Message From the Country, Message From the Past
And While We're At It. . . (Another Lament)

Bye, Bye Tactile Pleasures? (Are Books and CDs Obsolete?)

Apple 4 GB iPod Nano BlackA friend recently forwarded me a short article that appeared in a music business blog, Tripwire, entitled Jewel Cases Are for Old People, Consumers Embrace the Future.  As a collector of CDs, I was righteously provoked and had the same emotion I felt when told that the book was obsolete.  I don't believe it.  Yet, the author documents a meteoric rise in legal downloads of music, one which gives me pause.  Will CDs and books fade away?  If so, what do we gain, and what do we lose?  Well, here are my initial thoughts, under which lies a fair degree of ambivalence and caution because, as so many have documented (see Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, for one), every technological advance always has both beneficial and harmful consequences.

Except for collectors like me, I suspect that most consumers are not wedded emotionally to the CD.  Apple was able to develop a small, very cool, container (the ubiquitous IPod) for a large quantity of digitized music, and I think most will love their IPods or other MP3 players as much as or more than the library of CDs.  On the other hand, no such cool container exists for books.  Not that it hasn't been tried (the Rocketbook, SoftBook, etc., and now EReaders on various handheld devices), but none function quite like a book held in the hand.  (For the early history of such attempts, see the 1998 Wired Magazine article entitled Ex Libris.) There is a tactile pleasure in reading the written word -- in turning pages, smelling the ink, knowing the book has history, and being able to jot notes in the margins and quickly skim through it -- that has not been duplicated in a digital device.  Reading a book is a sensory experience; curling up with my Treo 650 just doesn't cut it. 

To some extent the same tactile pleasure is true of CDs, yet less so.  We may read the liner notes or relish the packaging, but the sensation is less acute than that of book-reading. Plus, CDs have been around a lot less time than books.  So they are less culturally embedded  My conclusion: the CD may well fade, but I doubt the book will leave us anytime soon, if at all.

But hold on.  We know the benefits of our IPod, more music with less space, but what do we lose?  For starters, many excellent artists will not be enjoyed because their work requires patience and repeated listening.  I have noticed my impatience when I listen to music online.  I'm in that internet surfing mode.  If it doesn't pull me in on the first listen, I will likely move on.  Why? Probably because I have less commitment.  However, if I spend the money to buy a CD, you can be sure I will listen through all the songs at least two or three times.  Some albums grow on you.  Some take time to decipher.  And when I spend the cash on it, I'm committed.  I will give it time.  Thus, digital downloading plays to our impatience and lack of commitment, which is not healthy. 

Call me Luddite, but I did part with LPs (though I still miss them).  Maybe I'll be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital music world, but I hope I don't have to. I want to listen to less, but listen more deeply.  I want to be loyal to an artist.  I want to give them a chance.  I want them to explore concepts that may take a whole album to develop.  I want my CD.  How about you?