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Pistons and Windmills


An essay explaining why digital killed record labels but not music and what we should all learn from it.

When the country and music industry was pissing itself over Napster, I figured out that this whole internet thing was actually something worth considering. And honestly it was just a coincidence of timing, but it was a serendipitous coincidence since Napster and the war that surrounded it was a brilliant example of the panicking reaction to the impending change that the internet was going to be. Allow me to recount what I figured out.

First you have to appreciate the difference between digital and analog. To many people "Digital" means "High-tech" and "better", while "Analog" just means "Old" and "Quaint". But really "Digital" means something that is broken into a series of quantifiable bits of information. That is to say that you can represent something with a series of reproducible... things. And those things are some form of information.

Most people have enough understanding of computers and television to know that the images you see are made by a machine looking at something real through a grid and then recording the color of each little square. Each one of these little squares are "Pixels", which was originally a contraction of the term "Picture Element". So a picture of a leaf was reduced a list of "Green-green-green-red-red-blue-green-blue-red-green..." Or probably more like: "010.010.010.100.100.001.010.001.100.010..."

Computers take that list of numbers and show the associated colored bits in a stack of rows and when you look at this square of glowing pixels you see an image of a leaf. But you could take that same list of colors and use it as a guide for a Lite-Brite and get a pretty similar image. You could use it as a guide for a beaded curtain, a crocheted rug or a knit sweater and get the image of the leaf. A green dot, a green stitch of yarn, a green bead can all be stacked next to other colors, next to other colors, next to other colors... and you'll see the leaf. That list of colored points is the image reduced to information. The computer screen, Lit-Brite, beads, and yarn are the medium that this information is rendered in.

Ideas have been digital as long as there has been language. Language, itself, is breaking an idea of something down into reproducible elements that are not dependent on the medium. Every time I say someone's name it's a different breath of air that comes from my mouth. If I write something down it doesn't matter what I write it in, as long as it holds it long enough for it to be read. Ink on paper, carved on stone, scribbled in sand on the beach... the letters all convey the idea to the reader. That information is, again, rendered in different, independent mediums.

Analog information is not separated from the medium. A digital music file takes the ups and downs of a sound wave and breaks it into a million little levels. Then the player reads those levels and follows the instructions on where to put the diaphragm of a speaker which shakes to produce the sound. A vinyl record isn't a list of numbers representing the sound wave, it is a groove that goes up and down as the sound wave. The needle of the record player is shaken by being drug through the imprint of the track that was cut by another needle that was shaken in the same way when the original sound shook the cutting needle. The sound that comes out is an impression of the sound that went in, the same way that a toy popping out of a plastic mold got its shape from the existence of a physical piece of metal, not a list of points to hit as if we were a welder following instructions in a machine shop. The mold simply is; the welder reads and does.




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