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.
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