The Thing Inside

20 Jun

The problem with blogging is that I need to use a computer to do it. I, of course, do not own a computer. Computers are impersonal, Orwellian, homogenizers. They are as silent as death and as cunning as surprise death. So usually I have to go to the library to use one of their “thinking machines” in order to upload my weekly polemics. My original is written either in long hand, or on my manual typewriter, a device no self-stylized writer would go without. I am inspired by the clickety clack of the keys, the ink on my hands when I have to unstick the keys when they go clickety clack too fast, and the all-day search for a local store that carries typewriter ribbons that contain the ink that gets on my hands when I unstick the keys that go clickety clack too fast. After using the library’s computer I like to head out for a cup of fair trade coffee and a quinoa salad.

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The above bullshit was inspired, if that is the correct word, by this article by Adam Mansbach, entitled “Down with fascist iPods.” Specifically, the author contrasts the fascism of the iPod with “genius of vinyl,” which lets us:

Put our fingerprints all over that history: to blend and chop and reconfigure it, mock and muse upon it, backspin and skip through it. Vinyl spins like the earth on its axis, the planets around the sun, the hands of a clock. Unspools like time itself. Our ability to control it symbolizes a power greater than any we have over our own lives.

Oh boy.

A few months back I wrote a bit about Jonathan Franzen’s dislike of e-readers. “I think, for serious readers,” Franzen pontificated, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience.”

Both authors rhapsodize about media they believe are dying. Furthermore, they eulogize the culture associated with the media. Franzen never discusses a specific book, he speaks about the act of reading. Mansbach doesn’t list a single album or song, rather he waxes nostalgically about buying LPs in record stores, and in the “frailty” of vinyl. “Sun warps it. Turbulence disturbs it. Ill treatment scars it, for life. It’s intensely tactile. That’s important.” Their emotional ties are not necessarily to the stuff reproduced, but to the object that does the reproduction, and to the cultural memories associated with those objects.

Marshall McLuhan’s concept that “the medium is the message,” speaks to this idea. This phrase shouldn’t be taken too literally. It’s not about a device and the information stored within it (a record and a song, a book and a story), but about how certain media change culture. One reason movie going culture jumped in the 1920s was not the quality of the films or the stars associated with them, but air conditioning. As air conditioning became installed in more and more theaters, attendance began to rise. The cool air made theaters a place for the masses to congregate during the hot summer months.  Think of it as the predecessor to Michael Bay, except air conditioners have souls.

My life and cultural experiences have changed because of the changing technological landscape. Because I stream Netflix through my TV, I go to the movies far less now than I did five years ago. I have more incentive to go to the gym because I can listen to my own music on my iPod. I am more likely to be invited to and attend a social event because of the many online ways I can be invited.  I haven’t written a letter – not an e-mail, but an honest to goodness letter with a stamp on it – in over ten years. Whether that is a good or bad cultural development is for each of us to decide on his own.

New inventions change how we act, how we socialize, how we live our lives.

Mansbach’s article – while over-the-top hyperbole of the highest poseur order – reflects not really his disgust with MP3 players, but his fear that a certain culture will be lost. That all he will have left are memories. That the happy times of the past can never be recreated.

I get it. I’ve felt the same way about the transition from film to digital in moviemaking.

For many years I believed that film, that piece of celluloid that runs at 24 frames per second through a sprocketed camera, has a quality that is impossible to reproduce except in one place: our dreams. Film looks like our dreams. Or our dreams look like film. Either way, it’s kinda pretentious.

I’ve seen – and enjoyed – enough movies shot in digital to get over my fear of losing celluloid. The medium upon which the story is told is not as important as the story itself. The thing inside the container is that which has value, not the container itself. The question then becomes: how much do the tools we use to listen to music, to read books, to watch movies, etc., change the actual content? Can we live with the iPod which slightly distorts sound quality? Must I watch a movie on the big screen? Or can I do it on my flat screen? How about on an iPad? Or an iPod? Is a non-backlit Kindle okay, but a backlit Nook not?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It depends on an individual’s own acceptable level of quality.

And that’s my main issue with both Mansbach and Franzen. It’s not their attitudes toward their preferred media. It’s their all-or-nothing, absolutist proclamations. Their opinions – for that’s what they are – are shaped by their experiences. But we all have different experiences.  Some like to write longhand, some on a typewriter, and many others on computers. It doesn’t matter how the writing happens, only what works best for you. Just because listening to something on vinyl makes one person happy, doesn’t mean that it will affect the rest of us the same way. I can’t stand seeing someone watch a great movie on a smartphone, but I’m not going to get all apoplectic about it.

Years ago I actually did buy a manual typewriter. Back then I thought that’s what a writer should have. But it was a fashion accessory for a person pretending to be a writer.  It was a toy, not a tool. I guess I thought that it would somehow make me happy, validate who I thought I was or wanted to be. I was seeking happiness from an object, a box with a bunch of keys in it and a modicum of historical/cultural significance. I only found happiness (well, a smidge of it) when I put aside the thing I was writing on, and focused on those things that mattered most – the writing itself and what came of it.

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