Moving Atoms

I am in the process of moving to downtown Los Angeles after fourteen relatively pleasant (although strikingly boring, on the whole — which is, I suppose, the whole point) years in The OC. I have never lived anywhere as long as I have lived in this particular house, and everyone I know has assured me that I, in particular, should dread the physical task of packing and moving. It is true; I have a lot of stuff. I have generally claimed, though, that the bulk of my possessions are books (and their oak vertical coffins). Now that I have packed a significant proportion of my worldly goods, I will admit that there were also a lot of miscellaneous odds and ends lying about the place. Nevertheless, the 108 large cardboard book boxes and 31 now empty bookcases testify in favor of my original assertion, but also stand as weighty markers of our incomplete transition from atoms to bits.

One of the striking things about the packing was how many of the things which I had, in years gone by, thought absolutely essential, are now instead essentially (if not absolutely) obsolete. Like so many people, I have been assimilated into iTunes over the past few years, and almost never actually now listen to the physical CDs that have provided the high-quality source material for my computer’s digital library (almost none of the files in my iTunes collection are mp3s from the internet, and I have not yet purchased a song from the iTunes Music Store). Instead, these dusty discs are, in essence, archival masters for my real, working music library, which is interfaced exclusively virtually, i.e., through my computer and iPod.

As I am boxing up the CDs (over 700 of them, which is a lot of atoms, even if these discs are “compact”), I am thinking about how they used to sit in bookcases of their own in days gone by, proudly stored and displayed in the living room (except for those random ones that ended up scattered frustratingly around the house). Now the discs are packed away in boxes and will be sent, as it were, to the closed stacks; as I pack them up for the move, I know they will never need to be unpacked and re-shelved.1

The same process of dematerialization is increasingly transforming my video collection. Over the past couple of years, I have gotten into the routine of carrying newly-purchased DVDs to my study (where the computer currently resides), ripping the discs into divx format, and storing the resultant files on hard disks (it costs about a quarter per movie right now, but has been dropping steadily since I started the process). Although I have, over the past couple of years, been burning these divx files onto DVD+RW discs that can be played in my DVD player, or, when on the road, viewed directly from my Powerbook’s own hard disk, I have been intending all this time to buy a cheap Mac to use as a media center, so I could bring the movies, along with the albums, back into my living room — but now in virtual (bits, not atoms) form. I will probably use this move as an excuse to do that. So, several bookcases of bulky, atom-rich CDs and DVDs, along with the ancient CD player and several even-more aged VCRs (both VHS and circa-1986 Betamax) will be replaced by the three pounds and 84 cubic inches of a Mac Mini.2

Commodity Fetishism

Oddly enough, there are several, very heavy, boxes of media that I do intend to re-shelve and store long-term in a prominent position in my new living room: the LPs. These ancient record albums may spin at a tenth the speed of the CDs, and are read with a rather primitive needle (at least on my twenty-year-old turntable) instead of a laser, but they definitely have fetish value. The packaging is neat, the objects themselves bring haptic pleasure, and the very obsoleteness itself is now a virtue. Of course, CDs occasionally have interesting booklets, but most of the time they feature just a track list and, perhaps, a couple of tiny pictures. DVDs are better; some of them have better packaging, but the digital add-ons really distinguish that particular medium. Neither of these compares to the old LPs, though. To my mind, this is the key to staying in business as an atom-purveyor in an increasingly bits-centric world. For several years now, Music For Dozens has tried to capitalize on the fetish value of the physical commodity. Admittedly, we could do a much better job of this (particularly if our artists were to help us provide a bit more distinctive pack-in content), but we have always been aware that the physicality of our CDs has a real, underdeveloped, value (in addition to being, even today, the most cost-effective way to transfer high-quality uncompressed digital audio content to the consumer). Businesses and artists that still wish to move atoms had better be aware at this late date that unadorned cartons for bits — bulky shells for content which is already, or could easily be, digitized — are on the way to obsolescence.

Only by adding some sort of aura to the container itself, and preferably by reanimating its fetish value, can atom-bound commodities retain some real value. Let me explain what I mean here.3 Generally speaking, things have use value (some things more than others!). Yet, if use value were all there was to modern life, the USSR would still be in business (so to speak).

Next time you are in a Target store, check out the combs. (Bear with me here.) Notice how many there are, and how they are all a bit different? Attend to the peculiarities and details of the design, the variations of handle and tines. Now, how many different styles of comb do you need to move your hair around your scalp? Yet stores are full of different combs and brushes, in a myriad of colors and styles and materials, some even tied in with mass-marketing campaigns (with name brands connoting fashion and High Style, or, particularly in children’s products, themed in accordance to some mass-marketed narrative). If use value were primary, there would not be this diversity within the hair comb ecosystem, and the basic plastic model would be the only one available, merely costing something like a dime (there is little R&D on the basic comb design to recover at this point, and mass production’s economies of scale would take care of the rest just like nineteenth century theorists like Marx or Bellamy thought it would). Instead, our stores are filled with an abundance of consumer choice, and most combs actually cost several dollars. When we make that choice, we are, in fact, purchasing not simply a comb, but a hybrid product instead. That modern comb is, in essence, 10% material value (basic utilitarian design [long since amortized], materials, labor, transport, etc. — i.e., all the mundane infrastructure which is necessary to lend the item its use value) and 90% industrial design and marketing (trendy packaging, branding costs, the shapes and styles into which the materials are formed, etc. — all the physical attributes surplus to the use value). A designer had to come up with a unique and distinctive design for each particular model of comb, and an artist had to handle its packaging. We are, in other words, spending a dime for the comb and a couple of bucks for art every time we buy a seemingly innocuous consumer commodity. To put it in a rather more contemporary idiom, that comb is 10% atoms and 90% bits.

That’s how commodities today have hitched their stars to the aura in order to satisfy consumers, who, through their everyday purchasing choices, demand more than use value in their everyday lives. Indeed, this is how most of us, however unconsciously, get much of our daily artistic nourishment — through the industrial design of basic commodities. We are willing to pay a little premium (a few hundred percent, perhaps) for this surplus fetish value incorporated into our ordinary, ubiquitous things.

This fact is particularly true of commodities that are essentially merely containers for information, or bits. And this is also why the record labels were so scared about mp3s until Apple saved their shareholders’ collective ass[ets]. What is not often enough acknowledged, though, is that the move from LP to CD had already begun the dematerialization process almost twenty years before. Once a commodity is revealed as a mere storage medium for bits, with little additional fetish value, the physical container is essentially obsolete, whether anyone knows it at the time or not.

The neat thing about information commodities is that, thanks to the aura of the author, they combine use and fetish values together within the information itself. Enough art is intrinsic to the information content, and not the industrial design of the physical packaging (the disc itself, along with the fragile jewel-case and tiny booklet, for instance), that most people will gladly forgo the atoms in favor of the bits alone. This is why mp3s have taken off so rapidly — they don’t leave that much of importance behind when they dematerialize the information commodity from atoms to bits.

This is also, perhaps, why people will grudgingly accept having to spend some money for their mp3s. Both the record companies and the technocrati were surprised by the success of the iTunes Store in getting consumers to pay for use value they could still get pretty easily for free. The RIAA has certainly convinced themselves that it was their terrorism that brought the rabble into line, but in truth that crackdown was only a small part of the success.

Apple has simply sold the notion that iTunes digital tracks are themselves better than mp3s (another advantage of the proprietary format of the AAC DRM, despite the wrath of the Open Source community). Apple brought out the aura in the music file, recognizing that the use value has only negligible currency in a mass production society (which we have inhabited for more than a century).

In essence, Apple seems to have convinced a large segment of the public that some of the purchase price of their digital tracks goes not to basic use value — for which people are not, I think, willing to pay a premium in this day and age, and which the bootleg mp3 delivers fairly well for free — but to the artists themselves (whether that is indeed the case or not). For a long time consumers have been willing to pay a high price for art embedded within their commodities (otherwise generic black combs would dominate the store shelves). Apple merely provided their customers a way to tie the information-content back up with the artist’s aura encapsulated within a commodity. This is why iTunes looks like a consumer electronics interface instead of a computer program (which has always driven GUI experts mad, and justly so). Obviously, it is not just the little AAC file that we are talking about now; Apple found a much better way to ground the content’s aura into something truly tangible in the iTunes software experience. And, in turn, this virtual rematerialization is, of course, far surpassed in potency by the real rematerialization: The iPod. In all its sensuous material physicality, the iPod both contains and psychologically displaces the music file for consumers, transposing the simulated tactile interface of the iTunes software onto a device that really does fit perfectly in one’s hand. And, in so doing, Apple pulled off a miraculous sleight of hand as well. They magically transmuted the abstract (useful, but not inherently as valuable) digital file into a physical object which is positively oozing with surplus fetish value, and which can therefore be sold by the millions at a premium.

You can probably see now why I think the gradual transition from atoms to bits in our information-storage commodities — which, judging from my own house, apparently amount to perhaps half of our physical possessions (but maybe I have a higher proportion than most) — leaves the purveyors of atoms in something of a bind. Either they can themselves make the digital transition, and abandon all pretense of industrial design in favor of distributing unadorned use value (and collect perhaps a tenth the revenue), or they can find a way to gussy up their data and encapsulate it in some sort of container (or packaging) that consumers will buy as art (and for which they are only too willing, it seems, to pay the concomitant premium).

Dematerializing the Library

So, that still leaves the 108 boxes of books and their 31 heavy oak bookcases. These will definitely have to be unpacked and installed in the new place, and one nice feature of the Los Angeles loft is that it is sufficiently larger than my current house to actually hold all those books without feeling oppressively claustrophobic.

Now, some books certainly have intrinsic fetish value — not just in their design, layout, font choice, and cover art, but in and of themselves, as unique artifacts. My almost-complete collection of Philip K. Dick original first-edition pulps is a particularly nice example of that fact, as are all the historical artifacts of early twentieth century L.A. I have collected over the years. Still, these particular treasured volumes are exceptions. Most of the books are mass-produced trade paperbacks. Indeed, with the peculiar viewpoint that comes from trying to fit one’s world into cardboard boxes, I was easily able to perceive that the vast majority of academic books come in only three sizes. This fact certainly comes in handy when one is trying to arrange nice, compact piles that fit perfectly into those boxes. It does not do much, though, to enhance the fetish value, the impression of uniqueness, attached to those volumes.

In fact, my back would certainly appreciate the dematerialization of many of these books. Not their destruction, of course, as they are my stock in trade as a teacher and writer, but their transformation from (heavy, bulky) atoms into (svelte, virtually weightless) bits. Funny that, the very week I have endangered my spine in this act of atom-shuffling, Sony should finally offer (although not actually for immediate sale) their long-awaited e-book reader. Although perhaps not yet ready for prime-time, this e-ink based device points the way to a future where text content, like first music and now video, will be conveniently consumed in digital form. Details of markup/highlighting, navigation, and basic usability remain to be refined in these new devices, but the essential dematerialization of the book has begun.

Even funnier, or more fortuitously, this very evening I stumbled across a wonderful feature available through the California Digital Library: The full content (text, illustrations, indices, etc.) of hundreds of University of California Press books available in digital form. Many of these texts are restricted to users at licensed universities (like the UCs themselves), but a good number are available to the public for free. Now, since my own manuscript, Toward Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Southern California is forthcoming from UC Press in about a year, I am especially interested in this particular dematerialization. How can the press extract all the intrinsic fetish value of these digital texts? To put it more directly, how can they deliver my considerable personal aura to paying customers? Does any potential e-text sale of my opus rely on Sony’s ability to sell the world on their likely insufficiently-sexy e-reader (I judge based on their iPod-“killer” mp3 players)? If my digital manuscript is not likely to piggyback on the commodity fetishism of its potential containers, how can I profit from its distribution (and just what did that contract say about royalty rates for electronic versions in the first place)?

Fortunately, none of this really matters to me as a performing artist. When someone (it probably won’t be Apple, but I notice that Amazon is thinking about selling an e-book reader) figures out how to make electronic books into fetish items, probably by following the iTunes/iPod model, I am sure my infinitesimal share of the resulting revenue will indeed trickle down. Yet, most musicians make just about all their money in the current system by touring, not by album sales. Why is this the case? Not for the reason the RIAA would tell you. Indeed, it is the piratical business practices of the major record labels that make the vast majority of recordings unprofitable, not the pirating of the recordings themselves by fans. And, I think it is safe to say, very few record executives pay to see a concert, or buy a T-shirt, while those same fans certainly do (rabidly, even fanatically, so!), and perhaps all the more readily if they have been exposed to the artist by listening to their mp3s for free (which certainly lowers, for all parties, the cost of connecting new fans to musical artists). Of course, I don’t myself do a whole lot of touring — although I have presented about thirty academic talks and papers over the last few years (some of which paid nice honoraria) — but I am currently looking for a tenure-track job, and the best way for me to get one (and to raise my status once I have one) is to get my intellectual product out there and build up my aura of expertise. What better way to do that than to distribute my book not just as rather pricey and exclusive atoms, but as cheap and ubiquitous bits as well?

The dematerialization of the library may be the best thing that could happen not only to us content-consumers, but us content-producers as well. It promises to increase the livable space in our houses, and to reduce our moving costs. Indeed, perhaps the next time I move houses, I will be able to box up most of my books and won’t have to unpack them again at all.

  1. A fringe benefit of this transition from atoms to bits has been that, since I regularly back up my computer’s hard disks, I have not lost an album since the transition, nor have I wasted a frustrating minute trying to find a disc on the shelf, or much more infuriating hours ransacking the house for errant or misplaced CDs. []
  2. Of course, this is exactly what Steve Jobs has in mind with Apple’s newly announced iTV, but I think I will go with the Mini after I move. In the new house, at least at first, my DVDs will probably end up on some shelf in the living room and not join the boxes of videotapes already cached away in the garage, mostly because I have not taken the trouble to transfer the commentary tracks of the DVDs (and, once in a blue moon, one finds oneself in the mood to take a look at one of those special features), but also because of my next point… []
  3. I want to thank Eric Zimmerman for some of what comes next; I first formulated this basic understanding of commodities during a meandering conversation with Eric on the streets of Northampton MA about fifteen years ago, when the now-ubiquitous atoms to bits process was far less advanced. If he reads this, and remembers my somewhat disconnected musings then, I would like him to know that this here is what I was trying to get at all those years ago! []

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