Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Analog Ownership

I’m listening to music streamed through my phone to a pair of excellent speakers on shelves above my desk. It’s pretty amazing stuff for someone who grew up when portable music meant a cassette in a knock-off walkman. Now, while on wifi (or if I want to spend a fortune on data) I have access to millions of songs, thousands of albums, my whole collection. It is wonder itself.

Yet there are trade-offs. I’m trying to download music to my phone to listen offline, but it isn’t working. The download stops midway for reasons passing understanding and the notification disappears. Did it download? Probably not, but I’ve no way to know. Such is life in the digital world. It involves staring in wonder, good and bad, at mysterious devices and systems over which I have so little control.

In the living room I have the vinyl copy of the album and a turntable. I can’t play the album in my office because I own only one turntable so far. As for portability, the turntable is absolutely no good. Still, it is a thing over which I have control and that means a lot to me as I try again (and fail again) to download the music to my phone. I own the the album and the turntable fully. I can lay hands on the record and only a thief can take it away. The record has tactile resonance. It is immediate, with no software membrane between.

It’s cute to think I have control over my phone or streaming service. I own almost nothing in that relationship other than the tenuous right to utilize a service until the provider see fit to change the rules. Anyone with a Netflix streaming account knows the feeling of finding their favorite series has been removed. It is entirely out of our control. Streaming services use the term “library” which has me imagining shelves of vinyl or DVDs lining my livingroom walls, but it’s more like a lending library from which curators often remove our favorite things. I’m listening to a song that could be removed from my library at any moment. My fifteen dollars a month doesn’t buy me any control. I own nothing in the relationship.

The same is true for the phone on which I play the stream. Sure, I paid for my phone, but it is merely a vehicle for software, without which it is a useless block of plastic, metal, and glass. The software is free in that I don’t pay for it but also because I don’t own it. Samsung taught this to owners of the Note 4 (which had the unfortunate feature of occasionally bursting into flame) when they remotely “bricked” the phones, disabling them completely and shattering the myth that buyers owned anything at all.

Ownership is a disappearing commodity in the digital world and yet we continue to pay prices that continue to rise. This could be incentive to buy less, but I continue to spend and grow more accustomed to receiving little in return. Sure, I get to use the service, but only at the pleasure of the provider. With the inclusion of arbitration clauses in the contracts (that I click through without reading) I surrender my legal rights along with any real ownership.

There are benefits to all this. Think of all those songs and albums to which I have access. I carry them all with me as if they were weightless. The price seems reasonable, about the cost of buying one album each month. What’s to complain about? So what if I don’t own the materials? So what if I don’t have the control? It seems a small price to pay.

It does seem a small price until I revisit ownership through my records and remember what I lose in these digital exchanges. I gave my money for a streaming service and came out of that transaction without any ownership or permanence. My used copy of this album came from a shop in Albany at a great price and I own it outright. It is mine to keep on my shelf, play on my turntable, or give away. Ownership, after all, allows for giving, something a subscription service can only pretend to offer.

Streaming the music, I often forget the pleasures of ownership, how it helps me to feel in possession of myself. Owning the vinyl copy reminds me that the streaming service takes from me that sense of self and feeling the power of control, giving it away to a corporation. Now that I’ve finished writing, I’m going to the living room to put on an album and to feel myself whole.