Monday, July 18, 2011

The ineluctable modality of the cloud

A long time ago, records (those grooved vinyl discs) were replaced with compact discs.

The music industry was very keen on CDs. The superior sound quality, it was argued, would make them difficult to “pirate”. Presumably there were other reasons for the enthusiasm. For example, selling something you’ve already sold, but in a new format, may well have been an attraction. CDs would, we were told, be next to indestructible (and indeed when compared with records, they are quite sturdy).

I always felt that the music industry did a disservice to itself, and its customers, when it embraced the jewel case as the packaging for CDs. The jewel case was peculiarly inadequate. It limited the amount of printed material that could be squeezed in with the CD, forced publishers to use fonts that were too small to read, broke easily, failed to protect its content and failed to differentiate its content from everything else around it.

I don’t want to gloss over this; it’s a critical, illustrative and seminal occurrence. Prior to the CD, music packaging was quite individual and identifiable. An “album” or “record” (a double-sided vinyl disc usually containing several tracks or songs) was typically 12 inches (30cm) in diameter . (There were variants, which I’ll ignore to avoid unnecessary detail.) Albums were packaged in readily identifiable and highly individual “sleeves”, usually made of cardboard, often with distinctive artwork, and often containing multiple pages of text. There was plenty of room for innovation and differentiation. For example, a Rolling Stones album (“Sticky Fingers”) had a zipper, which enabled one to reveal the underwear beneath the jeans depicted on the cover. Even low-budget musicians could achieve interesting results. Irish band Horslips used an octagonal cover (representing a “squeeze box” or accordion) as the cover of their first (brilliant) album, “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part”.

I don’t lament the demise of the album. They were tricky, subject to wear. Each time an album was played, it deteriorated. Albums would also warp irretrievably when left in direct sunlight, loaned to careless friends or handled when in party mode.

Of course, the CD was merely a step on the road to the true digitisation of music. While CDs store music digitally, they are still subject to the disadvantages of their physicality. They can be lost or damaged, and are confined to existing in only one place at a time. Some artists create bespoke packaging that is beautiful, but the appalling jewel case is still the norm.

The next logical step is from the CD to an online medium. Although one can still buy CDs, there are many music purchasers who have never done so and never will. There will probably remain a niche market for some years (as indeed a niche market for vinyl discs remains) but it is relatively insignificant.

Delivering music directly to the listener on demand is wonderful, but let’s not pretend it’s an unmitigated improvement. Most people old enough to grow up on vinyl will attest to the fact that sometimes the very difficulty of finding an individual track meant that you listened to music you would otherwise have skipped, and that sometimes that was a rewarding experience. Songs that seemed difficult or unappealing unfolded gradually to reveal that they had qualities worth hearing. Sometimes. The richness of the medium – the vinyl disc, the sleeve, the accompanying booklets or artefacts – created a rich experience beyond the aural. Sometimes the artefacts were peripheral and irrelevant, but frequently they were not.

More recently, books have been moving online. Without an intervening milestone, they have leapt from the bookshelf to the iPad, Kindle, Kobo or whatever.

I’m a big fan of the digital book, but I’ve always been a fan of the book as physical entity. When I go to someone’s home for the first time, my initial impressions are informed by what’s on their bookshelves. There is no equivalent for the online library. (“Excuse me, can I see your eBook reader?”)

Our personal images are also moving online. Flickr and Facebook and a dozen other services store our memories. No longer do we pull out photo albums and shoeboxes; instead we gather around an iPad or other device to view the “precious memories” we’ve stored.

Since the digital is what I do, and how I work, and where I live, I’m not inclined to dispute its value. However, there are factors to consider.

Digital media have also provided the ability for small operators (publishers, artists, authors and musicians) to access audiences and markets previously beyond their reach.

What do we lose by putting our books online? In many cases, very little. Excepting “coffee-table” books or books produced specifically as printed artefacts, most can be put online to great effect. They are rendered portable, searchable and transferrable (malleable, too, once we grow out of our attempts to restrict them). They are pleasantly convenient to purchase and access. On a recent short holiday, I read four books, three of which I didn’t even have with me when I left home.

What I’ve found I miss is the sheer physicality of the book. Not its shape or size, its smell or heft or tangibility, so much as the very fact of its existence. A physical book reminds me: “I am here”, “You haven’t read me yet”, “You’re half-way through me”. My online books have no such power. They lie un-viewed, unopened and unregarded. They have no power and no presence. If I do not actively attend them, they do not exist.

One could envisage an ├╝ber-book or an ur-book that morphs at random or at predefined intervals or in response to the emotional state of the (potential) reader into a specific book – now a classic, now chick-lit, now sci-fi, now a political biography.

One could envisage a virtual bookshelf that looks as if it were occupied by books, but whose spines instead open up online representations of their masters. Or a photo album that contains images relevant to the people in the room it occupies. Or a wall-mounted photo collection that responds to mood.

Whatever form it takes, I would predict that the more we move our texts, images and sounds online, the greater will be the attraction and the desire for a physical manifestation.

What form that manifestation might take, I have only the vaguest idea. But I do feel sure that we will not accept that the modality of the cloud is ineluctable.

(The title is stolen from Joyce’s Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus, walking on Sandymount Strand, thinks: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.”)