I received an email over the weekend asking my thoughts on this blog post, in which the author predicts that along with your operating system and your software, your music collection will soon be housed entirely online – somewhere in ‘the cloud‘.
The idea is essentially that with increased download speeds, bandwidth capacity and online storage, there will be no need to ‘own’ music. Everything you want will just be available to listen to, presumably for a monthly fee.
According to the post:
You’ll no longer store your music files on a hard drive or flash drive but rather in a cloud of servers scattered around the world. Your net-devices will access your library collection wirelessly, streaming from remote servers. Exchange your Notebook for a Netbook because you’ll no longer think about downloading music files to your computer… you won’t need a massive storage system anymore.
I’m sorry – but why are we still having this nonsensical conversation?
Cloud computing is not the problem
I have no issue with cloud computing. I think it’s a really powerful development. In fact, it’s a fascinating and exciting emerging area of online technologies and architecture.
The Amazon S3 hosting thing is brilliant for rapidly scaling websites – and there are some interesting developments with online applications like Google Docs, Freshbooks and the indispensible Basecamp.
On the music front, there’s no shortage of services that will play you music, help you find music and store and organise your music without unduly bothering your own personal hard drive.
And apart from anything else, the cloud metaphor is a useful one for understanding distributed hosting and processing. It’s way better than ‘information superhighway’ and infinitely preferable to the godawful ‘jukebox in the sky‘ catchphrase that was doing the rounds a couple of years back.
My problem is with anything that smacks of ‘In the future, we will all wear silver jumpsuits, eat meals in a pill, fly around in jetpacks and communicate via telepathy’.
Predicting the future MAKES you wrong
If history (or, more accurately, media ecology) has taught us anything, it’s that making a prediction about the impact of shifts in technology on human behaviour will pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get it wrong. And you’re going to get it wrong on three fronts:
This is the bit where we assume that all people will act a certain way, and that something is the same to all people for all purposes. There are no essential characteristics of music consumption, and even if a development is hugely significant – the exceptions will usually outweigh the rule.
2) Technological determinism
This is the idea that new technologies make us do certain things and that technology drives history. This positions every new development as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey – something that comes to us from outside our experience that transforms us. In real life, technologies grow out of a human context, and we decide what to do with them when they turn up. They may open up possibilities – but they don’t force behaviours. They are, in other words, socially mediated.
3) Failure to accommodate disruptive developments
Predicting the future based on trends is a guaranteed sure-fire way to get things wrong, because the unexpected almost always happens. It’s like the computer scientists in the 1950s who predicted that by 2005, there would be 5 computers in the world, and they’d be the size of skyscrapers. Where things look like they’re headed is generally the opposite of where they end up. Read your McLuhan on this.
There is no future of music
While I’m quite the fan of some of the ‘cloud’ services – I love Last.fm, am warming to Spotify and I’ve been a user of mp3tunes over the past couple of years (and really hope they weather the current absurd legal wranglings) – I think predicting a universal shift to them is beyond premature.
The thing is – people are complex, and their music consumption is different from person to person. And in saying that, let me underline once again that music consumption is about more than merely discovering, acquiring and listening to music.
To predict a future of music – any future of music – misunderstands that complexity and the richness of experience and meaning that people bring to it and get from it.
I can totally understand the techno-enthusiasm that leads us to make these kinds of proclamations. It’s an effort of will to stop ourselves from identifying the new, exciting thing as The Answer.
My problem is not with people who write wide-eyed blog posts – but with the people who make a career from pretending they can predict the future. And yes, this is a hobby-horse of mine.
As a general rule, anyone passing themselves off as a futurist is either a charlatan or an idiot. Frequently both.
There’s enough going on around us right now that’s confusing, game-changing and technologically jaw-dropping without having to make shit up. Rather than try and guess what “we will all do in the future”, instead think about what you should be doing now.
Strategies, rather than fortune-telling please.