. And while Tech companies are obsessed with protecting the inscrutability of their algorithms, the one thing we know for sure about algorithms is that they’re all about offering you more of the same old shit. Even peer recommendations are constrained in their range, echo-chamber-bound within established groupings of uniform tastes.
The death of tradition
We no longer really commit to experiences that once accompanied states of mind of reflection, deliberation, and engagement. Failing attention spans play their part, as do the ever more aggressive intrusions of triviality. We’ve lost the steady accretion of enlightenment. We’ve lost the contemplative process of illumination. We’ve lost the mutually-directed commitment and consideration in engaging with like-minded, or indeed very differently-minded, minds.
We skim, we scan. We look, not for beauty, but for the easy immediacy of novelty. Insta-platitudes have become our new poetry, asinine memes our new philosophical axioms.
Most damningly, this represents an undermining of the aesthetic dimension of the Social Contract – a compact between audience and artist that has ennobled cultures since the emergence of oral traditions.
Doris Lessing, in her Nobel Lecture from a decade or so ago, tells a story of a story – of a young, impoverished mother in Zimbabwe captivated by a fragment of War and Peace. Lessing evokes a three-way obligation of commitment to narrative (comprising reader, writer and, allowing a touch of indulgent personification, the work itself) that has always existed, until today when it no longer does. That tradition failing, “we are a jaded lot… good for irony and even cynicism.” Not good, not anymore, for mutually sustaining and enriching commitment.
True commitment, in love, real-life over lifestyle, and art over artifice, has always required the hard work of mutual fidelity and attentiveness. When we demand less of ourselves, we demand less of others, and they in turn demand less of themselves, then less of us, a self-perpetuating social blight. When we no longer truly commit to ourselves, what have we left to commit to each other?