I’ve made the observation in the past that the internet can be thought of as being like electricity, and all of the different things that can plug into it are like appliances. Web browsers, email software, instant messengers, media players and so on.
I’ve also made the observation that quite a lot of the time, when we use the one of these things – say, the web – to do online music, the effect is a bit like trying to dry your hair with a toaster. It’ll do the job, but it feels like there’s probably a better way to approach this.
So now that we’ve got that idea lodged in your head, let’s talk about the actual characteristics of the internet. Which means that we also need to talk about the characteristics of digital media generally. And to do that, let me tell you about the next generation of my own family.
As a Digital Native sees it
When my son was about 9 years old (he’s 15 now), he asked me the kind of question most parents both dread, and are entirely accustomed to: “Dad… how long is ‘now’?”
It’s a good question. Philosophically, we can make all sorts of distinctions between contemporaneous events, the experience of instantaneity and the idea of the zero-sized point along a line that stretches from the past into the future. But he was nine and he wanted a measure. Essentially, he was asking for the sample rate of human experience.
I don’t think I could have even formulated that question at his age. And I’m not saying that as the proud father of a budding philosopher — I mean, I don’t think my brain was wired up to ever wonder about that, and I think it’s generational. This was the moment I realised that because of the prevailing media environment, he has grown up thinking digitally, rather than in analogue format.
What’s the difference? Analogue media are continuous. Think of the groove on a record or the joined-up flow of a waveform. Digital media, on the other hand, are discrete. Think of the individual samples that follow each other in rapid succession on a CD.
To an analogue 9 year-old (me, 1976), you start at the top of a slide and you continue on down in one smooth motion until you’re at the bottom. To the digital child (Jake, 2001), you start at the top of a slide, then moment by moment, you’re a little bit further down, then a little bit further, and so on in rapid succession until you reach the bottom.
A sequence of individual ‘now’s.
Of course, the net result is the same. Travel diagonally downwards still happens. An analogue slide, like an analogue record, ‘sounds like’ a digital slide (or a CD). But it’s interesting that the way of thinking and understanding the world is transformed.
It’s significant that the digital native in our family is now 15. The way in which Jake thinks about a lot of things is based upon the way in which he receives most of his information about the world. He’s also at the cusp of being target consumer for the vast majority of the record industry.
So here’s the world as he experiences it in 2008:
Digital media, being made of universally shared components (ie: 1s and 0s) are easily broken into their parts, mixed together with other digital things and rebuilt into something else.
All texts are hypertexts. Understanding media texts happens as a result of connecting them to other things. Watching a film also involves a visit to IMDB or a fan site, and trying to map the movie into a conceptual network of films by a particular director, starring a particular actor, or of a particular genre (zombie films, mostly).
Everything is universal and platform-independent. If something works on one device and doesn’t work on another, it is broken and useless. A Word document has to work and display identically on every type of computer it comes into contact with. A music file needs to play on every conceivable platform.
All the world is screen mediated – except for portable listening. Sitting still and just listening to something without either moving around or looking at something is decidedly unusual. And he’s a musician and trainee sound engineer. This stuff is important to him.
Music generally accompanies other activities: making things in Photoshop, playing games, learning all there possibly is to know about the Marvel universe (he’s in touch with his inner geek) and reading his RSS feeds.
Where the music comes from is next to irrelevant. Pandora was good for a while, but that’s gone now – and hardly missed at all. iTunes is the player of choice, but VLC Media player works for those media files that don’t fit into the iTunes world. Buying music on CD is not an alien concept, but it’s not the default mode of acquisition either.
Finding a song quickly that he doesn’t already own – for a quick, one-listen fix – the default search is on YouTube, not a music site – or even Google. The idea of a song without visual accompaniment is almost something of an anachronism.
Now, I tell you this stuff not because these things are essential components of the digital world, but as an ethnographic observation of a digital native. I’m sure that what he does on the computer is neither typical, nor particularly unusual. This is a world of complexity – and finding out what his friends do online will change his behaviours for a time to see whether this new thing fits with how he wants to experience the world, and new online habits are quickly picked up and discarded.
But certain things are constant regardless of this chameleon behaviour. Digital media are flexible and adaptable. They can be reworked into new media forms, and can be dissected to say and do things that were never originally intended for. This is a creative act, rather than vandalism.
Media products are therefore texts in themselves, part of a wider body of works, and raw material for things that haven’t been invented yet.
Unlike analogue media (say, broadcast FM radio for instance), digital media can be time shifted, cut up into smaller bits, joined to other things, and transferred from device to device. They are broadly independent of geography, chronology, and traditional one-to-many structures of authority and power. Even when such power relationships can be identified as coming into play (eg: major record labels, Hollywood studios), circumventing the full effect of that relationship is the norm, rather than the exception. What was once the arcane dominion of hackers and the holders of specialist technical knowledge is now the lingua franca of the digital native.
So – okay – but what’s the internet?
Technically speaking, the internet is a network of networks. It’s groups of computers connected with other groups of computers in an array that allows them all to communicate using a shared protocol.
Which is a bit like saying that radio is a system of transmitters and receivers that communicate using electromagnetic waves. True, but not useful.
Like the medium of television that turned the medium of theatre into content, the internet turns all other media into content. Everything. Books, films, spoken lectures, radio, television, comics – even the medium we call music – get ‘demoted’ to content.
That doesn’t take away from music’s art, its grandeur and its importance… but it profoundly changes our relationship to it. You may have spotted one or two alterations to that relationship over the past decade yourself. And the reason that relationship has necessarily altered is not because people are thieves or because the tangible artefact is lost when you have a download-only piece of music, but because by being immersed in a digital environment, we are changed.
That’s the bit we miss. We keep looking at the fact that music online seems to be a different kettle of fish to music offline. Other people notice that newspapers seem to not work the way they used to. Or that our relationship to text and images on a page is different. Or our consumption and interaction around radio programmes has altered.
Everything looks new, perhaps exciting, certainly different, sometimes just plain wrong. And yes, we’re noticing the technological shifts in our media environment. But we overlook the more significant fact that the more we are immersed in the digital world, the more we are altered by it, socially, culturally and psychologically.
Sometimes when we see things differently, we have to consider the possibility that the way in which we see is what has changed. In a new environment, the successful organisms adapt and thrive. Adaptation doesn’t mean doing different things, it means being different.
So what is the internet? It’s an environment within which we are immersed. It’s not just a distribution methodology for recorded music or a bigger antenna for a radio station. It’s not a delivery platform for newspapers or a secondary carrier for television shows.
Far more than what we consume, produce and experience – it affects how we consume, produce and experience. It changes us as human beings. We become, as a friend of mine has it, Digital Animals.
So to answer the question ‘surely you’re not saying that we should compose for the internet?’ I have to say that’s pretty much exactly what I’m suggesting. The physical characteristics and limits of the record, and the dictates of music radio profoundly altered our understanding of what a ‘song’ is. Three minute pop songs are not that length nor in that structural form because of some natural in-built characteristic of music. It’s what sounds right to us because it was written for the electric age, where those were the dictates of the medium. And as radical as some people like to think they are, compositional forms are largely shaped by the cultures to which they belong.
We’ve got a new culture, and new dictates of its dominant medium. That’s all I’m saying.
But I’m not here to tell you how to make music. My job, as I imagine it, is to try and put into words the ways in which this kind of understanding can be helpful to someone who wants to start or continue to make a living from music given that both the environment and the people in it are now different, and still changing.
And my first tip? Stop pretending that they’re not.