The current surgical separation of Netflix’s conjoined-twin business-model offerings – disk and streaming – has got me to thinking about how I partake of the arts these days, and why, for me, the joy of the experience has diminished.
It’s not my advanced age that’s at the heart of the problem, although there is a degree of been-there-done-that that makes so much of what’s new seem so referential, like merely familiar subsets of what’s old. And it’s not because music and movies are worse than they used to be – or not just because of that.
No, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my dissatisfaction, even borderline alienation, has to do with placeness.
One aspect of this needs to be mentioned and, as it is not wholly central to things, dispensed with right off the bat. I used to dismiss as silly those recorded-music aficionados who felt that the reproduction on vinyl LPs was superior to the digital form. They claimed that, despite the cracks and pops and hisses that records are heir to, there was a “warmth” to them, a fidelity that was as true as it was “high,” and that the ones and zeroes of digital reproduction set down musical performance in a way that was chilly and superficial and, in terms of position, without anchor or referent. Lately, I’ve come around to the former way of thinking. Digital recordings provide tones and voices that are clear as a bell … but where is that bell, exactly? There is a scrubbed-clean sameness to much of the digital, but listening to vinyl you can actually feel the room in which the music was recorded; you perceive, through echo or a muffling or something, a locational aspect to the music-making – whether in studio, auditorium or outdoor venue – that gives the listener a dimension of experience that an MP3 lacks: placeness, in a word, in the sense of feeling, even subliminally, that you are in that place with that performer. It is like what the sense of umami is to taste: an enhancer, a presence, that fills the empty spaces among the other components.
But, even more to the placeness point is the dwindling importance of the tangible and the environmental; in other words, the physical aspects. The portability, the ubiquity, the availability of digital files – on an iPod or iPad, via iTunes or other “stores” – is so enticing, such a leap forward in mass distribution … but, basically, I want to be able to hold a CD or DVD, I want to feel a paper book. I love the concept of “the cloud,” but I lack sufficient trust in anything I can’t touch, possess, collect – be with, look at, identify as “mine.” Yet more, I want to have a place where those paper books, or recorded movies, or captured performances reside, in toto and as separately selectable items; that is, a library, or a shelving unit, or a rack. I prefer my collections to have three dimensions, solidity and proximity. More than clicking on wheels or tapping on a touchscreen – both amazing technologies, don’t get me wrong – I want to look around me and see (and smell) my books, go to a wall and pull out the CD I want, open a door and check out my DVDs. I am no Luddite; in fact, I am an early adopter (I adopted early-adopting early); at the least, I am an early desirer. I see the benefits of the new (many if not most of them accruing to the manufacturers and distributors), but deep down I cling to the creature comforts, the humanness, the context – the placeness – of the old way. I want, as the overused Stein-ism goes, some there there.
And though I have marveled at the everywhereness of new technology since my first Sony Walkman, what I need to satisfy my need for placeness is place, a specific place, where the recorded media are displayed for my enjoyment. The ability to carry a player and/or a screen with you wherever you go to distract you wherever you are is a miracle of leisure-time democratic principle. But, for me, listening to music via earplugs in a public place, or watching a movie on a small screen on a hurtling bus, is nothing more than boredom-busting. To truly appreciate, even revere, a work of art, one needs to see it in a place designed for it to be seen or heard. By that I don’t mean only concert halls or movie theaters, though those are the best placeness places for such things (if they weren’t doing their jobs, they wouldn’t have been around for so long), if you could eliminate the annoying people factor; but in addition to those arenas, I believe that one needs to designate a place – a special room, a special section of a room – that is set aside to listen to music in, or read a book by the light of. I believe that there ought to be, if one can swing it, a special room or area the sole use of which is to watch movies in, with, if possible, some other spot in which to watch television. Formality of venue imbues a recorded medium with a special status, a properness, a location that lets us receive it in the spirit in which it was given, grant it the respect it desires and occasionally deserves – not treat it as some casual afterthought on the walk to work but as worthy of our complete attention, in an environment that focuses that attention and rewards our participation.
I love the streaming offerings of Netflix, sent via Roku box to my TV screen. But I have no intention of having them replace my getting of disks, as well. I will push a remote-control button and watch a streamed movie – that will be entertainment; but I will also slip the white envelope out from the larger red Netflix (soon to be Qwikster) envelope, slide the gleaming disk from the sleeve, feel it in my hands, carry it over to the DVD player, have the player’s drawer slide out to receive the disk and then slide back in. And then have the fruits of my very human, tactile process come up on the screen, and let the placeness envelop me.