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Materialism, Marx, Sauron*, and a Monk

PCs Killed The Mix-Tape Star

I miss the way I used to make mixes. I'd sit in front of my tape deck, with a stack of CDs or records on one side of me, and a beverage (adult or otherwise) on the other, and spend a couple of hours or more finding just the right combination of songs to put on the tape. The levels would all match; loud songs got softened and soft songs got a boost. I would attempt to take the mix right to the end of the tape; I'd spend over an hour finding that perfect minute-and-a-half song or snippet that would fit musically with the rest of the mix.

... Compare the way I used to do my tape mixes with the way I do things now: I sit in front of my PC and either rip an entire CD to disk or download files from any of the legal services like iTunes or Musicmatch (in pre-litigation days, I will admit I downloaded the occasional song via Kazaa). I drag the song titles from my song list to the playlist window; I check to see if there are any abrupt endings or bad transitions, but I rarely listen to the songs all the way through. Once I'm satisfied, I pop in a CD-R, hit "record" and go to sleep. No muss, no fuss. And not nearly as much fun.

... That's a shame. The process of making a mix tape gave people a connection with music that the electronic version simply can't replace. Because it is so easy to drag and click a mix into existence, the sense of satisfaction with making what many feel is a work of art gets diminished.

I found this article via John Quiggin, who treats Joel Keller's lament as an instance of the general argument that something is lost when a highly skilled activity is replaced by an easy-to-use machine. Quiggin sees the core of the Keller argument as being that if something is hard to do, people will invest the effort to do a good job of it, so quality will be (at least on average) higher than if you could just slap something together. That's an important point (though see the comments section of his cross-post at Crooked Timber for some scorn heaped on Keller), but I was struck by another side to the Keller argument.

Regardless of the quality of the final product, the attachment of the maker to it suffers. A mix tape we labored over for hours means more to us than a WinAmp playlist we threw together, even if from an objective musical standpoint the playlist is better.

This is related to Karl Marx's idea of alienation. Marx's main point was to show how workers are alienated from their products because the boss or factory owner gets to keep the product and sell it. In the process the workers are alienated from themselves, because they put part of themselves -- their labor, which according to Marx is the source of all value -- into the product which is then taken from them. What Keller is pointing out is that with new technology, the amount of labor that goes into making a mix -- the amount of one's self that is tied up in it -- is reduced.

Unless we work for the company that puts out those "Greatest Country Hits of the 60s" compilations you see advertised on TV, no capitalist is appropriating our mixes. But we can still be alienated from our product -- for example, Keller mentions a tape deck that destroyed some of his creations. When this happens, there's an advantage to having less invested in the product. If we spent hours and hours working on a mix and lost it, it would be a big blow to us, whereas we'd hardly care if we lost a WinAmp playlist we slapped together in a few minutes. It's like Sauron in The Lord of The Rings, who invested so much in the creation of the One Ring that when the Ring was destroyed, he was too.

This is a sort of paradox of modern materialism. We have more things, and probably depend more on things in general, than we used to. But because our things are so easily produced, so interchangeable, so easily replaced, we're far less attached to particular ones. I'm reminded of a parable I read a while ago -- I believe it was from India -- on the subject. A monk who had taken a vow of poverty was staying at the house of a wealthy man. During the night, the house caught on fire, and the two men ran out. The wealthy man calmly watched his riches burn to the ground. But the monk dashed back inside to rescue his sleeping mat, the one possession he had.

The big question is whether the increased attachment to things in general that technology makes possible is balanced by the decreased attachment to particular things. One could also expand the argument to ask about the side effects of either form of materialism (for example, to the environment). Attachment to particular things can be a good check on waste, but it can also slow the transition to better ways of doing things.

*You know, if Tolkien had kept Melkor as his villain instead of turning things over to Sauron at the end of the First Age, I could have had an alliterating title.


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