Essays on Technology and Culture

The New Old-Fashioned Music Buying Experience

Saturday, April 19th, was Record Store Day, the annual celebration of all forms of audio pressed on to vinyl platters and sold in physical stores. It’s a day which sees the release of a metric crap-ton of limited edition vinyl releases and re-releases (along with some CDs and cassettes). The collectors, obsessives, and completists come out in droves on Record Store Day, and I’ve done my share of waiting in line to buy limited edition releases in years past. My Record Store Day experience has always been low-key: get up reasonably early, head to my reliable local indie record store (AKA Music on North 2nd Street in Philadelphia), get what I want, return home, give it a spin, and then relax.

This past Record Store Day wasn’t quite as simple. First, I now live in New York City, a town with a large population of music fans, and a large selection of indie record stores. Second, Record Store Day has become a huge thing, with way more limited releases, and way more people chasing after them. Also, way more people flipping their purchases on eBay. I was unprepared for just how insane it would be, but I knew it would be insane, and had built a plan of attack. First, I would hit Rough Trade NYC, in Brooklyn. I’d called ahead the day before to see if they had what I wanted, and figured if I got up at six, I could make it there by eight. My plan was stymied by a broken down E Train, but even if I’d made it there at eight, there were people waiting since 3:30 that morning. After waiting an hour, I got into the store to find my quarry sold out. I purchased a consolation split 7", and a couple regular CD releases I’d wanted, and made my way into the city in a frantic search.

Despite the difficulty and frantic nature of trying to find a limited edition needle in the haystack of New York City record stores, buying in person had the benefit of a social element that you don’t get with your Spotifys or your Last.fms. In fact, a chat in the (slow, almost stationary) line outside Other Music on 4th Street, a guy said he’d found a stack of one release I was searching for at Academy Records on 18th. I ran, and snagged a copy of DEVO – Live at Max’s Kansas City, November 15th, 1977 for $20 (after tax) and was content with that. [1]

There are plenty of reasons to hate on Record Store Day, and I experienced some of them directly. However, the fundamental principle of RSD is sound: it gets music fans out of the house, and into the stores. It gets us buying real, physical product with packaging, liner notes. It supports the artists we love, keeps music nerds employed, and has us interacting with our fellow fans. There’s ample opportunity to bond over our shared loves, the shared success of finding that one rare gem, or the used disc we need to complete our collection. It’s a chance to just to pick up a disc out of curiosity and give it a try. It’s how we used to buy music, pre-iTunes. Okay, yes, there’s also surly record store clerks judging your every purchase, but screw ’em. There’s gotta be someone else in line who shares your love.

As long as we can stop the bastards flipping the limited edition stuff on eBay, I’ll be happy. And if we can stop by the record stores more than one day a year, they’ll be happy.

  1. A friend in Seattle was able to secure two copies of the other limited release I couldn’t find, and is mailing it to me.  ↩

Rdio Isn’t a Sound Salvation (or: Streaming, Revisted)

Since writing my last piece on music streaming services, I decided give it a second chance. After trying out Spotify, and being disappointed, I switched to Rdio—[The Sweet Setup’s choice for best music streaming service][sweetsetup]. I also downloaded Beats music, but didn’t try it after discovering it lacked a desktop or iPad version. After a week of occasional use, I sprung for Rdio’s $9.99 a month [1] membership plan, largely so I could listen to an album’s worth of music uninterrupted. Rdio’s library is large vast, and I actually have discovered a couple bands worth checking out through its standard radio feature. I’ve just been too lazy to follow up and buy any albums.

Though the Rdio experience is good, some of my old complaints still are relevant, and I have new ones. Rdio’s discovery algorithms are still very hit or miss. I either hear a bunch of music that I already like and know, or new artists that are often not what I like at all. I also do most of my music listening at work, and I’m in a corner of the office with spotty wifi coverage. This means that I will lose my wifi connection on my phone at least once a day, sometimes more. Rdio, by default, switches over to my cellular data connection to keep streaming, and then I’m eating up my 3GB of data very, very fast. When it works, though, it works, and the audio quality is just fine to my damaged ears.

Because of the discovery algorithm sucks, Rdio has become little more than a source for playing music I already own, but don’t have on my iPhone. I don’t know if that’s worth $9.99 a month. This is music that I’ve largely paid for already, but lacked the presence of mind (or storage) to put on my phone ahead of time. That’s $120 a year to listen to stuff I’ve already paid for. iTunes Match would only be $30—if only I’d bought all my music from iTunes. There’s also Google Play Music, but that has a limit of 20,000 files. My music library is… significantly larger than that. (But, I am an outlier.)

As I write this, Record Store Day is fast approaching. The $9.99 I spent to join Rdio premium could be going to add something new to my library. [2] Plus, I’ll actually own the music—and the liner notes, and the sleeves, and all of it. It’s clearer to me Rdio just doesn’t work how I work, and I doubt any of the other streaming options are going to be an improvement. I might as well just use iTunes Radio. It’s built into the OS, and I can listen to NPR when I get tired of music. Streaming music is still an interesting space, and if the costs and rights issues can be sorted out with the labels, I might give it another try in the future. Or, perhaps, iTunes will lift the limit on how many non-iTunes purchased songs can go on Match. Either way, there’s a future where I can have all my music at my fingertips wherever there’s a data connection. I’ll just have to sit with my 100+GB media library and wait..

  1. A warning: if you try to sign up for a premium account for Rdio using the in-app purchase, you will be charged $14.99 a month. This is to offset Apple’s 30% cut of all in-app purchases, but it still strikes me as scummy behavior.  ↩
  2. There are three DEVO releases coming out for Record Store Day. One is a live recording from Max’s Kansas City, with audio of the band being introduced by David Bowie. There’s also a picture disc with a recording of their first reunion show at Sundance in 1996, paired with a DVD of their long out of print “The Men Who Make The Music” video. Finally, there’s a split 7" with The Flaming Lips, but the DEVO side is a previously released track, so I’m not worrying about finding a copy.  ↩

The Internet (Probably) Won’t Save the World

I recently picked up Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here. It’s an interesting polemic against the Internet-focused “solutionism” to social problems as espoused by technologists, tech entrepreneurs, and Venture Capitalists. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Morozov’s criticisms of technologically focused solutions, I’m glad to be reading a contrarian’s opinions. They provide some much-needed perspective in a space that is all-too-often caught up in the next new gizmo and the next new deceptively simple technological solution to an age-old problem. Morozov is not anti-technology, let alone anti-Internet. He advocates for perspective—stepping back and adding nuance to a debate that too often is caught up in technology for its own sake, ignoring the potential consequences and pitfalls.

Part of the problem is that it’s so easy for us to get caught up in novelty. If you’re the sort who is wired up to be a geek, and lust over technology, it’s even easier. All the new gadgets, networks, apps, and services appeal to our desperate desire for something new. The early adopter types glom on to the shiniest of new technology, embrace it, and defend it against all comers with religious fervor. We see it play out writ small in the flame wars in technology forums over iOS vs. Android, open vs. closed, and copyright vs. public domain. Few budge from their viewpoints, and everyone is armed with enough anecdotes masquerading as data to defend their stance. This is nothing new, nor is it limited to technology. Examples are unnecessary.

But, compare the rhetoric of Internet-focused solutionists who claim the network will solve all our problems with the pragmatism of Ev Williams and his recipe for a successful tech company: “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long timeā€¦ Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.” That’s it. The great successes of the Internet-era have all built from that formula. So have all the great pre-Internet successes. It’s the history of service-based Capitalism: make it easier for people to do things they want or need to do. History repeats, and technology is no exception. We may look back on these heady days as the dawn of a new epoch, but what sort of epoch has yet to be determined. You can’t look back on something if you’re right in the middle of it.

This is the ultimate problem with making proclamations of technological supremacy. We don’t know anything about what’s happening until it has happened—and we have enough time and distance to figure it out. In the middle of the storm, anything can happen, and the situation can change in an instant. The Internet is a bunch of cables and computers, yes, but “The Internet” is something else, and we don’t know what it really is. We may never know, because it’s constantly changing, and our attempts to impose definition upon it could be rendered useless tomorrow. I think about the people bemoaning the death of the Internet to mobile apps. Was there this much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth when the Web usurped Gopher Holes?

It’s funny that the same voices who bemoan anything that might alter their definition of “The Internet” look at the industries they’ve altered and shrug. “Disruption,” they call it, with no sense of compassion for the people who have lost their livelihoods. The best you can hope for is “teach them to code.” Any technology has the potential for unintended consequences, but the privileged technological elite don’t have to worry about them. Responsible use of technology means making sure as few people get hurt as possible. The “fail fast, fail often” mantra that defines technology companies doesn’t do much for people who lack a net to catch them.

We can use technology, including the Internet as a tool, to better lives, but the very presence of the tool alone will not do it. You can buy the greatest hammer, and the greatest saw, but they won’t build a bookcase unless you pick them up. Data alone is useless, even harmful, without the ability to both understand it and manipulate it. And, yes, some things are better kept a secret. If it’s wrong when the government sees all you do, it’s just as wrong when it’s a private company. Instead of charging into someone else’s idea of future, let’s slow down and try to figure out where we are first. Tomorrow’s not going anywhere.

Some Thoughts on Dropbox, Privacy, and Dr. Rice

It’s a weird time to be a Dropbox user. They just announced some really awesome new features and apps, got geeks super excited, and then announced that former Bush Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is joining the board. Less than 24 hours after the wave of excitement over Carousel and Mailbox for Mac, a Drop Dropbox movement began. They also make some very good points that resonate with my borderline Bleeding-Heart Liberalism—especially her support of torture and domestic spying. And I’m not happy about it.

If only it were easy to leave. Dropbox had integrated itself so firmly into how I run my online life that I can’t see how to go without it. Everything I write is stored in Dropbox. I have scripts and services that connect and dump data into Dropbox. I share files with friends over Dropbox. Half of all the apps on my iPhone connect to Dropbox to store data. Not only is Mailbox my iOS email client of choice, I only signed on to Mailbox affer they were purchased by Dropbox. Why? Because I trust them.

Yes, Dropbox had security lapses. They were responsive and fixed things quickly. Yes, Dropbox is part of PRISM, but as with all technology companies implicated in NSA spying, I chalk it up to coercion. Men with guns can be very persuasive. Yes, Dropbox had been doing DMCA takedowns of content on people’s accounts, but again, men with guns can be persuasive. There is precious little Dropbox has done that is offensive or dangerous to me that they had a choice to do otherwise. Until now.

What can I do? There is no other solution that is quite as robust for doing what I use Dropbox for, with the level of integration in the apps I live in, and is even half as compelling. The best options are Google Drive, and I’m wary of giving Google more data, and iCloud which doesn’t work how I work. Box has no app support. There’s no way I could afford to set up my own private cloud, either. It’s Dropbox, or go back to the dark ages before I could expect to have all my data in one place. The only real option is to hold my nose.

Thankfully, the John Siracusa gave an even-handed breakdown of the real effects of Dr. Rice’s role on the board on the latest Accidental Tech Podcast. In short: “The NSA already has all your data.” I’m not worried about the NSA having access to my Dropbox files. This is more akin to the flap over ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. I found his political views on homosexuality as abhorrent as I find Rice’s views on privacy and war. However I didn’t uninstall Firefox over it. The idea never crossed my mind, largely because I don’t use Firefox anymore. Unless Eich ordered his team to add filters blocking LGBT content—which is unlikely—his bigotry wasn’t going to affect the product. I doubt Dr. Rice’s views will affect the product.

It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m hoping the backlash hits critical mass and that Dropbox repents. Their recent statement says they’re standing by Dr. Rice, but it will take time and more high profile people leaving the service. For the time being, I’ll stay, but if anyone knows of an option for replacing Dropbox that has the same level of compatibility on iOS, I would love to hear about it.

Control Pays Off

The real dividends of technology are only paid out to those who know how to control it. I don’t just mean this financially, though web programmers are in a good place to make a lot of money. Control of technology pays off in less obvious ways. The NSA and CIA know how to control technology—it’s how they’ve been able to peek into our digital lives for the past several years. They know more about how to use technology than the people who are elected to oversee how they use it. That is a dangerous combination.

For ordinary people, however, controlling technology allows us to bend it to our will. Treating our devices as the tools they are prevents us from being tools of our devices. Controlling technology doesn’t mean “owning the full stack,” or being Richard Stallman and only using free, open-source software and hardware. It just means knowing the limitation of the technology, and the dangers. It means knowing where and when to rely on the tool, and where and when to rely on yourself. Doing this takes time, and a willingness to learn. Not everyone has that.

It worries me when people gush over the latest new gadget without thinking about how it fits in to the bigger picture of both how we use technology, and how we control technology. Look at smartwatches. The biggest use case anyone can seem to come up with is a “second screen” for your smartphone. A smartwatch is just something to show you notifications so you know whether or not to take your phone out of your pocket. Wouldn’t it make more sense to rethink how our phones decide to notify us, when, and why? That way, we know that when our phone buzzes, it’s automatically something worth taking it out for.

Of course, that’s not going to sell another $249 device to an audience of gadget-hungry nerds. It’s easier for a technology company to feed the human craving for novelty, rather than come up with a real solution to a real problem. Occasionally, they’ll manage to do both, but the hits are few and far between. Besides, we already have the power to solve the problem in the palms of our hands. No matter the device you own, it’s possible to make it shut up, or set it to only bug you about the things you think are important. Unfortunately, this is a power-user move.

Those of us who live in and of the world of technology, who have identified the problem, need to find real solutions for the real people who are being overwhelmed. We should be teaching people how to take control of their technology. So much technology education in schools is still about how to use Microsoft Office, and not much else. There’s a full toolbox at their disposal, and all we’re teaching the average person is how to swing a hammer. If Facebook can make it easy for an ordinary person to give up all their personal information, we can make it easy for an ordinary person to understand what they’re giving up. It’s not easy for us to do it, nor was it easy for Facebook, but it can be done.

Too many of the companies we depend on build a financial livelihood making it harder for us to be in control. Developers and technology companies should make it easier for their customers to take control of their technology. Companies that intentionally make it harder for us to control our devices should be taken to task for it. Whether it’s hardware manufacturers capitulating to carriers demands to load crapware , or Apple’s lack of inter-app communication, the pushback has to be made. More importantly, it has to come from more than just the technological elite. If we can bring ordinary people on our side, make them understand, and make them care about the tools they use and the potential they carry in their pockets, it can lead to a better technological world for all of us.