Lost in the iCloud

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Synopsis

How has the revolution in the availability of media from the stationary turntable to the omnipresent internet affected our shared experience of music?

The ground floor of the family home of my youth was laid out in a circle: from the front door, a small foyer led to the kitchen which opened onto a dining room which connected to a living room and likewise back to the front. I, my two siblings, and packs of neighborhood kids worked that circuit like a spinning turntable, running tracks over years into grooves. The pinhole center of the disc could shift locations. Each night, for an hour it was the wooden platter of the kitchen table set for five. Then, on many nights, after the dishes were put away, the center would travel to the dining room. There, with the lights dimmed and the formal table--reserved for company--pushed to one side, the room became a pine-grained dance floor to the sound of a record player set on stacks of albums.

Sometimes, it was communal bouncing to a battered Highlife single that my parents had carried back from the Peace Corps in Nigeria; other times, a slow dance between them. Often, it was a child swaying in a mother's arms to a ballad selected according to her mood--no doubt reflecting dynamics of married life unfathomable to a young mind. It was Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes warbling "Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong" or Alan Parsons Project doing "Don't Answer Me" ("Stay on your island, don't let me in").

Outside of this context, I didn't hear these songs. Come to think of it, I probably haven't heard them since. In the era of so-called cloud computing--in which we are to keep all of our pictures, music, books, and movies on remote servers as "content" accessible instantly on multiple devices and in multiple locations--we would now say that I had next to no access to that content. My experience was limited to a single device in a certain place. The spirit of the iCloud blows against this. It would knock down arbitrary constraints to access, flattening barriers to experiencing what we want whenever and wherever we want.

These days, I am helping to raise two children, aged 9 and 11. When their mother proposed getting them iPads on which to store all their music and books, it began a standing debate between us about how they should engage with art in their lives. Would ease of access make it more or less likely that they would come to care deeply about particular works?

Meanwhile, the kids were already attached to my turntable. They first became infatuated with a single of the 1984 instrumental synth-pop hit, "Axel F," the theme from "Beverley Hills Cop." At that time, I was living on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn but spending most of my time at their place three blocks up the hill in Park Slope. Sometimes after weeks of their pleading for a "dance party," the three of us would make time for an evening trek to where the phonograph waited in a little room of a fourth-floor walk-up. We'd have banana smoothies, and they would put the track on heavy rotation, sometimes interjecting "Rock It," by Herbie Hancock. At one point, in an effort to encourage their budding musical studies, I hid the 45, promising to return it to them only once they had figured out the tune's hook on piano. It was months before they heard it again.

The outmoded record player has the benefit of novelty. Having spent most of their childhoods in an environment of MacBooks, the kids found it perfectly unremarkable that music should issue from a seemingly inert slab of burnished aluminum. But from a diamond-tipped needle skating on a spiral etched in plastic synthesized out of salt and crude oil? From first sight, it was indistinguishable from magic.

The kids' joy in vinyl music has also been made possible by the lack of access--the waits, the walk-ups, the individual piece of plastic that has to be found. From the cloud's-eye perspective, relative to the sole goal of delivering "content" to nervous systems, these are all arbitrary inefficiencies. Yet it is precisely these arbitrary barriers to access that give the experiences their peculiar texture and shape, and a measure of their meaning. The experiences depend upon having a bodily relationship to an artifact in all of its particularities. The impulse to remove all constraints is therefore an impulse to rub out this texture, shape, and meaning.

At the same time, the ascendancy of the Cloud is a challenge to the very notion of a place. The character of a place is the access it grants and the access it denies--what objects it makes available to eyes, ears, and fingers, what adjacent spaces it opens onto. When two places offer the same access they are the same place. In making art objects accessible in more different places, the Cloud would make places more similar.

As the philosopher Alva Noë puts it, perceptual consciousness itself is "a style of access to the world." In view of our bodily relationship to art, it could be said that the vinyl recordings offer more access because our interaction with them engages more sensory and behavioral modalities. We can hold them in our hands and watch them move. When they get stuck, they need us to nudge them free. And they stay in the room with us even when they are not being played. They live in our home. More access is the glory of the iCloud, but it is more access of fewer kinds.

To someone standing at the center of a merry-go-round, the effects of rotational inertia feel like an outward tug, the centrifugal--from the Latin centrum and fugus, for "fleeing." My siblings and I could not have known then, at the time of our childhood dining room dances, just how fast we all were flying from that still point, dispersing into the clouds. Yet the turntable's needle was always making its way inward, counter-centrifugally. In that space between the moment when it dropped and the moment when it washed softly, endlessly onto the edge of the paper label at the record's core, as if onto an interior surf, while we gathered in song's circle we were forever still, together at the phonographic axis mundi.

Tags: arts, dance, historical perspective, internet, media, music, philosophy, technology

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