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« responding to critiques of my essay on class | Main | history of social network sites (a work-in-progress) »

August 1, 2007

New Freedom Destroys Old Culture: A response to Nick Carr

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Posted by Clay Shirky

I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?

I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player, his piece on metadata and what he calls “the myth of liberation”, a post spurred in turn by David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous.

Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art.

Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world - a world of profound physical and economic constraints - from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it.

That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others.

The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints. When Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records was trying to figure out how long the long-playing format should be, he settled on 17 minutes a side as something that would “…enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.” But why only 90%? Because 100% would be impossible — the rest of the canon was too long for the technology of the day. And why should you have to flip the record in the middle? Why not have it play straight through? Impossible again.

Contra Carr, in other words, the pre-digital world was a world of profound physical and economic constraints. The LP could hold 34 minutes of music, which was a bigger number of minutes than some possibilities (33 possibilities, to be precise), but smaller than an infinite number of others. The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle.

And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.

And it hasn’t.

Here is the iTunes snapshot of Exile, sorted by popularity:

While we can’t get absolute numbers from this, we can get relative ones — many more people want to listen to Tumbling Dice or Happy than Ventilator Blues or Turd on the Run, even though iTunes makes it cheaper per song to buy the whole album. Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks.

The only way to support the view that Exile is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones. Carr sets about this task with gusto:
Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night - or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.
Only a fool. If you are one of those people who has, say, Happy on your iPod (as I do), then you are a fool (though you have lots of company). And of course this foolishness extends to the recording industry, and to the Stones themselves, who went and put Tumbling Dice on a Greatest Hits collection. (One can only imagine how Carr feels about Greatest Hits collections.)

I think Weinberger’s got it right about liberation, even taking at face value the cartoonish version Carr offers. Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities.

This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.

In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”

This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.

Genres are always created in part by limitations. Albums are as long as they are because that Wallerstein picked a length his engineers could deliver. Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal.

I’m old enough to remember the dwindling world, but it never meant enough to me to make me a nostalgist. In my students’ work I see hints of a culture that takes both the new freedoms and the new constraints for granted, but the fullest expression of that world will probably come after I’m dead. But despite living in transitional times, I’m not willing to pretend that the erosion of my worldview is a crisis for culture itself. It’s just how things are right now.

Carr fails to note that the LP was created for classical music, but used by rock and roll bands. Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. This kind of transition isn’t a threat to Culture Itself, or even much of a tragedy, and we should resist attempts to preserve old constraints in order to defend old forms.

Comments (49) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. Ryan on August 1, 2007 6:07 PM writes...

Carr is right that the LP is as "natural" a unit of music as the track.

The track is more natural if the way you buy music is pressing one finger down slightly at home.

The LP is very natural if the way you buy music is to walk/bicycle/drive down to the record store several miles away, as used to be the case.

Who wants to go to all that trouble for 5 minutes of music on a 45? What a waste of time! We bought LPs because we made a big trip to the record store, darnit, and we're leaving with a big bag of music!

And we're betting that if we liked Madonna's Like a Virgin on the radio, we might also like two or three more of the 10 tracks on the disk (which we did). Or that if we liked Dylan's last album we'll like his next album (kind of a dicey bet from 1975 to 1995).

So Carr is actually correct to say the LP benefited the consumer as much as the record companies, in its day.

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2. Vera on August 1, 2007 10:20 PM writes...

"freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones"

I believe that at the heart of much of the bemoaning of lost cultural forms is sometimes fear, but mostly loss. Loss is part of life, often a difficult part to deal with. Many of those who cling to what is no more, in doing so, are unable to see what is coming and what can be. It has always been this way. Most of us who bought Rolling Stones albums had parents who, upon hearing our music, bemoaned the loss of culture.

How much better if we were to both treasure the artifacts, delights and curiosities of the past and to embrace the process of creation that moves forward. Not everything created today, and not everything that will be created in the future, is great. Some of it is awful. Some of the albums produced over those 50 years were awful too. The awful stuff is not what determines a culture, nor is it what usually survives.

As long as we embrace freedom, we will create and thrive. We can, and should, cherish the loves and passions of our past, and even allow them to inform our future. Would that we devote equal love and passion to what we have now and to all we can create.

Vera

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3. Phil on August 2, 2007 7:30 AM writes...

[Possible duplicate - clicked Post too soon.]

"If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints."

If the aggregate of free individual choices reliably produced optimal outcomes, I'd agree with you.

At least Nick Carr has a reasonably consistent starting-point ("it's happening and it's bad"). With you and David I never know whether I'm going to get "it's happening and it's good", "it's happening *because* it's good" or "it's good because it's happening". The intersect of 'happening' and 'not good' seems to be very thinly populated. (This even holds for your own excursion into contrarianism, on the Second Life numbers (an excellent piece of work, I thought); your argument there was effectively "it's not good because it's not happening".)

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4. Rev. Keith A. Gordon on August 2, 2007 8:37 AM writes...

Shirky and Carr are both right and both wrong, depending on how you look at it. Exile On Main Street is, perhaps, the wrong album to choose as an example of the record album as "art form." Jagger and crew always had an eye on the singles charts and although the album has a sort of rough-hewn continuity to it, it was less of a conceptual masterpiece than many prog-rock releases of the era. A better example may be Todd Rundgren's Initiation, which pushed the boundaries and constraints of the LP form by cramming as much music on it as technologically possible.

It should also come as no surprise that "Happy" and "Tumbling Dice" would be the most popular songs on iTunes as both were hit singles and stand out among the album's grooves to serve that purpose. What is iTunes other than the Woolworth's record department of this generation...whereas I would travel to the mall to buy new 45s for a buck or older titles at 3 or 4 to the dollar, kids these days - denied the joys of the "hit single" by the recording industry - have turned to the digital realm for their fix.

As for the debate over the album art form vs the new digital reality, bands like the Floating Men are proving that the album concept can indeed work in the digital world, the band's iTunes album sales outpacing their physical CD sales to the point where they are going completely "digital" with their new music. The hundreds of *rar blogs that litter the digital landscape are further proof that although mp3 might be the format of choice, the concept of the record album is hard to kill.

I'd have to agree with Shirky's commentary on literary critic Sven Bikerts' concerns. Although I've often bemoaned the web's birthing of thousands of music critics, I'm less worried about the competition than I am with the mindless adolescent ignorance of much of it. Too much opinion, not enough knowledge to go around. Yet blogs like Jeff Giles "Jefitoblog" have shown that music criticism can be smart, fun and unrestrained by the limitations of the printed page.

We all have to remember that this web thing is still in its adolescence. I'm amazed at the changes that have taken place since I first began publishing online in the early-90s and I look forward to seeing the advances in music, art and writing that take advantage of the new medium in the days to come.

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5. Brad on August 2, 2007 8:42 AM writes...

Neither LP nor single track is better than the other. Its just different. Things are evolving as to how we get our music. Doing bong hits and reading all the line notes on an album jacket was what we did. It gave us an elitist sense that we knew all there was to know about the album. Though I still feel the nostalgia for those days, we must accept that THINGS CHANGE, lest we fall into the "back in my day things were better" cliche' that defines us as dinosaurs.

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6. Paul Davis on August 2, 2007 8:58 AM writes...

This brings to mind a lyric from a song/spoken word piece by Annette Peacock:

"But tradition is a static defense against a chaotic community, and what would we gain by destroying it?"

From this piece in particular, its hard to imagine any change taking place that Shirky would view negatively: there is an analog to cultural relativity to the idea that "I can't judge how this will all turn out". Whats the retrospective view on all ancient technological/cultural transformations? They were all good? If any were bad or even slightly negative, isn't it a legitimate goal to try to determine if there is some before-the-fact way to get a least a hint that maybe a new tech/culture transform might have more disadvantages than benefits?

Being free to ignore tradition and the constraints du jour isn't the same thing at all as destroying the possibility of tradition or seeking to remove as many constraints as possible. The best artists, thinkers, tinkerers of the past always broke through the limits of their time and place. But in so doing, they didn't destroy the idea of the limit, they moved the current limit in some way.

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7. ali on August 2, 2007 9:07 AM writes...

As Rev. Gordon says, Shirky and Carr are both correct and incorrect.

Shirky is certainly more than correct to point out that the majority of complaints like Carr's are really nothing more than good-old-days nostalgizing, and that any attempts to cover this up with a veneer of 'cultural decline' is just silly.

However, I think Shirky also misses an important fact that Carr also incidentally missed, but was in some way gesturing towards. Absolute freedom is not always desirable. Shirky states:

"The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal."

Even though he is completely accurate to say that the novel and album were historically contingent forms, whose restrictions were determined by the accidents of form more than any 'emergent maturity,' that doesn't necessarily make the above quote any less depressing. Historically contingent restrictions can often produce great art. And increases in unhindered freedom can often produce great quantities of unredeemable shit.

The restrictions of the album form led to some incredible LPs, whose construction is entirely responsible for their greatness. Magical Mystery Tour, for instance, is my favourite Beatles album, even though none of the album's tracks are individually my favourite. And a more recent example cited in this article, Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise, is largely unlistenable as a set of single tracks.

We can't just say that these were meaningless developments simply because their form was not 'ideal,' or the artists were somehow restricted. Recalling Matthew Barney's excellent 'Drawing Restraint,' we should keep in mind that much great art is produced against extremely powerful material and formal constraints. Therefore, our 'liberation' from such restraints is by no means an absolute 'good.'

Of course, Sufjan Stevens' album more or less proves that Shirky is the 'more correct' of the two articles: the glory of the Internet is that even as it liberates us to only listen to a couple of tracks from a Stones album, it also gives artists the opportunity to develop and continually revise a more organic set of formal constraints. The album is by no means 'dead,' even though it may become, as Shirky states, a 'marginal,' prestige format. But people who care about music don't care if their preferred format is 'marginal.' The rise of audiophile torrent sites and full-album downloads is proof enough of the durability of the album - or something like it.

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8. Phil on August 2, 2007 9:14 AM writes...

Though I still feel the nostalgia for those days, we must accept that THINGS CHANGE, lest we fall into the "back in my day things were better" cliche' that defines us as dinosaurs.

Thought experiment: are there no conditions under which the statement "back in my day things were better" would be valid?

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9. John Mark Ockerbloom on August 2, 2007 9:29 AM writes...

Can someone give an explanation of the chart in the article? What exactly does "Popularity" measure in the iTunes music store? (I couldn't find a clear explanation on a quick look at the web site; I know that an individual iPod or itunes program counts number of plays, but I'd imagine that the music-store Popularity counts number of purchases, rather than number of plays, unless it's using much more phoned-home data from iPods than I thought.)

If it is counting purchases, does the line for, say, "Soul Survivor" count *both* people who bought it as a single, and those that bought the album that includes it? Because if it doesn't, all it tell us is that "Tumbling Dice" is a lot more popular to buy as a single than "Soul Survivor" is; it's not telling us anything about the relative popularity of singles vs. albums, the thesis of this article.

(One thing that *is* telling, I think, though it might seem too obvious to point out, is that all the songs on the album, as on most pop music albums, fall within a fairly distinctive range of length, between 2.5 and 5 minutes long. There's no technical constraint mandating this in most cases-- I'm assuming the majority of the songs here were never expected to be released as 45s-- so it implies a limitation that's self-chosen based on aesthetics rather than imposed because of technicalities.)

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10. Vera on August 2, 2007 10:55 AM writes...

Ali (#9), you add,
"Absolute freedom is not always desirable.", stating that neither Nick nor Clay dealt with this.

In terms of creativity, and the production of great art and other products of a culture (including music), I disagree with your statement.

Much of what we now consider great or seminal work in modern (say, 1850-1950) history was originally scorned, banned, and sometimes even criminalized. It was often produced in isolation, or in very small communities, formal or informal, ranging from underground to avante garde. It is toward the end of this period, and then especially after the end of WWII, that we were able to see what relatively unharnessed and undenounced creative freedom could begin to produce.

I propose disentangling the concept of freedom from the concepts of specific forms and disciplines. It is on the concept of forms and disciplines having real value unto themselves that I do agree with you. Value, however, is a relative, human, and highly personal concept, which is also adopted and replaced continuously within communities. Mourning the loss of a forgotten art or form, from this point of view, can shift to valuing it as a treasured artifact and even a source of inspiration for new forms.

Vera

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11. Shii on August 2, 2007 11:01 AM writes...

Aww, we're all talking out our asses here. We can't make any sort of reasonable prediction whether breaking constraints at this point is a good thing or not. We can't compare it to any previous avant-garde because those involved physical groups of people who wanted to express themselves better. We, on the other hand, are stuck with a Hellbound highway, constructed almost automatically by a torrent of individual good ideas. By the end of it, we're going to all be happy and indulge in our delicious freedoms, or we'll all be miserable and wish we had some constraints to work with again-- but either way, the "progress" is inevitable.

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12. Jake on August 2, 2007 11:05 AM writes...

I think you've misconstrued Carr's argument. His objection is to the notion that the track is the 'natural' unit of music. Although he's not explicit about it, I think he's pointing out at the very least that both the album is as much a unit of art as the track; it's format was birthed by people operating within technological constraints with a view towards accommodating classical music better, but it since became an end in itself.

His point about Exile on Mainstreet is that side 3 especially is more than a sum of its parts -- in the same way, I guess, that the medley on Abbey Road is more than a bunch of tracks that run together. The 'naturalness' of the track doesn't make sense in the context of a well-constructed album. Either neither are natural, or both are. His 'well, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news' quip doesn't refer to Wallerstein, but to the fact that for classical composers, the 'track' would have meant exactly nothing.

Thus, your use of iTunes sales tells us very little. Yes, more people buy the hit singles. Are we really surprised? They would have done so when the album was released too -- as Carr points out, 45s and LPs coexisted and supplemented one another. The fact that more people buy singles than albums doesn't tell us anything about the 'naturalness' of one or the other; as has been pointed out above, the Rolling Stones wrote with an eye on the singles charts. But you won't find Turd on the Run on a singles chart, you wouldn't listen to it outside of the context of the two songs it sits with on Exile On Mainstreet. As a 'track', it's nothing; as part of an album, it really is something. And just you try listening to A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze as a track. But just you try listening to Illinoise with all the weird bits taken out. You'll get all the hits, such as they are, but the subtleties -- the bits that turn it from a good album to something more than an album -- will be lost.

I'm really just reformulating his argument, but I do have a point. This is not a matter of 'I like the old stuff better than the new stuff', which is how you characterise Carr's argument. Rather, Carr is calling into question the idea of the 'natural unit', as revealed to us by 'unconstrained freedom'. He's pointing out the irony of a futurist appealing to 'the natural' as a justification for proclaiming the triumph of new technology. Both album and track are artifice, in the sense that both are made units -- made with materials, and infused with the cultural assumptions and economic needs/limitations of the maker.

So maybe the album will dwindle away. But that doesn't make what replaces it any more 'natural'. And that doesn't mean that whatever replaces it won't come with its own physical/economic limitations that we're not aware of yet (although the way in which digital music is compressed and the tops of the frequencies are brutally sawn off, leaving us with loud, incomplete music, is an early contender). It seems to me that it is the myth of the new dawn, the new nature as revealed to us by technology (dare I say the New Enlightenment?), that Carr objects to in this article, rather than 'the cultural effects of the internet.'

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13. Nathan on August 2, 2007 11:12 AM writes...

I just posted the following on a listserv devoted to developing the lib. catalog of the future, where I guess I am somewhat of a contrarian. I think what I said there relates to here - esp. with the direction Phil is trying to get people to consider.

If you think this sounds like it may be irrelevent, please skip, as you might a song on an album :) :

David [Weinberger], whose insights I appreciate very much, says in his latest blogpost that he wants "[a web] infrastructure super-saturated with meaning". I ask: "What kind of meaning? How do we get there?" I ask this because though he critiques the idea that the universe has an "inner order" that *experts and authorities* can *expose* and *discover*, he leaves us with... what?

Thomas Mann, [the great reference librarian (believe me, if you want help with doing deep research on something, he is your guy) talks in his [most recent] paper about the importance of "scope-match coverage" (vs. increasing granularity), illustrating how librarians have created and used tools to help people see "the whole elephant" *"with all the parts properly interrelated"* (of course, this is not to say that the Library of Congress, for example, with its collective wisdom holds all the secrets of the world - when further questioned, Mann would almost certainly say that *even this* only offers some of the picture, not everything - as we are only human).

Now, I am wondering to what extent folks like Weinberger think we *can* *discover* things in this world? Can we at all? And if so - and here is the big question - *how* are things discovered now, or will they be discovered, in ways that are different from the past?

[It seems to me that] were back to Aristotle again. Keep in mind that not even Weinberger thinks reality can be carved up in just any way - i.e. it is not infinitely malleable. Therefore, I don't think he really has an argument with Aristotle. So - are the connections that experts and those who [have cataloged their works] have seen for the most part "really real" - or not? If they are to a fairly good extent - then the existing superstructure we have is of some very real value whether or not we realize it, no? (end my quote from listserv)

Bah. Let's not ask such questions. Freedom (from everything)!

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14. Kevin Kelly on August 2, 2007 12:24 PM writes...

If anyone would like to hear what Sven Birkets was saying about the online world 12 years ago, I've posted a conversation with him that ran in Harpers magazine August 1995. Sven was preaching we shoud "refuse' the online world. (I'm sorry that last few pages were not included.)

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15. pasq242 on August 2, 2007 1:32 PM writes...

Editor's note: off-topic header removed, at the commenter's request. -clay

I think the underlying issue is that people inherently want more choices. Why not satisfy that desire, especially if there's a dollar to be made?

I don't want an album; I want a song off that album. If I want to enjoy it as part of a gestalt, I'll buy the album. If I love the band, I'll buy the discography. But saying I have to buy the album to get the song is like saying I'd have to buy the discography to get the album. Such a constraint is arbitrary.

So I'm not really concerned about your triptych, I just want a print of one of the panels. Should I be denied that in the sense that it violates the spirit of the art? Or is it an argument that the 'natural' element is the panel? If there are distinct units within art or writing or music, why should I be forced to consume distinct parts I don't want? Why can't I choose? Am I not smart or worthy enough?

To deny a person choice is to assume a lack of faith in that person's ability to choose. I can't agree with the idea that freedom (and granularity) of choice is a bad thing.

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16. Nathan on August 2, 2007 2:16 PM writes...

pasq242: "I can't agree with the idea that freedom (and granularity) of choice is a bad thing."

I'm not sure if people are saying this. However, can we deny there is truth to what Andrew says, commenting on Carr's blog. We see:

* Consumerist vision of music as a product.
* Ever-shortening attention span.
* Cultural dilution (I add: "more, easy, fast, fun" as the end-all)

...so people are either trying to explain this, or explain it away as no big deal. I see people treated like consumables more and more each day.

So what really makes you uncomfortable here?

By the way, your comment about Mr. Carr masterbating strikes me as disrespectful and tasteless - and encourage you to do better with your humor and rhetorical skills.

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17. jere7my on August 2, 2007 2:25 PM writes...

Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks.

I'm not sure you can draw that conclusion from iTunes Store sales data. Wal-Mart and Best Buy still sell more music than iTunes, and the bulk of that is sold in the form of physical CDs. If other users are anything like me, they see the iTunes Store as a place to buy singles, and for full albums they want a package that includes a physical back-up, uncompressed music, and liner notes. You'd need to compare total album sales for Exile on Main Street to its total single sales to make the point you want to make. Me, I bought Rock Lobster by the B-52s from iTunes, just as I bought the Royal Guardsmen's Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron on 45 at the record store when I was a kid, because I wasn't interested in the rest of the album. Sufjan Stevens I buy on CD, just as I bought the White Album on vinyl. If I find myself enjoying a lot of individual singles by Sparks, I might seek out their albums. Has it changed that much in thirty years?

If long-form art dies out -- I don't think it will, but if it does -- it'll be a blow to the culture. We'll be sacrificing depth and creative complexity for the adrenaline rush of a short-attention-span crowd. We'll lose the transformative experience of listening to Dark Side of the Moon for the first time, which doesn't compare to hearing Money on a mall loudspeaker. Our kids won't be able to say, "Yeah, the first ten times I listened to the album I didn't really like that song, but eventually it really grew on me." (Even 45s came with a B-side, offering buyers the chance to be surprised by something they didn't know they'd like!) If they start selling movies scene-by-scene, they'll have even less reason to pay attention to the character complexity that gives context to the effects and action sequences: "I watched the cantina scene and the Death Star attack, Dad, but I don't really get what the big deal is."

But, as I say, that doesn't seem likely. The pop-single peddlers will continue to peddle their popcorn, and long-form artists like Sufjan Stevens will continue to put their hearts into concept albums that are worth taking seventy minutes to hear. Music videos and TV shows didn't supplant full-length movies; Bugs Bunny shorts didn't unseat Disney. If people are given a chance to choose, they'll choose to expand the variety of experiences available to them.

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18. Anonymous on August 2, 2007 2:32 PM writes...

pasq242 (from his blog):

"So, no, I don't think you should say anything you don't mean, be it intended for people close to you or the world at large. If don't want to say sensitive, respectful things, don't. But I don't see why you wouldn't want to be sensitive and respectful."

Me neither. So what gives?

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19. Paul Davis on August 2, 2007 3:43 PM writes...

pasq242 wrote: "I think the underlying issue is that people inherently want more choices."

I don't believe there is any empirical evidence for this. I would suggest "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less" by Barry Schwartz as background reading.

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20. Michael Chui on August 2, 2007 3:47 PM writes...

First, I want to say that the usage of the iTunes snapshot was wrong: you compared between tracks inside an album and didn't match that against the album itself. I don't know if you can do that; I don't use iTunes.

Second, Paul Davis (#8) said, From this piece in particular, its hard to imagine any change taking place that Shirky would view negatively: there is an analog to cultural relativity to the idea that "I can't judge how this will all turn out".

I agree. Clay, and many other people besides, make a false idol of both freedom and change. It's a common mistake in democratic circles: the presumption is that freedom is the necessary magic that makes the world a better place. As anyone who whispers, "Anarchy," can tell you, it's not; this comes from a person who isn't quite sure what's so bad about anarchy, mind you.

The important bit, however, is that you do need a separate and directional metric by which you can measure things. Freedom and change are, like the Internet that permits them and the culture that now supports them, mere doorways. It's a touch too philosophical for me to go into here, but my metric of choice is "knowledge", though there's a question of whether the metric is rate of acquisition or amount stored.

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21. houston on August 2, 2007 8:40 PM writes...

There is another aspect to this issue. There are many people who are returning to old formats. New vinyl printing plants are opening in response to a surge of interest in "records". Clearly there's a number of influences responsible for this, inlcuding, nostalgia , fashion and a disatisfaction with the ubiquity of digital players, but surely high on the list would be the quality of music reproduced on vinyl and the experience of listening to albums sides in their entirety. Personaly, I take a lot more pleasure from listening to albums on vinyl than as digital copies. It seems to focus the mind, perhaps because there's no scroll wheel to immediately respond to a drop in attention...

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22. Dino on August 2, 2007 8:44 PM writes...

I think Jake is pretty much on the money with his comments above. There is no "natural" unit of music. In addition to physical, economic and creative margins and restrictions there are also other variable that enter the picture (such as genre of music).
As much as I disagree with Carr (when boiling his argument down to Keen-like complaints that everything is going to shit), artists DID create great work according to the contraints of the LP format. For that reason alone, the LP is as validly "natural" a format as any other.

On the other hand, entire genres and sub-genres of music (disco, electro, hip-hop, house, techno, drum 'n bass, soul-jazz, broken beat and more) have existed as singles-based music-forms for over three decades. Well before the advent of iTunes. In this world, the single is and always will be the "natural" unit.

With music, it's (the unit) always culturally framed according to existing social, economic and physical/practical considerations. Appealing to a "natural" order is wrong, no matter which side of the fence you are on (carr/keen vs. shirky/weinberger, if it helps to put it in tag-team wrestling terms).

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23. eliot bates on August 2, 2007 9:47 PM writes...

I'm a bit surprised no one's brought up CDs, which extended the potential duration of a large musical exposition from the 34-44 minute constraint of a LP to 74-81 minutes.

There are many CDs which have pushed the upper extremes of this duration, but inside the music industry (I work as a recording engineer/producer and interact with labels of all sorts, independent and major, in the US, Canada, and Turkey) the conventional wisdom is that it's unlikely an artist will come up with more than 50 minutes of material that's worthwhile to present in an album format. The exceptions would be ambient music works (Steve Roach, Robert Rich, etc.) or classical/academic works, which don't really sell many copies anyway and thus are outside the music industry's primary concerns. Often I've seen artists bring 60+ minutes of finished album material, only to end up with a CD of 43-45 minutes, which is considered an optimal length (from a listening perspective as well as an artistic one) in the industry.

Technically, DVD-audio should allow several or many hours of playback time, yet there was no incentive whatsoever for the industry to come up with consumer standards, since there was no substantive demand for works longer than one hour (with the exception of a small number of low-selling experimental artists, again, such as LaMonte Young, Steve Roach, or Scanner).

The concept album, now, seems like a passing fad of an era when rock music took itself too seriously.

Thus, even though technical limitations are quite different now, I would argue music is *not* really held to the technical constraints of today's available album formats, but instead to the constraints (here I'm not sure how to define them: are they societal, cultural, artistic, sociopolitical?) of prior technical limitations. 60 years of under 4 minute soundbytes on wax cylinder/78 helped constitute our audible culture around soundbyte-length pieces of music, and new technical possibilities did little to change our auditory expectations.

Last point: I disagree with Dino a little bit about the natural unit of house/techno being "the song." Consumers who experience this music experience it, more often than not, in the context of a recorded or live DJ mix, which is between 45 minutes and 8 hours long. In that context, it's hard to find "the song," and most fans of the music, probably, have no idea what the songs in a DJ set were. From the DJ perspective, perhaps, the song is more important...

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24. Dino on August 2, 2007 10:14 PM writes...

@eliot: excellent point. you're 100% right, and i am coming at it from the point of a view of a dj with over 50,000 12" records in my collection :)

but this is where the irony lies: for a dj, the "natural" unit IS the single. for the crowd, it's a continuous flow of music which has no natural unit. it can be a 90 minute tape (old school), or an 18 hour rave. it's all entirely contigent on point of view, cultural conditions and limitations and context.

of course my personal unit is the 12" (wait, that sounds funny), but to imply that current web technology is returning us ("liberating" us as carr would point out) to a "natural" state is a tricky proposition, which i just can't buy.

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25. Cory Doctorow on August 2, 2007 10:22 PM writes...

Anyone who uses the phrase "ever-shortening attention span" to describe the 21st century should be forced to play WoW long enough to find himself doing six-hour group raids, unable to tear himself away from the screen.

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26. Seth Finkelstein on August 3, 2007 12:29 AM writes...

Clay: Regarding "he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, ... so why aren't the cultural effects similar cause for optimism"?

Is there any answer? That is, is it a real question, or a rhetorical cudgel?

I can't answer for Nick. But I would submit the very evident difference is that society has moved institutionally, with intense reaction, to support business on the net. In some cases even making very draconian legal changes to insure some business' needs are served when these conflict with the changes brought on by the Internet - e.g. all the copyright law powers. Whereas whenever anyone even dares to suggest that there be some sort of similar adaption to support culture, then at least in the US, they are immediately subjected to a fusillade of very nasty attacks, usually involving being called names like "Luddite" and "elitist". Imagine a world where the media companies got the same sort of sneering dismissal, being told they just have to adapt to the new realities of digital copying and people's freedom to share (yes, some activists say that, the point is imagine that view was held by lawmakers!)

This all connects back to a point I was trying to convey in an earlier thread, that's it's overly simplistic to make it about technology in isolation. It's about a whole social system, what is supported and what's not.

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27. Nathan on August 3, 2007 7:15 AM writes...

Good conversation. Want to go deeper?

Rewind back to Phil quoted a fellow poster:

Though I still feel the nostalgia for those days, we must accept that THINGS CHANGE, lest we fall into the "back in my day things were better" cliche' that defines us as dinosaurs...

and then said...:

Thought experiment: are there no conditions under which the statement "back in my day things were better" would be valid?

Good question Phil (even if people seem to have no clue how to answer it - or run away from it).

Now consider... Weinberger has said his whole book is an argument vs. Aristotle. He has a very sophisticated philosophical point that he's driving at. He likes some aspects of Heidegger's thought in particular, and though he has some misgivings about him (read on to find out why), finds lots of his ideas very useful in his analysis of the world.

Here's the meat:

In German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s “Rectoral Address�, he argued that traditional ideas of academic freedom are not genuine, but are only negative, as they promote a “lack of concern� and “arbitrariness�. The root cause of this problem is the idea that truth is in some sense objective and transcendent – resulting in old commitments to moral and intellectual absolutes. Hence scholars are detached and disengaged, and exhibit a dearth of concern regarding the fact that truth is intimately connected with the personal realm, which involves the will, personal responsibility, and choice. In order to counter this tendency, Heidegger argued, it was up to scholars do become unified with one another, devoting themselves to service.

I sense enough truth in Heidegger’s concerns to see how this kind of thinking could have been popular in his day and in ours. In many ways, I think this sounds quite reasonable to many of our ears – and even exciting – perhaps until one realizes that Heidegger advocated expelling academic freedom from the university: “To give oneself to the law is the highest freedom. The much-lauded ‘academic freedom’ will be expelled from the university�. Of course, Heidegger was speaking existentially, not calling for blind obedience, but for a genuine commitment of the will. According to Heidegger freedom would be preserved because people would “give oneself to the law� voluntarily in freedom. But perhaps the fact that Heidegger’s address was warmly praised by his fellow National Socialists – Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party – is another reason we should be skeptical of such ideas regarding truth.

Perhaps?

I agree with the folks here who find Weinberger's and Carr's and Shirkey's ideas about single tracks (and any idea about "natural units"...) to not be the real issue. The real issue goes far deeper than that, I think - as Phil and some others here seem to realize.

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28. Jason on August 3, 2007 7:21 AM writes...

The boundaries are pretty clear. From Homer onward, poets have always had access to infinite combinations of a finite number of letters, limited by the "format" of human speech. The slow process of evolution sets its own natural boundaries, and as those mysteriously change so too will our letters, sounds, etc.

After thousands of years, poets still impose their own boundaries to spark creativity, calling on traditional forms (sonnet, limerick, etc.) or creating new ones from experiments in free verse. Why anybody thinks the internet will change this I have no idea.

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29. pasq242 on August 3, 2007 9:36 AM writes...

Nathan, Paul, and others: please accept my apologies.

You're absolutely right; my comment about Mr. Carr was extremely disrespectful and entirely out of place in this forum. Moreover, in reading the words of others here, I am conscious of the fact that I am utterly unqualified to take part in this discussion.

Please disregard my previous post, both in its inanity and its rudeness.

Mr. Carr, if you're reading this, I'm sorry for my words.

Editor's note: I have removed the offending text from the earlier comment, but otherwise left the sense of pasq242's original comment intact. -clay

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30. Nathan on August 3, 2007 12:10 PM writes...

pasq242,

There might be a lot we disagree on, but not on your actions here. I'm so glad to see your recent post. Keep blogging, keep learning.

~Nathan

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31. Clay Shirky on August 3, 2007 1:49 PM writes...

Phil says:

its hard to imagine any change taking place that Shirky would view negatively

This is a fair cop, and is a question echoed elsewhere in the comments, so I'll try to answer here.

There are two kinds of changes I view negatively: a decrease in freedom for the individual, either absolute or relative, or a decrease in the conditions for diversity (note that this is different from a decrease in diversity itself -- blogs increase the possibility of diversity, but preferential connectivity reduces it again.)

As a result, I lament network television and the DMCA, and I fear internet censorship and vertical integration of pipes with content.

I also understand the sense of loss over the decay of old and previously activities and forms -- I'm not depressed over the probable downgrading of the novel as a form, but I understand why someone else would be. What I am willing to fight against, however, is the assumption that we should refuse increases in freedom of individual expression because they weaken old forms (viz. Sir Elton's recent remarks.)

I have never been able to find any version of that argument that wouldn't involve opposition to the printing press, which did a kind of violence to the intellectual climate of its day that makes the net pale in comparison.

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32. Nathan on August 3, 2007 3:00 PM writes...

Clay,

You defend your position well, as I am sure you have thought it out well.

I am sure that you have also considered the great questions of why cultures rot, go bad, collapse, etc. (i.e., Jared Diamond, to McLuhan, to Sorokin, to Gibbions, etc.)

Since you are obviously one educated guy, I am wondering if I could get your opinion on the following quotation, which is the introduction to a talk given at Duke by an atheist (former Jew, I believe) professor from Yale, Arthur Leff. in 1979:

“I want to believe - and so do you - in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoratively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe - and so do you - in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.�

Do you think he has put his finger on something real - or not?

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33. Clay Shirky on August 3, 2007 3:11 PM writes...

In response to technical questions about the chart, I believe that iTunes counts all purchases, whether per song or per album, as incrementing the song count, which is to say that buying an album is counted as buying one of each song. (This is how they can pro-rate your album purchases after you have purchased one or more of the songs already.) If this is correct, then the popularity chart, though it lacks a Y-axis label, is at least an apples-to-apples comparison.

I am trying to get more official confirmation of this from Apple, and if anyone else here has leads, please let me know.

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34. Anonymous on August 3, 2007 4:36 PM writes...

Clay,

I wish I would have put things differently above. Please know, I am not trying to set you up or something. I am not sure I agree with the atheist above - I don't really know if what he says is true for *everyone* or just certain people who grow up in certain cultures, or what (I suspect that its true). I really just wanted your opinion on it - because so much of what you say is so thoughtful - and then I plan on shutting up. :)

~Nathan

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35. Nathan on August 3, 2007 4:38 PM writes...

Clay,

I wish I would have put things differently above. Please know, I am not trying to set you up or something. I am not sure I agree with the atheist above - I don't really know if what he says is true for *everyone* or just certain people who grow up in certain cultures, or what (I suspect that its true). I really just wanted your opinion on it - because so much of what you say is so thoughtful - and then I plan on shutting up. :)

~Nathan

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36. jere7my on August 3, 2007 5:33 PM writes...

Clay: I'm not sure how iTunes manages their sales tracker, but even if you get that data it's still not very useful, since it only applies to iTunes sales. iTunes is geared toward selling singles.

Imagine there's a store that sells chess sets, complete with board and carrying case, and another that sells individual chess pieces. If more people are buying knights than queens at the second store, you can't then draw the conclusion that chess sets don't work best as a whole, or that buying complete sets is old hat; you can only say that among people who prefer to buy individual chess pieces, knights are more popular. People who really want to play chess are probably only going to buy from the first store (unless they lose a piece), and their buying preferences aren't factored into the, ah, iChess Store data.

If someone else is saying, "Nobody would ever buy an individual knight!" you would be able to refute him, since your data shows that people are doing so. You can demonstrate that there is indeed a demand for individual pieces. But when it comes to music, we already knew that -- that's what "Best Of" CDs and 45s and CD singles have been doing for years.

There have always been purists who only buy full albums, and there have always been people who are perfectly happy with Hot Rocks, and the former have always sneered at the latter. That's what Carr seems to be doing: "Only an idiot would ever buy an individual knight! Chess only works as a game of 32 pieces!" That's a matter of opinion, it seems to me, and as such can't be refuted. Can you only play a standard game of chess with 32 pieces and a board? Sure. Can you derive some degree of pleasure from the individual pieces? I don't see why not (though if you claimed you were "playing chess" someone might roll their eyes at you). There's nothing wrong with claiming that chess is best played as it was meant to be played, and there's nothing wrong with claiming it's more fun to play "Four Knights and a Queen and a Yoda action figure" or what-have-you. De gustibus.

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37. Seth Finkelstein on August 3, 2007 6:03 PM writes...

@Clay - but are you willing to grant that technological change may require institutional action to preserve social values, and this is not ipso facto a bad thing in itself? That is, the example we are all supposed to boo and hiss is the trivial argument of don't permit change, period. But that there is a whole range of well-considered argument that goes beyond it?

After the DMCA, that sort of trivial position is a facile argument (that is, in the case of the DMCA, we had a massive legal response to technological change). Not that I'm accusing you of being in favor of the DMCA - but I'm pointing out the response to technological change there was by no means laissez faire!

That is, I'll see your "printing press" example, and raise you a "copyright" example.

Yes, there's the inevitable fogeyism around. There's also plenty of marketing hype on the opposite side.

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38. Tim Footman on August 3, 2007 7:29 PM writes...

jere7my makes a very good point: the idea of the album as the ultimate expression of rock 'n' roll is a minority view, to say the least. It wasn't until the late 60s (when rock music was well past its 10th birthday) that rock criticism as we understand it came into being, prioritising albums over singles. Apart from Greatest Hits (and maybe a couple of movie soundtracks, etc) do you own any albums by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc? Albums dominated the critical consensus for most of the 70s, although the immediacy of punk questioned that - quicker, cheaper, punker to concentrate your bile into 3 minutes rather than 40. Then the rise of disco, hip-hop, various manifestations of dance, house, etc pressed for the dominance of the single (albeit 12-inch in many cases). Alternative rock could never decide what it wanted to be (what is the definitive Nirvana artefact - Teen Spirit or Nevermind?) and then iTunes came along and tipped the cow over for good, but not before Radiohead had a damned good try at resurrecting the album as a neo-classical entity.

I for one have never owned a 'proper' Rolling Stones album in my life.

Would it be vulgar to direct attention here to my book Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album? Hell, I just did it anyway.

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39. Nick Carr on August 4, 2007 11:55 AM writes...

Just one quick (but important) clarification: Clay takes my statement that "only a fool [would unbundle a great album]" out of context. I am not arguing that one would be a fool to buy or listen to individual songs (I'm every bit as big a fan of singles as of albums and have happily listened to "Happy" about 14 billion times) but rather that one would be a fool to casually dismiss the artistic integrity of a great album as an album, which is what David Weinberger does in the passage from his book that inspired my Long Player post.

As for Clay's contention that iTunes download activity is a proxy for artistic merit or cultural value, that's not criticism, it's philistinism.

Nick

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40. JP Stormcrow on August 4, 2007 12:09 PM writes...

One wonders exactly what stance Nick Carr would have taken on the "liberating" effects of technology on music if he were born in 1920 and writing in, say, 1960. In fact I think he has succumbed to "Everything was better when I was 12" syndrome in this piece. For context, I recommend a quick read through Steve Schoenherr's site on the history of recording technology.

The name "album" was transferred to the new LPs from 78s, where it originated precisely because most classical works took multiple discs and were packaged in volumes similar to photo albums. To me his choice of a double record album as his example is a bit self-defeating. (In particular, extolling the criticality of "side" three.)

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41. Nick Carr on August 4, 2007 12:55 PM writes...

One other thing: The sonnet is far from a marginal form. I'd guess there are as many sonnets being written and read today as there were during Elizabethan times. Off the top of my head, I can think of three great poets of the last 100 years who were inspired by and worked extensively in the sonnet form: Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Seamus Heaney. The beautiful paradox of art is that limitations are liberating, and whether those limitations are technological or formal probably doesn't matter much.

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42. Seth Finkelstein on August 4, 2007 3:47 PM writes...

By the way, it may be useless to emphasize this now (or ever ...), but can I note that aside from the artistic critique of short vs long form, a key point was that Weinberger's example was factually wrong? And wrong in a way that was designed to hype that "myth of liberation"? The Internet didn't invent the single, but acknowledging that would have weakened the story.


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43. Brad Collins on August 7, 2007 7:35 AM writes...

Perhaps the track isn't the natural unit, but it is the mutually exclusive unit, which is actually more important.

Each track on an album can be treated as a distinct work in itself. This is how the vast number of tracks on LPs are presented to the world. Each track has metadata indicating the songwriter, arrangement and who is playing what. Each song has it's own title, and it's length is indicated as well. There are gaps between tracks to indicate where one track begins and another ends. These are all indications that the track is meant to be an entity which is distinct from the album is was included on.

But why limit the discussion to music? what about poetry? Each poem in Charles Olson's Maximus Poems was part of a series of poems meant to be read together. Each gives context to each other, but like on an album, each poem is a distinct work in it's own right.

Or what about a gallery show for a painter? The painter will often create series of paintings which all explore different aspects of a single theme or style which are better understood when seen together. But each painting is displayed and indeed sold as individual paintings.

Yes, individual works can sometimes be collected into a collection which can be a work in it's own right, but this doesn't mean that the individual works that make up the collective work can't be seen as individual works.

The great thing about digital content is that we can have it both ways. We are no longer constrained by the container. When you search the Library of Congress, you can only search for the container -- the album, the book etc. You can't search for individual works contained in those containers.

Liberating the track from the album does not destroy the album as a work in itself. Playlists which preserve the track information and order of the tracks together with associated artwork preserve the album as a work in itself. You may have noticed in iTunes "album view" which does exactly that.

The album might be dead as a container, but it certainly isn't dead as a conceptually distinct work of art.

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44. Phil on August 7, 2007 9:31 AM writes...

Each track has metadata indicating the songwriter, arrangement and who is playing what.

Songwriter, yes. The rest is very variable in my experience - you're far more likely to get a laundry-list of everything a band member plays on any track.

Liberating the track from the album does not destroy the album as a work in itself.

No, but it's not on/off - unbundling tracks does erode the album form. I wrote about this here, following on from Dan Hill's brilliant essay here.

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45. Phil on August 8, 2007 4:18 AM writes...

[Duplicate-to-be; earlier version mod-queued]

"Each track has metadata indicating the songwriter, arrangement and who is playing what."

Occasionally, but this is far from the rule in my experience. You're more likely to see a single laundry-list of what each musician plays at any point on the album, plus individual credits for musicians who only appear once.

"Liberating the track from the album does not destroy the album as a work in itself."

No, but it does erode the album: there is a loss, even if it's not a complete absence. I've written about this on my blog; it's tagged "the sound of machines" and "popular singing groups". My post was a kind of follow-up to Dan Hill's superb "New Musical Experiences" blog essay, which Google finds handily.

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46. Phil on August 8, 2007 4:20 AM writes...

Make that *triplicate*-to-be. Oops.

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47. Ralfy on August 9, 2007 1:04 AM writes...

To Kevin Kelly and others, given global warming, food, water, and petrol shortages, war, epidemic, a credit crunch, and other problems that will affect us in the near future, it is possible that web logs and the online world in general will eventually disappear. In which case, what Birkerts asked readers to do years ago is something that we will end up doing anyway.

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48. Kevin Marks on August 13, 2007 6:50 PM writes...

The 74-minute length of a CD was chosen to fit all of Beethoven's 9th on (in a particular von Karajan recording as I recall). This extra headroom over the album lets artists include alternative mixes of songs, or other material too.
As for iTunes being biased toward singles, this is not true; due to the overhead of credit-card processing and bandwidth costs, Apple makes far less on a single sale; when it launched, Apple was losing money on a single track sale. The significant discounts for buying whole albums over singles reflect this. Overall iTunes store is pretty-much revenue neutral for Apple, as they pass most of the money through to the labels, and make their big profits on the iPods.
Carr is smarter than Keen, but he is still slumming online.

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49. enigma_foundry on September 6, 2007 10:35 PM writes...

Nick Carr does have one good point: that estrictions and limitations can be a source of inspiration for an artist.

But I ask Nick this question: Should those limitations be arbitrary, the result of technological and ephemeral limitations, or should they be ergonomic, that is to say, embedded within human nature?

If you believe those limitations should arise from human narure, you should welcome the new freedoms, as the give the artist the method od driving the form of art right up to those human limitations, and thereby creating a greater art than that which existed before.

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