Living in the Future

A couple of thoughts about access to culture and how it’s changed since the advent of the internet.

Travis grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies; I grew up in a series of hydro villages in Otago, New Zealand. He was in North America; I was down at the bottom of the world, almost off the map. But in the 80’s at least, when we were teenagers, he was way more isolated than I was. I had access to a greater range of books, music, and movies both international and local. He was hours away from a proper bookshop or record store or first-run picture theatre.

That isolation freaks me out. I can cope with about four days on the prairies before the absences – no proper cafes, just Tim Hortons with its nasty tea and mayo-smothered sandwiches, no bookshops, no theatres, no hills, no edges, no variety in the landscape, nowhere to go that’s not the same – become too uncomfortable. But, of course, now that we live in the future, nowhere is really isolated anymore. As long as you have an internet connection you can order anything you like, find out anything you like, consume whatever cultural artifacts you like, talk to people anywhere you like. If you can think of it, it’s immediately available.

What a difference from the olden days when finding books, movies, songs, and information was a matter of luck, diligence, and patience.

Over at the Making Light blog, Patrick Nielsen Hayden posted two book reviews that focus on this huge shift.

Mark Bernstein guestblogs for the very distinguished James Fallows:

Lamentations for the bookstore are the background music of our time, but the picture is far more complex.

Bookstores and their discontents are at the center of Jo Walton’s stunning new novel, Among Others. It is the story of Morwenna Phelps, a Welsh girl who, having been crippled in a domestic accident in which her twin sister was killed and for which her mother may have been at fault, is sent to boarding school. She is very lonely, and finds refuge in reading. We hear about each book she reads and what she thinks of it. If you have read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, you’ll have read these books too. You and Morwenna can compare notes.

Morwenna has a terrible time getting books. She reads everything in the school library, she reads everything in her uncle’s study. On Saturdays, she’s allowed to walk into the village where she haunts the small library and the indifferent bookstore. Finding a new book by a favorite writer takes enormous time and effort.

That used to be the way books worked. If you lived in a great city, you might have a great bookseller and that was a fine thing indeed. In Fargo or Abercwmboi, where Morwenna grew up, things might be dicier. Even great booksellers have real limits: Stuart Brent built a fabled Chicago store around literary fiction, art books, and psychoanalytic texts, but if you were looking for differential geometry or electronic design, that wasn’t going to be much help.

Dan Chiasson reviews Keith Richards’ Life for the New York Review of Books:

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.

When the situation changed in part because the Stones changed it, and suddenly you could hear (and even meet and play with) Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, the band lost its way. They depended, for their force, on a body-memory of those early cravings for music they knew only by rumor and innuendo. Other cravings, for drugs and fame, were not sufficient, and had much more dire downsides. The early Stones were in a constant huddle, dissecting blues songs in front of the speakers and playing them back for each other and then for their few fans. They thought of themselves, not even as a band, really, but as a way of distributing music the radio never played.

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