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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Column: Unpacking my MP3s

In a few years, it will seem almost quaint that anyone ever worked in a video rental store, a record store or even a bookshop. Now that we can transmit movies, songs and books at megabytes per second, getting paid to stand in a room and sell physical storage media suddenly looks as strange and inefficient as sending a text message by bike courier.

At the same time, though, something is lost in this transition. When I lived in Louisville, Ky., I used to love visiting stores like Wild and Woolly Video and Ear X-tacy Records. Last fall, Ear X-tacy shuttered its doors and, though Wild and Woolly remains open, most other video stores have been crowded out by grocery store dispensers and web-based distributors.

With the closure of these businesses, there’s no longer such a thing as a fortuitous find. When virtually anything you might want is available for download, or for a modest shipping fee, it’s difficult to recover the thrill of discovery. Online, if I look for Master of the Flying Guillotine or the new Xiu Xiu album, that’s exactly what I will get.

Digitized, the aura of distance and rarity disappears — along with advice from the expert clerk and the fellow browser. It was always a gamble to get whatever staff or friends might recommend, but at least you would have the small enjoyment of imagining what led them to suggest it in the first place. Now, Amazon algorithms just repeat back to us what we already want but don’t know yet. Instead of risking disappointment and broadening our horizons, we follow a computerized projection of our past behavior.

Even the notion of wasting time at an entertainment store goes the way of the cobbler. Buying or renting things used to involve all sorts of indecisive faffing about, and that was part of the fun. With the internet, media gratification can be nearly instantaneous, annihilating all anticipation.

Of course, the analog shopping experience was sometimes an enormous hassle. Outside of cities, inane chain stores like Borders and Blockbuster dominated the entertainment landscape. Meanwhile, the mom and pops often carried meager selections, and more than a few were staffed by judgy curmudgeons.

So, why mourn them at all? Part of what’s depressing about the extinction of places like video rentals and the record store is the unsettling feeling that the world of one’s youth is moldering away.

We can be sure, too, that our ancestors before had quite similar complaints. But then, as Peter de Vries once observed, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Instead of Walter Benjamin’s book collector unpacking the library to find the dwelling places of his past inside, we now have an effectively limitless capacity for collection, a nostalgia machine of prodigious dimensions — the Web.

In cyberspace, every childhood jingle can be replayed and remixed ad nauseam. Even as their social context disintegrates, our media memories become infinitely reproducible, losing sentimental value through inflation. We no longer have even the grace of forgetting in our own way.

At the same time, online data does not have the same visual and tactile permanence as its obsolete counterpart. Unlike the spines on my bookshelf, my Kindle files do not provide a daily reminder of novels read, nor does a screen of MP3s have the same historical heft as a CD collection. Despite a computer’s seeming ability to recall everything, a full hard drive does not offer the same fixity and reassurance as older media collections.

Why, though, does the collector even need his souvenirs? Here we might consult the wisdom of A&E’s “Hoarders.” Through its cheesy television psychiatry, we learn that compulsive hoarding compensates for some past trauma or insecurity. It is a way of storing up for a disaster that one can never fully prepare for.

Nostalgia, then, is the compulsive hording of the past and the trauma it fends off is the foreknowledge of death, the end of one’s time. We invent ever-sophisticated devices for recording the ghosts of previous moments, but quickly the institutions we’ve built around these specters change and break down, too. Even if the archives don’t perish to fire or the worm, the archivists soon will.

But now, even as rental DVDs join the ranks of laserdiscs and coin-operated gramophones, my own memento mori will be transmitted online and stored by automated web-crawlers, perhaps unread but, nevertheless, collected and saved by inhuman manifestations of an insatiable desire to preserve, a desire those machines will outlast.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.


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