Essays on Technology and Culture

Whether the Container or the Content

My mother has shelves upon shelves of books, to the point where it borders upon bibliomania. I suggested to her, once, getting a Kindle or using her iPad for reading, especially since she could adjust the text to better suit her vision. This was quickly rebuffed: she likes books.

On App.Net, I was in a brief conversation on mix tapes versus mix CDs and playlists. I took the case that a well made mix CD or playlist could be just as good as a mix tape. Aaron Mahnke’s response to the conversation, as well as Harry C. Marks’s both put the value on the medium over the content—the effort needed to make a tape is certainly greater than the effort needed to make a CD, or a mere iTunes playlist. I maintain, however, that though it is easier, the same amount of effort and thought can go into their digital equivalents. The ease is simply an excuse people have to be lazy.

A part of me sees this love for pure physical media, particularly older forms of it like cassette tapes, as ludditeism. Another part of me thinks about my book and record collections [1] that are sitting in a storage shed in Philadelphia. While I’ve rarely bought a new hard copy of a book since getting a Kindle, I still appreciate books for what they are. Certainly, I don’t have to worry about keeping my places in sync if I open the book on the subway versus at home. [2] On the other hand, if I had physical copies of everything I had in my iTunes library, I wouldn’t have anywhere to put them.

A vinyl record, a cassette tape, a CD, a hardback book, an ePub file, or an MP3—all of these are containers in one form or another. They come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are more durable than others. [3] A container can be plenty valuable, and there’s nothing wrong with valuing it. One reason I collect records is because I enjoy the packaging: big album art, decorated inner sleeves, the way a record cover wears around the disc within… I also enjoy the experience of playing a record, and the physicality of it.

However, I listen to most things digitally. It’s easier, it’s the same music, and my ears can’t tell the difference between a CD, a record, and a good quality download beyond the superficial. Reading a book on a Kindle screen, my iPhone screen, or my iPad screen makes no difference—it’s still the same story, the same words the author put down in the first place. Same content, different container. For me, in my life, there’s more value when content is in smaller, more flexible containers like digital files, then there is in bulky, potentially fragile ones like CDs, records, and cassette tapes.

If you value the container over the content, I don’t know what to say. Perhaps it’s nostalgia. In the example of the mix tape, Harry Marks says that “The girl could feel your love in that fuzzy version of ‘Faithfully’ you recorded at 2am on a Friday morning before school.” That fuzzy version is the content—molded slightly by the container—but content all the same. It’s easy to get mixed up in nostalgia. As a music fan, I’m guilty of this too. However, the container is not the content, though it is very easy to conflate them.

  1. By which I mean actual, vinyl LPs.  ↩

  2. Kindle’s WhisperSync is amazing when it works, and infuriating when it doesn’t.  ↩

  3. If you romanticize the cassette tape, you never had to spool one up after it got caught in the heads.  ↩