Sunday, April 15, 2018

Facebook is a wake-up call that must not be ignored


A timeline comment of 'I don't think Facebook is perfect by any means... but this is the medium that I find most congenial... and so I'm here for the duration. I hope you'll stay too' and the associated 473 likes and 35 shares to date sum up the prevailing attitude among influential figures in the classical music world. So fortuitously for Mark Zuckerberg and other rapacious online corporations, the data sharing scandal will soon be forgotten, buried beneath Trump's latest folly and the new Brexit mud-slinging. But a vitally important point is being missed. The Facebook scandal must not be ignored, because it is not just about the security of social media profiles. It is about the much wider and even more serious issue of how we have allowed digital technologies to control our lives.

Over the years my shared overgrown paths about serendipitous CD discoveries have brought pleasure and some modest enlightenment to readers. I have never purported to be a professional critic or cultural commentator so, unlike many other bloggers, I pay for almost all the CDs and books I write about. Many of the CDs featured here were bought from specialist independent retailer Prelude Records in Norwich. In January 2017 Prelude closed, with owner Andrew Cane blaming "a slow, but steady decline in business as download purchases and streaming music services have boomed". With Prelude gone and the nearest surviving specialist record store 62 miles away, I was left with no option but to buy discs online. So in the past 14 months I have experienced first hand the damaging degree of control now exercised by online corporations.

If Prelude Records had a CD in stock I bought it and took it away with me. Now if Amazon and its resellers have the disc in stock, they may despatch it in a week, and if I am lucky it will arrive within another week. But if, of course, I want it quickly - just like in the Prelude days - I have to pay an eye-watering premium. Or I must sign up to pay a fixed monthly charge for the delights of Prime, which brings me additional dubious benefits including streamed Jeremy Clarkson. And if I don't shell out £79 a year, there is clear evidence that Amazon deliberately delays shipping non-Prime orders to blackmail its customers into committing to a monthly Prime subscription.

But let's look at that 'in stock' label. Online retailers want my order and know they will only get it if they show an item as 'in stock'. But in-stock where? Increasingly in-stock means anywhere in the supply chain; it is quite clear that its resellers, and I suspect Amazon, are ordering 'in-stock' product from their sources when they receive an order, adding days to the supply process. And recent experience has convinced me that resellers and possibly Amazon are claiming to have despatched orders before they actually do. For instance, on several occasions I have ordered a CD late at night from a UK reseller to find a 'your order has been despatched' email arrived just hours later - ie in the middle of the night - from the vendor. There are two very good reasons for an online vendor to claim premature despatch. The first is that my credit card is charged when despatch is claimed. The second is that very fast despatch generates five star ratings for the vendor in those all important vendor reviews. And, incidentally, did I mention that having eliminated almost all bricks and mortar competition by scorched-earth pricing, Amazon's prices for specialist CDs are now, typically, higher than in the few remaining high street outlets? And how about Amazon's tax evasion?

Then of course what happens when an order has not arrived? A CD from Amazon is currently several days overdue. But I cannot claim a refund because Amazon enforces a period of grace between the stated latest arrival date and actioning a refund. So I order a new car from a BMW dealer, but when it arrives it only has three wheels. When I complain the dealer explains there is a 'latitude of grace' between the brochure description of four wheels and my tricycle. Of course we wouldn't tolerate it in the bricks and mortar world. So why do we tolerate it in the online world? And incidentally, the old Prelude record premises are now a chic pasta bar straight out of Silicon Valley.

And what about the problem that, thanks to the internet, CDs are a threatened species. Silly you the technology junkies tell me: you should buy downloads. Or should I? Last month Apple announced the end of iTunes downloads and Amazon Music has stopped MP3s uploads to its storage subscription service. So if I had donated my CD collection to the local charity shop I would now have a redundant semi-library. Silly you the technology junkies tell me yet again: sign up for a streaming service and you will be in virtual heaven. Yes, a virtual heaven that has Facebook's addictive attraction of congeniality, and which surrenders music ownership to yet more rapacious corporations and, along the way, fails to adequately reward musicians and others involved in the creative process. And given the brief commercial half-life of downloads, how long will music streaming be around?

Then there is all the valuable content being given away on Facebook and YouTube, presumably because those platforms are 'congenial'. (Is 'congenial' the new buzzword replacing 'accessible'?) And there is the terminal damage inflicted on intelligent journalism by social media and other online platforms. (There is nothing more ridiculous than professional critics complaining on social media about the damage done to professional criticism by social media.) And how about the totally ignored threat of soon-to-arrive quantum computing to all forms of internet security, meaning that "any password with less than 5000 characters will be Brute Force cracked in a millisecond"?

At this point it is probably necessary if somewhat egotistical to clarify my viewpoint, before the usual accusations of luddite fly around. My long term professional involvement with digital technologies started in 1991 when I was responsible for a pioneering commercial system for creating video game software on demand. I worked closely with Amazon and other internet retailers when they first entered the UK market on implementing internet based ordering platforms, and was involved in the feasibility study that brought print-on-demand technology for books to the UK. Towards the end of my career I was heavily involved in the application of metadata - key identifier information - in the home entertainment industry. So my views may differ from the majority, but they are not based on ignorance.

It is evidence of how far classical music has its head rammed up its own niche that rock music is more aware of the downsides of our digital culture. Of course new technologies are an inescapable part of our life, and this blog is brought to you using software supplied by rapacious media corporation Google. But, as Jerry Mander so wisely explained, we should assume all technology guilty until proven innocent. Today too many people who should know better are viewing technology as being exempt from any ethical accountability, simply because it is 'congenial'. It won't make a blind bit of difference to the big picture, but I am now trying to maintain control of my own life by distancing myself progressively from the more insidious digital technologies. So, if you depend on my social media links, this is the last Overgrown Path post you will read. If you want to keep reading my inconvenient truths please register using the box in the sidebar to receive RSS/email updates or keep returning to the blog's homepage. As they say on Facebook, I hope you'll stay. But if not, thanks for following my past paths.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

9 comments:

Pliable said...

Joshua Cheek comments on errrr..... Facebook 'Agree, agree a HUNDRED times agree with everything you wrote! It's NOT just Facebook, but the entire digital ecosystem! I will, of course, be following you off FB and will dutifully share your thoughts in the future!'

Pliable said...

Again on Facebook Gregory Applegate Edwards comments:

'Well worth reading. Thanks for posting. It touches the surface of the deepest problems of value in a digital marketplace. When Amazon started out I really wondered how they could get away often enough with supplying almost no information about an item. It assumed you had already done due diligence I suppose. So in many ways if a recording is obscure to begin with you no longer have the chance to come upon it in record store stacks, read the back-cover liners and decide to take a chance. On some place like Amazon you may never order the equivalent title. It has little appeal if you know nothing about what to expect. There are many other problems and the farewell posts points to many of them nicely.'

Pliable said...

Still no option on the Amazon France website to request a refund for that missing order. But an email to the Amazon France press office in French and a subtle link to OAOP prompts a grovelling phone call within minutes and the offer of an immediate refund. But, incidentally, will I take the refund as an Amazon gift voucher? NO!

"It is about the much wider and even more serious issue of how we have allowed digital technologies to control our lives....."

Pliable said...

I am not alone - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43781281

MarkAMeldon said...

So, we are getting to where some predicted; less choice, less originality, less diversity, less control as everything goes on-line. There is hope for optimism, though. I'm a 'one-man band' financial adviser and, to my delight and surprise, I have seen a big uptick in new enquires this year so far. When I ask why people want to pay me to do something for them (whatever that might be) when they can likely 'DIY' on-line for (a lot) less, they often say that it's about confidence and wanting specialist 'face-to-face' advice. In other words, human interaction, not an algorithm or 'robo-adviser'!

I, too, have just about given up on Amazon for new CDs, but it's still a useful source for used ones - most of these have been just fine, in my experience. Instead, I'll order from MDT/Europadisc/Presto instead when buying something new.

And, of course, the charity shop 'lucky-dip' can be fun, too, although several have wised up to pricing. Indeed, my local Oxfam in Wells, Somerset, has now pride itself out of the market by, you guessed it, entering the barcode onto Amazon a pricing accordingly! I realise why they do this, but the pricing is now decidedly optimistic!

I know I'll never download or stream and guiltly look at my way too large collection of CDs, but these all have memories and stories attached to them. Like the Japanese Toshiba/EMI 'Blue-Spec' (?) CDs picked up for £1 wach in Abergavenny, the boxes of some keen deceased collector's CDs (600+) from PDSA in Taunton for £375, the bundle of 'historic' CDs from Bridport, 35-years worth of 'Gramophone' back issues for 99p from Ebay (yes, really!) etc., etc. Can't have that with streaming!

I'll admit that I'm very unlikely to listen to all of my CDs again before I die, but it's nice to know they are there as a kind of 'cultural archival library' and, contrary to my expectations, very few have rotted and they all play very well.

I suppose the next problem will be replacing my SACD/CD player when it dies (I have a spare) 'cos there seem to be fewer made now; I see Oppo has just ceased production.

Best,

Pliable said...

Mark, thanks for that. Like you I have just about given up on Amazon for new CDs, and my experience with them in the 24 hours since writing that post simply reinforces that decision. With no replacement/refund option on their ordering website for the missing CD I had to resort to using a torturous email facility. In my email I asked specifically for a refund. I was then contacted by a customer service operative who said 'Yes, I can give you a refund. But sorry, I don't have the authority to issue refunds against credit cards. So will you take an Amazon gift voucher instead?' You can imagine my response....

I have no connection with Arcam other than being the very satisfied owner of several of their products including an SACD player. If in the future you are in the market for a SACD player look at their CDS27; it is new so hopefully will be around for some time.

http://www.arcam.co.uk/products,FMJ,CD-Player,cds27.htm

MarkAMeldon said...

I used to have an Arcam player years ago (under different ownership back then, I believe I'm right in saying so) but it was damaged by my then 2-year old. After a dalliance with a used and very temperamental second-hand Meridian player, I listened through the noise of several UK Hi-Fi magazines and several dealers and went to Onkyo for a while, upgrading a couple of years ago to a 'bin-end' Denon SACD (two-channel) player - it's robust and sounds great through my LS3/5A - like Wharfedale Denton 80th anniversary edition speakers http://www.hi-fiworld.co.uk/index.php/loudspeakers/65-reviews/519--wharfedale-denton-80th-anniversay-edition.html

The thing is, it's the actual laser/transports that are slowly going out of production and, rather like a cartridge for LP, they do wear out eventually. Indeed, an acquaintance recently bought 3 new CD players, keeping two in sealed boxes 'just in case' - he might find other time-related decay 'issues' though.

When I look back at 25-year old Gramophone magazines, it's amazing to be reminded as to just how expensive (in cash terms) CDs were 25-30 years ago - no wonder they sold in tiny quantities - and now you can buy the Sony box of the great Rudolf Serkin https://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/classical/products/8314947--rudolf-serkin-the-complete-columbia-album-collection for relative peanuts. I paid just £95.98 including delivery from jpc.de (who own the most interesting CPO label). Arrived, very securely packaged, in 4 days from Germany and had one faulty disc. One email later, a replacement disc arrived 3 days later from jpc. Well-worth looking at their website as great offers come up regularly - eat your heart out Amazon!

Best,

Pliable said...

Talking of which - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-43797128

Mark said...

There's hive.co.uk that contributes to a bookshop of your choice with every purchase made (hive.co.uk sell CDs and DVDs and such, as well as books). Their prices are often very reasonable and sometimes cheaper than Amazon.

And you all must know discogs.com, surely. A wonderful market for buyers of all tastes.

Amazon may be big but they're not the only place to buy.