Information Whirlwind

In the late ’90s, when the advent of digital compression combined with anonymous newsgroup posting first made massive music giveaways a reality, a few people I knew would spend hours in front of their computers downloading everything they could find. They did it obsessively, even religiously; free stuff was a matter of faith for them, a kind of God-given miracle, proof of the universe’s ultimate benevolence. Much of what they indiscriminately downloaded was stuff they would never really listen to, ranging from Maiden bootlegs to massive Bear Family packages of complete works of Don Gibson.

Rather than listen to this stuff, they spent most of their time finding ways to store it all, burning CD after CD and printing comprehensive indexes of what they had. The care, thoroughness and deliberation was monastic; they were like scribes preserving the holy word. It was as if they believed the future survival of Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate records depended on their devout archiving.

But they ascribed no such spiritual overtones to their quest. When I would ask why they were doing it, they would reply, “How long do you think this is going to last?” It was only a matter of time before the culture industry figured out a way to lock up intellectual property as securely and permanently as the Enclosure Acts took away common lands in 18th century Britain. Free music can’t last forever, and my friends were going to get it while they could.

But free music keeps getting easier rather than harder to access. As information technology develops, it becomes harder to control and possess rather than easier; each advance makes information flow more freely between an ever-increasing cohort of senders. Information is becoming impossible to contain, becoming almost sentient in its ability to find ways of moving freely. Or rather, as Ando Arike argues in “Owning the Weather” (Harper’s, January 2006) information with its massive, uncontrollable, and difficult-to-predict movements, is becoming like weather, a force of nature.

“It takes only a small leap of imagination,” Arike writes, “to see the clouds of data circling the globe as . . . supplements to the convection currents of the oceans and atmosphere: trade winds, storm fronts and cyclones in the emergence of a new climactic system whose motive force is our dominant emotions — greed, envy, fear and wrath — and whose effects may soon approach those of El Nino and the jet stream.” Informational fronts sweep the earth, raining down obscure bits of knowledge in unlikely locales, visiting unwieldy information upon the terrain like a sign of God’s wrath, sending butterfly effects rippling through cyberspace at 11,000 kilobytes per second.

Swept up into this untethered maelstrom of information are tons of music files. The avenues for music-swapping keep evolving, with peer-to-peer trading systems giving way to social-networking sites and blogs which, thanks to file-hosting services such as Rapidshare and Yousendit, are becoming veritable libraries of songs and albums, making a bevy of random individuals into so-many Santa Clauses who generously share albums ripped from cherished vinyl or from advance copies that have been snatched from industry insiders.

What Rapidshare allows one to do is upload an entire album as an archive file to the Internet for free, regardless of size. Widespread broadband access makes this process time-efficient. Now, any record worth mentioning in a blog can almost as immediately be posted to share — the data already probably sits on the blogger’s hard drive (the massive increase in disk-storage space also has abetted the great music giveaway), so a few clicks is all that is needed to send it out to the world. After one stumbles upon one of these blogs, one can race through their archive and then through the archives of all the blogs they link to, and so on, until you’ve added 50 albums to your collection in a few hours. Add the DownThemAll Firefox extension to your browser (which cues every available file on a page for download) or pay the 10 euros for a premium Rapidshare membership, and you can make that 500 albums, if not more.

If you want a big, comprehensive music collection, and you own a computer with a fast connection, money no longer stands in your way, and time and a breadth of understanding about music don’t really, either. The Internet lets you harness the collective geek-knowledge of the entire world’s legion of blogging record collectors, and you can obtain in an evening records people once spent years of their life pursuing as personal grails, all without having ever having heard of them before. (Example: Search for “once-difficult-to-hear Beatles Christmas records”.)

That one would be compelled to collect all the music that’s out there might be attributable to the kind of mania brought on by a consumer society that emphasizes the pleasures of possession over use. But why do these people give away music? Why make the effort, slight as it is, to maintain these sites, and at some personal legal risk, just to distribute someone else’s intellectual property? Sheer altruism? Perhaps a quasi-spiritual belief in a transcendent community that obviates geography and supercedes the buyer-seller, exploiter-exploited relationships created by the marketplace animates a few of these kind souls. Perhaps others are animated by an anti-authoritarian sentiment, a grassroots anarchism against the hegemony of property. Maybe it’s simply a benevolent form of one-upmanship in which one builds prestige by making the most bountiful gifts. You’ve given away every Beach Boys bootleg on your site? Well, maybe I should give away every Teenage Shutdown compilation. The more gratuitous and extravagant the gift, the more prestige it affords the giver.

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in describing gift-giving rituals of archaic societies, notes that certain cherished objects are held to have “a certain power which forces them to circulate, to be given away and repaid,” a power that emerges in the perennial processes of exchange (The Gift, Norton, 1967). These treasured rarities may function similarly: that record you worked so hard to acquire — let’s say, the rare out-of-print outsider-art classic An Evening with Wild Man Fischer — may seem to beg to be shared, now that the technology exists, because by giving it away, you affirm the power in it you honored by pursuing it for so long. This de facto potlatch seems to embody anthropologist Mauss’s description of a morality that pre-exists the commercial one familiar from capitalism, one in which the ability and freedom to give signifies the greatest form of liberty.

Also, the compulsion to post obscure LPs to the Internet reinforces the secret motivation that lurks behind every collection: one’s desire to become a kind of personal curator to the world. The blog of mp3 obscurities becomes a personal museum wherein to show off one’s exquisite taste and the depth of holdings. The free audio files serve merely as bait to lure people into coming back to observe your shrewd choices and pay homage to your wisdom. The Internet gives collectors what they always need, what they live for: an ever-eager audience to marvel at their munificence. They need a community to make their accomplishments meaningful, but they no longer need to lure like-minded people from the record store to their basement to hear them spin rare 45s. Now they can just start a blog and get a decent site-meter to track the traffic.

So the ostentatious distribution of music achieves something monumental for the collector: it allows him to rechannel the energy stored in his records, built up from years of obsessive accumulation, and release it back into the community, giving him a great deal of prestige and perhaps earning him an enormous sense of relief. But with a surfeit of once-difficult-to-hear songs out there, the prestige of the music itself is waning. What one has heard no longer even signifies effort or devotion or even a particular interest. Anyone who finds a couple of good blogs can have amass a ’60s garage-rock collection that would dwarf that owned by the most inveterate collectors in the ’90s. The information contained in the music files has become exceedingly cheap; it’s out there for anyone to access. Knowing what the Insect Trust or Chamaeleon Church sounds like doesn’t mean anything, anymore (if it ever should have).

But though knowledge of the music is becoming less impressive, less likely to give you an air of distinction, owning the physical LPs is gaining in prestige: who has the space? who has the diligence? who wants to spend the money for a purely ornamental artifact? More than ever, records are for conspicuous consumption, because their usefulness as things has become moot. The cheapening of information through Internet technology has made physical ownership more impressive in and of itself, which likely makes actual comprehension of what one owns less significant. As more music is given away, owning music becomes more impressive (for the purpose of wowing others, and in our competitive, status-driven society, what other purpose is there?) than listening to it. Cheap information — free music and books and movies and everything else — only enhances the prestige of raw, unrefined brute ownership.

If you are interested in music for its own sake, there’s increasingly no reason to own any of it. It’s all available at any time, in one form or another, for free or for a nominal fee, in that informational wind blowing through cyberspace. But once you have set yourself free from yearning for the prestige attached to owning any specific stuff, once you have nothing of your identity invested in that, you can just start poking around and let the music wash over you. For a taste of what the future holds, check out, which purports to generate your own personal radio station for you based on an analysis of the qualities of the music you tell it you like.

For example, I told it I liked the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and it responded by playing Haircut 100. Why? “Based on what you’ve told us so far” (as if we are actually having, as the site promises, a “conversation” about music) “we’re playing this track because it features mild rhythmic syncopation, repetitive melodic phrasing, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, a vocal-centric aesthetic and many other similarities identified in the music genome project.” Right now Pandora’s database is a bit limited, but one can easily imagine it (or whatever inevitably supplants it) encompassing all commercial music.

No more will one need to build a collection in order to make an identity and give it some tangibility in a stack of culture goods that could be shown to someone else to let them know one belongs to the appropriate tribe. Websites such as this one will flesh out your musical identity for you, expanding your tastes on the basis of whatever inchoate hints you’ve provided. (The results can be remarkably clairvoyant: as I was writing this, Pandora dredged up “Psychedelic Holiday” by the Television Personalities, which opens with the singer repeating “It’s yours to take, it’s all for free.”) It makes recommendations impersonal and scientific, destroys the notion of shared communities being necessary to forward one’s taste, encouraging solipsism, as though what you like is entirely genetic and not at all socially constituted. So rather than own anything yourself, you can just let the service anticipate your wants and supply then just a moment before you conceive of them yourself. You’ll never have to long for new music or exhibit any musical curiosity; the associational and processing powers of the Web will be curious for you.

Extending the logic of further, you can use the Internet to replace personal growth, the development of different dimensions of self, with simply being more of what you already are — enjoying vaster quantities of the things you already like, reinforcing the rectitude of opinions you already have. The political blogosphere permits this as well: you can read dozens and dozens of liberal blogs a day without ever running out of opinions to consume — and without ever being exposed to an idea that challenges your preconceptions. With an ever-refreshing quantity of things always available no one need ever encounter real variety.

What services like Pandora suggest is that you can do away with the whole process of working up your identity altogether. A social identity is necessary to make yourself legible to other people, but Pandora, and other automated recommendation services like it promise that you don’t need other people to enhance your life at all; in fact, like consumer society generally (which seems to know to disparage the one thing it can’t provide), it champions as the essence of the convenience it provides the ability to avoid all other people.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.