May 14th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to another installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. This time, we’re talking (or not talking) about “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!”, a biography by Douglas Coupland, a writer primarily known for the novel “Generation X”. McLuhan, of course, is the Renaissance scholar turned media critic most famous for terse, gnomic pronouncements like “The medium is the message”. Coupland plays this biography relatively straight, although there’s nothing really straight about the genre-busting nature of McLuhan’s scholarship. He’s commonly regarded as the prophet of the Internet age – but as Coupland articulates pretty clearly, his prophecy is more Biblical than some would care to admit.

And with that, we turn to electronics repair.

I have this digital organ. A Korg CX-3, for you aficionados out there, an original one (which they no longer make), not the reissue (which they also no longer make). I bought this organ, used, in 1987 or so, around the time I joined my ska band, Agent 13. I love this instrument – it sounds exactly like a Hammond B-3, right down to the drawbars and the rotary effect. I don’t use it much anymore, but it deserves to be cared for (as much as I ever care for anything, but that’s another, slightly humiliating, story).

And at the moment, it’s a bit broken. The particular problem isn’t important; what’s important is that it’s not in the appropriate shape to help me record my next album. So I asked my pal Jason Benjamin where I should take it, and he recommended a particular guy at a particular shop, and I gave him a call, and after some negotiating and haggling, he volunteered to take a look at it for me. And when I brought it into the shop, he went into the back room, and when he returned, he said, “This is the only reason I agreed to try to fix this for you”, and handed me a 30-year-old repair manual for the CX-3.

Artifacts like this – well, for a certain subset of geeks, it doesn’t get any better. It was yellow, and a bit dog-eared, and the staples had fallen out, but this repairman had hung onto this manual because,  well, it’s invaluable. He used to repair a lot of these instruments,  and while he doesn’t see them much anymore, he kept it around, just in case. And it got me thinking.

We live in an age of pure information. Everything that can be reduced to digital data, pretty much has been. You can use CAD software and three-dimensional printers to create all sorts of wacky things. Music has slipped the bounds of physical media and escaped into the ether. Video is a click away – either to view your favorite band, or upload a video of your own performance. The barriers to information exchange – at least in democratic societies – have essentially vanished.

It’s important to realize that this is a change. It’s neither virtuous nor evil, neither good nor bad. It has its advantages and its disadvantages, depending on who you are and under what circumstances you’re interacting with it. And we tend to focus a lot on the advantages – but for some of us who lived before the revolution, there’s something missing.

Take that manual, for instance. Sure, nowadays I can download any damn PDF I want to, and get manuals for all sorts of obscure devices – I can review user manuals for devices I haven’t even bought yet, which is a boon, I can tell you. But they’re not artifacts anymore. The paper doesn’t yellow, the staples don’t fall out – there’s no rarity, there’s no sense of history in the object itself, there’s no story to how it got to be in this particular set of hands at this particular time. The physical history of the information is gone.

And the treasure hunter in me feels this loss pretty dramatically. Used record and CD stores aren’t interesting anymore when virtually every song ever recorded is on iTunes for 99 cents. I know where to find everything – it’s easy. There’s no challenge, there’s no hunt, there’s no joy of discovery, and there’s no physicality or history to the object itself. There’s no physical or social aspect to the act of browsing. It’s just me and a terminal and the universe of bytes.

Don’t get me wrong – the digital revolution has been very, very good to me. I’m in love with digital photography and digital audio recording. But while the frictionlessness of YouTube and Facebook make it possible to bypass the bloated and arbitrary corporate staircases to fame, they’ve just replaced it with a different sort of arbitrariness, a different set of skills to master (search engine optimization instead of cocktail party banter, for instance), and ultimately, the claws of capitalism find a way to seize hold of those channels as well. And while I can find just about any book I’ve ever wanted, online at Powell’s or Amazon, it’s not better than encountering it in a dusty, uncurated corner in a Harvard Square basement – it’s just different: a different set of actions, using different muscles, different senses, different notions of time. It changes the experience, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring the old experience.

Some of you might be tempted to remind me that some people miss the flicker of the gaslight flame, or the whir of the plane propellors, or the smell of horse manure from the carriages, or, less nobly, the invisibility of gays, the silence of women, the easy profit of slaves. But this is just cherry-picking; or, more accurately, feces-flinging. It trades on the trope that progress is positive, rather than engaging with the question in any honest way.

And this trope is dangerous. I encountered, the other day, someone selling, on eBay, a CD containing a scan of an original Gurian guitar catalog. Not the catalog itself, but a digital facsimile. Now, the only reason it’s a facsimile is because the original was a physical object; but it’s telling that the lifespan of this digital copy will likely be significantly shorter than the original (which our seller is keeping, by the way). File formats keep changing; disk formats keep changing. Part of me fears this dystopic moment when an electromagnetic pulse destroys the last digitized copy of the Gutenberg Bible, just a short time after we discard the original because “in digital form it will last forever”.

Which brings us back to McLuhan. McLuhan really was a Luddite – Coupland thinks that he hated the modern world, and the mistaken impression that he endorsed the new media society was a misinterpretation of his critical, value-free eye. McLuhan, for all his impenetrable aphorisms, saw through this trope, or, perhaps more accurately, discarded it as propaganda, as wrapping paper for the phenomena he was really interested in studying: the individual as she interacts with the changing media experience, for good or ill.

But while McLuhan could subjugate his disdain for the sake of scholarship, I can’t disengage in any comparable way. I love my digital recorder, but I hate the hard disk as jukebox; I love Craigslist and free commentary on the Intertubes, but I hate the decline of of the broadsheet newspaper. The world has changed – not improved, not deterioriated, just – changed.

Someday, the drawing of the capacitor that has strangled my CX-3 will be eaten by earthworms; and someday, that digital copy of the Gurian catalog will be struck by a camel-back-breaking cosmic particle, and descend into the realm of static. Something – something – will kill them both. And decades from now – hell, maybe even next year – my fondness for the broadsheet newspaper will be as transparently quaint as, oh, pining away for the days of the town crier. My experience – at this point in time, at this conjunction of media – will be gone, the tensions resolved, and history will be rewritten by the technological victors – but the lens of history is necessarily distorted, and it’s the moment that McLuhan was really interested in. There are billions of us living through this, just as there were millions of us living through the invention of movable type. And McLuhan was one of the first modern scholars to recognize that this experience – this engagement with ways we interact with the world – was worthy of study.

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