“What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time.”
– T. Zeldin
I approach the following post with trepidation, for its aim is two-fold. Firstly, it’s a commentary on music in the advent of technology, specifically the power of Audioscrobbling on Last.fm. But it’s also a reflection on friendship in the Facebook and Blackberry Age: hurried, mobile and brief.
Initially, I had intended this to be solely about the former. If ever there was a fact in life, the following would be it: Our music collections are prone to growing stale once exhausted after hours of listening. So when I first signed up to the now infamous and equally indispensable music network, I was after the exposure necessary for year-round musical rejuvination. And after hours of listening to the Last.fm player recently without once having to skip a single track, I am convinced that I’ve discovered the grail of sheer musical bliss. The reason? The playlist isn’t mine. Up until this week, I had been listening to my own station, relying on the software to do its thing and track down highly likeable songs based solely on my own listening habits. But now, thanks to my neighbour and fellow audioscrobbling friend, I have ready access to tunes I genuinely like without ever having heard them before or even known about the bands that created them beforehand. And with what I estimate to be a 97% success rate in terms of gaining the approval of my exacting and highly demanding sense of aural aesthetics, the writing soon began…
However, as my prose on this amazing wonder progressed, I noticed that the aforementioned topic of mobile communication kept rearing its familiar head. Sure, I must admit that it’s been an issue I’ve been contemplating for some time now. Truth be told, frequent relocation throughout my life has not allowed for the development of ‘everlasting bonds’, whatever that is. Instead, I pride myself on having an extensive network of friends and acquaintances around the world, though perhaps not many of them would travel to my place of abode if I were to ever decide to get married and have one of those elaborate weddings you see featured in the ‘Miss V’ section of Vogue. So suffice it to say that independent solitude has been the touchstone of the last several years, compensating for the difficulties of ‘connecting’ in any meaningful way when my To-Do list increasingly resembles the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics.
Perhaps the surfacing of late-summer nostalgia has prompted this introspection, or maybe the missing of my family and a few certain/uncertain friends who are located rather far away. But in any event, I was unable to shake off the inherent need to build upon the link between the two and dig deeper. And so here you have it. Regardless of whether the two are intrinsically linked (which they are) or if I have an urge to write about it (which I do), the juxtaposition does serve a purpose after all…
Music is an entirely personal matter. The music listener is unrelentingly pride-ridden and discriminating, and so much the better. It is what creates variety, progress, and in turn more creation. In any realm of the arts, tastes and opinions drive the conversation and controversy, pushing for more exclusivity in markets where a piece can fetch thousands and a record sells millions. Those of us who love music have a specific taste, even including those who claim to be appeased by ‘sure, anything’ or ‘whatever sounds good’. I still refuse to believe that there exist people out there who are not inclined towards music. The musically inclined either create music, play it, pass time on it, go out for it, or even travel great distances to hear it. And debut after debut, album release after concert after festival, and there’s no stopping the base phenomenon that has been around since man mastered the art of expression through manipulation of the senses and natural resources.
Now with the iPod generation in full swing, our tastes are becoming evermore measured, defined and portable as we carry our collections in miniature everywhere we go. A friend of mine once retorted, ‘My entire life is on that thing. I’d die if anything happened to it!’ Wisely put, even if a bit extreme. But it’s true: music has a sweeping power that fine art and film have yet to wield. This is because tracks are relatively short and sounds rather mood-altering and intimate (as well as therapeutic). Today I heard a song I hadn’t heard in years, one which I instantly associate with a former boyfriend of mine, and the memories came flooding back without hesitation. It’s this power that gives me faith in the ability of the music industry to withstand encroachment from the free filesharing world without the imposition of needlessly crippling legal barriers (a comfort that the film industry may not be equally afforded). In addition, the existence of free tracks on the internet allows listeners to get insight into the work of musicians with whom they may not be familiar, allowing them to explore and subsequently get hooked if it’s to their liking. Once that happens, very little aside from considerable financial or geographical limitation prevents the listener from proceeding to purchase the album in full.
That said, music ‘ownership’ is still very much valued–yet another way to expand our collections, help ‘define’ our tastes, or just maintain easy access to what we love most. Furthermore, many music lovers out there continue to believe with full conviction that good artists deserve their hard work’s earnings and are therefore willing to pay even if a bootleg copy on Torrentz is available for no cost other than having access to broadband. More often than not, I choose to purchase albums I really like, even as an impoverished student who can’t make ends meet due to a ridiculously lopsided exchange rate. It takes sampling just a few tracks from an album on iTunes to lead to the purchase of the entire thing, and I do believe that major labels and music retailers are beginning to pick up on the ‘what the hell, might as well’ behaviour exhibited by consumers, as evidenced by recent moves regarding DRM.
Now returning to the personal, there is an element of respect and trust to be noted when handling people’s tastes. I’ve noticed that many are often very sensitive about what they like, not taking lightly to any sign of conflicting viewpoints when sampling a track they so greatly esteem. It is for this reason that I don’t criticize other people’s tastes in music, aside from the fact that there really is no need to do so (though I admit I don’t like country and mainstream pop, but the line stops there). Someone I used to know once took great issue with the fact that I refused to concede to the notion that 50 Cent was ‘great’ and, though ridiculous a reaction on their part, it is exemplary of how deep the nerves run when it comes to hours invested in music enjoyed. So when the choice is between buying an album for a friend–not a close one, but a friend nonetheless–or giving them a gift certificate to the Virgin Megastore for their birthday, for example, more often than not the gift certificate is the safer choice. Similarly, making a mix CD for your romantic interest is no easy feat. You really have to know someone or at least have a minimum level of intuition in order to gauge their taste and anticipate what they would like unless they make their preferences explicit. And to go through a trusted friend’s collection could take days, even weeks before sifting through the excess and finding the prized gems that would surely be a welcome addition to your own.
You are probably wondering why I am making such elementary observations, and the reason is as follows: If there was ever any doubt in mind over whether or not someone can fall in love with another solely for their taste in music, I have just experienced this phenomenon as being possible. For as I continue to listen to my ‘friend’s station, I wonder how it is that someone could have such impeccable taste, entirely to my bias. Of course I understand the mechanism behind the Audioscrobbler and the music compatability feature on Last.fm, however I find it to be fascinating. It subsequently leads me to wonder two things: 1) Am I that predictable?, and 2) Surely no, yet how could this individual possibly listen to the same music if my taste has been acquired in the most unthinkable ways? And honestly, the most viable conclusion I am able to come up with is that through months of habit-recording, chart-callibration and Last.fm neighbours come and gone, a pattern of sorts has developed so that all my listening moods–whether it be in the form of post-rock, downtempo, jazz or baroque–have transpired in such a way that there are actually individuals on this heavily populated planet who just happen to like the same things too. I won’t question how or why, for it is far too much of a pleasant coincidence to dismiss with bothersome questions and curiosity. Because though listening to Sveriges Radio and perusing through the weekly iTunes Recommendations e-mail has proven to be fruitful in the past in terms of pleasurable listening experiences, it has never come close to this. Not even marginally.
Last.fm is indeed the ‘social music revolution’. I’ve been a member of the network for a little over a year now, and since beginning my ‘scrobbling’ endeavours, I’ve been exposed to a host of wonderous new artists and have grown more knowledgeable of the genres I very much love. Finally, I’ve come to appreciate in all its glory the application’s matchmaking capabilities, and the ability to listen to the radio player while enjoying every split-second of it, though it is not tuned to my own user profile. And yet, that works even better. The beauty of it is that you come across tracks you used to love and haven’t heard in the longest time, with the addition of entirely new songs that you love as though you’ve loved them all along. And in an era when personalization is so important–after all, the Time magazine ‘Person of the Year‘ in 2006 was ‘You’–this software hits the spot precisely. With all the MySpaces, Facebooks and MSNs out there, surely some super application could be created to match art, literary and academic interests, as well as musical taste that its users have in common. Surely there would be a market for it, and indeed no one person is so original that no categories would match up relatively with the repertoire of another individual half-way across the world. What more proof would we need as citoyens du monde that the gaps between us are much smaller than we make them out to be? The implications of such eye-to-eye integration in today’s international environment of communication are tremendous.
One sec, I’ll brb
There is however another way to look at it, which brings me to the phenomenon of social networking. I have often wondered what the merits of online networks and utilities such as Facebook and Windows Live Messenger were, and on the surface, it is precisely the ‘bridging the gaps’ argument that comes to the fore. The onset of globalization and telecommunication has brought about a constant flow of information to and fro, connecting unlikely neighbours and spreading cultural trends to places never before thought possible. Had some of the utilities that exist today existed back then, I’m sure I would have had a much easier time moving from one place to another, for I never really did keep my promise to send all those letters to childhood friends I was so sad to leave behind. But more importantly, the Internet has allowed people to see that the way we live is not so unique in comparison to the way they live. The ‘Us vs Them’ platform is rapidly losing credence as people are seeing for themselves firsthand that today’s world is filled with one-size-fits-all airports, Coca-Cola billboards, Nokia ringtones and MTV as they travel on low-cost airlines and browse through jetset photo albums on Flickr.
But something else suddenly struck me yesterday. The truth of the matter is that many of us don’t seem to have the time to really get to know one another anymore. All of the aforementioned sharing and getting-to-know-you is all well and good, but it seems that we’re seldom in one place long enough to go beyond just ‘knowing’ what’s out there, really delving into our relationships, deep and digging all there is to be dug out to discover and build that ‘connection’ that really matters (whatever that is). Perhaps the definition of who we are to one another is being redefined, as it has done so many a time throughout history. After all, the concept of ‘love’ in marriage is considered to be a modern-day phenomenon, for once it used to have a very practical purpose in terms of both livelihood and business transaction. But times do change, and like the shift in the music world led by the iPod hurricane, so too has the mode of communication been shifted by the increasing reliance on the computer, mobile phone and PDA to get our messages across to those around us and the rest who are not as close by.
More recently, however, online networking has become the mode du jour, allowing for those who are limited on time but not acquaintances to bridge the gaps that would otherwise persist and create some sort of bond that goes beyond that quick twenty-minute lunch break during which you barely skim the surface of the other person’s persona. Filling out profile after profile, you really do eventually find yourself stripping down everything to the so-called essentials: likes, dislikes, favourites, credentials, connections with friends, and the list goes on. I recently had an intriguing conversation with someone who has scientific knowledge on the topic of online social networks, who made the important observation of how someone’s profile can provide a starting point in conversation with someone you are just getting to know face-to-face. Indeed, you can know something about a person through reading through their Facebook profile, provided what is written is in fact true. In addition, what’s written is so well-defined when listed together next to a host of photos, groups, favourite links and so forth, that it becomes irresistable to pass judgement and quantify merit within these networks to the level of exclusivity and labelling, despite it being a virtual ‘free’ arena in which value is originally abstract and intangible. As a result, what’s on-screen can be measured, judged, determine what happens in ‘real life’, and can even lead to one of those modern-day love stories you find in You’ve Got Mail and featured on Oprah.
Even more, blogging has created an alternative forum in which people can express themselves in their own time, on their own schedule, leaving it up to the rest of the world to tune in if others so choose. What am I doing at this very moment if not expressing myself and a certain viewpoint? This parallel journalism allows for further expression and self-definition, while also being a way for others to get to know who you are if you choose not to blog anonymously (or, incidentally, if you like to maintain a certain level of ‘online presence’). But ultimately, it seems as though the modern-day should not be so straining on our relationships when we have access to so many beneficial means of communication with those we care most about. In all seriousness, I cannot imagine any better way of keeping in touch with my family with a continent and seas between us. And without Facebook, my childhood and teenage friends would have been lost to me indefinitely, any reunion then wholly dependant upon fated opportunity. I have no doubt of this.
However, something continues to be amiss, and increasingly so. The truth of the matter is that I’ve met quite a number of people online, very randomly in fact, and several remain to be close friends to this day. However, at some point, online communication does fail to be sufficient, and the very people with whom it was once okay to conduct dialogue online become the very objects of this need to talk face-to-face, especially if they’re people who you have not seen in person for a long time. I have come to rely on online utilities to communicate with family and friends who are far away, and dare I say I’m heavily dependent on such modes of interaction to keep in touch with them. But as is often noted, it’s extremely difficult to read into the tone of an online ‘chat’, e-mail, or Facebook wall-post because fashionable Internet grammar and punctuation does very little to define the value of one’s intended message, especially when one goes beyond the every-day ‘see you tomorrow at 5 o’clock’ and enters the ‘honey, I think we need to talk’ domain.
There is one situation in particular that I have in mind involving a friend of mine who relocated overseas two years ago, perhaps a close friend though I can no longer be certain as a result of now being confined to brief instant messenger encounters and tight-lipped though I hope amicable e-mails. And it highlights the widespread problem with regard to the increasing superficiality with which people nowadays deal with one another. There was recently an article about a writer and historian named Theodore Zeldin, the head of the Oxford Muse Foundation and specialist in the understanding of the history of human thoughts and feelings. He made the point that nowadays, we have ‘less and less time for conversation’, adding that technology plays a role in the increasing isolation that is more and more evident. Noting the action of avoiding talk about the ‘serious matters’ or ‘what we really feel’, he emphasized the need to sit down and talk face-to-face, and I absolutely could not agree more.
Don’t get me wrong–I love online networking, and have stated so before. Recently, in fact, I have been able to re-establish contact with friends who I had up until now failed to find on Facebook, along with a few foreign language penpals who I unfortunately have not had the time to fully correspond with via e-mail. However, it worries me that I’m increasingly leaning towards getting in touch with some sort of therapist or counsellor in order to have a ‘deep’ conversation, because there is an absolute drought in such a calibre of conversations and I know not of any other possible options short of posting an advert in the newspaper and hoping that someone (not psychotic) will respond. Of course, there is an added dimension to this frustration rooted in my own personal circumstance of not being able to properly talk to the people I had relied on in the past currently due to their own impossibly hectic schedules or perhaps general disdain for conversing with me. But that there is possibly no one else out there is a preposterously disturbing notion, and I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the online world might have something to do with it…
Beyond the broadband
What does all this mean? It means that the pace of life is changing once again, and has been changing for quite some time. Enough with the so-called ‘War on Terror’; next to Global Warming and the question of environmental sustainability, the next big issue needs to be social and ethical sustainability alongside the current evolution of civilization rooted in the transformation in modes of communication (intrinsically linked, of course, to commerce). It should not be brushed off as ‘just a teenage thing’, nor should it be viewed as yet another innocent advancement, consequences to be examined later à la cigarettes and lung cancer. If anything, we can learn from the history of invention and social evolution, and recognize the changes now. I am not saying that this shift is either good or bad. On the contrary. Seeing the change and discussing the change is essential in order to further understand it for both what good it can offer and what good it can take away from what’s already present. I have never been one to think that everything new is wonderful. And yet, every generation, a new spate of ‘mod cons’ come about–kitchen appliances, skirt lengths, preferred modes of transportation, politicians–and the cycle of the new replacing the old is neverending. But more and more of the ‘old’ is being dug out from the dusty books, repackaged and sold anew in a ‘modern day’ format because what d’you know, Grandma was right all along.
We do need to start listening to each other, and perhaps even make an extra effort to set aside some ‘downtime’ in order to open up a forum for free, meaningful discussion. At least with close family on good terms, one can rely on individuals to stick by one another, usually regardless of how aloof or callous one person is behaving with regard to staying in touch during tight times. However, I don’t know how much longer I can continue to make the effort to be someone’s friend if they don’t put in any effort themselves. Admittedly, I’m not the best at staying in touch, returning calls and writing back e-mails. But I do try as best as I can to make sure that those whose relationships I truly value know that I am in touch and reachable, and if not, they know my very legitimate reasons for being unable to be so.
The above also means that what we like and dislike defines who we are. In order for anyone to really get to know you, such biases need to be disclosed and done so in all honesty. What your music charts reflect on Last.fm is indeed extremely honest. It’s true: we are often attracted to those with whom we have much in common. It is a great experience when one realizes that someone has similar preferences, and that goes beyond music and into the world of art, film, cuisine, culture–you name it. And it’s for reasons of practicality that people then love to classify and group themselves. Like bluegrass? Join the Bluegrass Society. Fancy a trip to the art gallery? Consult with your Contemporary Arts Club. Feeling homesick? Visit your local embassy. It makes things easy, accessible, and helps people who don’t like to dine in a restaurant alone to avoid that sort of thing. As the saying goes, what unites us only makes us stronger, right?
Well, so long as you don’t become a fascist. At the end of the day, the focus really shouldn’t be on revelling in what we have in common as much as it should be on actually discovering new things that we will probably like because another individual may be able to understand us on a deeper level than most others. It is the differences that makes things interesting and worth knowing. I can’t imagine spending hours on end discussing something I love with someone who loves the same exact thing, because the topic of merit and positive inclination are sorely exhaustable. It is much better perhaps to talk to someone who absolutely dislikes something you like, or at least doesn’t have such a rose-tinted view of it. This results in a dynamic that creates movement in discourse, and this is what buys more time and reason to discuss further and beyond. And for that, we can build meaningful relationships that stand the test of time, for the ‘getting-to-know-you’ process will seldom grow old, stale or exhausted.
That is, of course, if you ever do manage to find the time to talk first…
– Sarah Badr
© 2007. S.H.Badr, All Rights Reserved.
See also: Blogging therapy