Monday, September 15, 2014

Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'

The photo above generated quite a bit of interest when it first appeared here a couple of months age. It was taken at 15,000 feet on one of the highest roads in the world and shows the Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la listening to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala. When I took the photo we were approaching Kenrap-la's monastery at Thiksay at the end of the 800 km drive across the Himalayas from the Gangetic Plain of northern India to Ladakh on the border of Tibet. Body Mandala was playing on my iPod Classic, and it had been ripped from an NMC CD bought in independent retail store Prelude Records. As regular readers will know, my listening model is a large CD/vinyl collection that is selectively ripped to portable media for mobile listening. It is a hybrid model that is used by a lot of people, and the listener is not the only winner, because the musicians get a fair royalty, independent record stores stay in business, and the listeners have control over the music they listen to, and how they listen to it.

But it is a model that may not be around much longer. In May Apple purchased leading music streaming service Beats, and just last week the iPod Classic, with its 160GB of storage capacity, was quietly discontinued as part of Apple's strategy of moving from stored to streamed music. Speaking in defence of streaming, Spotify's vice president of product Frederic Vinna has argued that "Streaming is about access versus ownership." An alternative view is that streaming is about sweat equity investors versus financial speculators. Benjamin Britten identified the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener, and at the heart of the streaming debate, and also at the centre of almost every other debate in classical music, is the shift of control from sweat equity investors - composers, performers and listeners - to powerful financial speculators who want to grab control of the music we listen to and how we listen to it. The agenda of those speculators is dictated by nothing other than short term financial gain, as the profile of investors backing the Groovebug streaming service, the technology partner behind Universal Music's new DG Discovery streaming app, reveals.

I continue to be surprised that many otherwise knowledgeable classical music listeners have little understanding of the dramatically different business model behind streamed music, with many thinking that downloaded and streamed music share very similar business models. This debate is not about new versus old technology, and it is not about CDs versus the classical cloud. It is about who controls the music. Virgil Thomson once wisely said: "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information". A major problem with music streaming is the one-sided information about it. The next time you read a press release from Apple, Deutsche Grammophon, Groovebug or any of the other champions of music streaming, work your way through the following ten point checklist. It was compiled by Jerry Mander in 1991 when the digital age was just dawning, but, if anything, it is even more relevant today.

1. Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.

2. Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'.

3. Eshew the idea that technology is neutral or 'value free'. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.

4. The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.

5. Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question in not whether it benefits you, but who benefits most? And to what end?

6. Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, 'megatechnology'. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.

7. Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.

8. When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as 'bribery'.

9. Do not accept the homily that 'once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back', or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.

10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.

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ken nielsen said...

Thoughtful and interesting observations. Thank you. I follow a similar model, though I use streaming services to discover music then buy the CD and rip (usually). I enjoy being able to hold, and read, the physical recording.
I don't think I accept Jerry Mander's checklist, but it's not a bad starting point.
Personally, I enjoy most technology. The iPod improved my quality of life and I am glad I trusted it from the start.

psu said...

I don't think the iPod classic was discontinued for any other reason than a relative lack of sales.

I think it's healthy to be skeptical of both the new and shiny and also the analysis of the new and shiny in the tech press, which is mostly clueless. But, while it may be selfish on my part, the small city I've lived in for the last 20 years has never had an excellent and independent classical music retailer, so I am thankful for the access that the various web (and iTunes) stores provide.

Pliable said...

The iPod Classic may have been discontinued for a relative lack of sales. But why did Apple buy the Beats music streaming service?

'For Apple, Beats' Streaming Service Trumps Headphone Business' -