Recently, I received a catalogue in the mail. At first, that didn’t seem like much of an achievement, and I absent-mindedly tossed it on the kitchen table. A few days later, eating breakfast, I noticed that it was still there, so I started flipping through it. A peculiar kind of memory flooded back, not triggered by any specific objects in the catalogue, but by the general sensation they recalled. For any number of reasons, growing up, my family received all kinds of catalogues; from art and chemistry supply manufacturers and booksellers, from department stores and museums. They sat in our kitchen, and I would peruse them during afternoon snacks, marveling at the arcane goods available to those who might crave them.
The catalogue I got last week was from — seriously — Gaylord: Your Trusted Source, a library equipment company. The front page advertises a CD & Videocassette Browser ($995, six finishes, including cherry and mahogany), Display Risers — Acrylic ($13.00 for 4" x 4" x 4", $55.41 for 12" x 12" x 12"), and Bookcraft Book Tape — 3.5mil Polypropylene ($2.93 for 3/4" x 30 yds). And that’s just the front cover. It’s chock full of goodies. I just opened to a page that includes Stadex Instant Wheat Starch — Pre-Cooked (for making some kind of archival paste, I suspect). Fungicide included. The catalogue will live on my kitchen table for some months, I think.
And, while it still boggles me on a certain level that there are people who would wanna order this stuff, it only recently occurred to me that — once — this was pretty much the only way to get it. Catalogues were a vital part of industry, business, and daily American life. That’s not to say that life is worse without them, nor even less rich, but they are, undoubtedly, on their way out. Any vaguely exotic shopping one might need to do can be accomplished — like most things — on the internet(s).
In the same way that Main Street USA gradually collapsed into shopping centers and strip malls throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the last decade has seen the incremental consolidation of the physical world. Much has been made of the music industry’s changes, both economic (how music is distributed) and ethereal (how music is created and listened to). Though music is far from the only thing being affected by the monomaniacal cultural ray gun that seems to be zapping nearly any kind of capital into data, it is amazing how far-reaching the changes around it have been.
When was the last time you got yer ass outta bed on a Saturday morning to go to the record store to buy tickets? As I’ve been reminded time and time again recently — in the autobiography of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, in a documentary about the Wetlands — there was a time that, if one wanted information, he often had to go to a specific, physical place — like a record store or a rock club — where he could pick up his metaphorical mail, read the notices on the wall, and shoot the shit. As has often been lamented, the downside of instant internet "tape" trading is that one no longer has to come into remotely human contact in order to do it (besides monitoring the karma meter of your uploaded/download ratio on BitTorrent).
"What comes," Lou Reed sang in 1970, "is better than what came before," and — of course — he’s still right. It’s worth pausing, at least, to observe "what came before" as it slips irretrievably into the past, perhaps only with an eye towards what it means to us now. Relationships have begun to change subtly, each new person encountered in the real world a physical manifestation of a collection of data running through both the Googlable ether and the unsearchable deep web of bank accounts, administrative files, and overdue library books. Nearly everybody one meets has an alternate self — usernames, MySpace accounts, a small arsenal of instant messenger logins — which he becomes only when he sits in front of a computer. The unspoken acknowledgement of this winds beneath conversations.
There is a kind of chance introduced in real world encounters, fired by the type of connections one can only make between physical objects, not between different forms of data. That’s not to say that data/data randomness doesn’t occur. Despite it’s ubiquity, Google (for example) is far from perfect, but moments of Google Zen are still quite different from meatspace Zen.
Last week, I attended several nights of the second circuit-bending festival at The Tank, a Manhattan arts space. For four days, geeks from all across the continent ripped apart toys, melted soundchips, rewired speakers, and generally did whatever they could to make new and compelling sounds from their source material. I learned how to add a variable pitch control — a potentiometer — to a cheap walkman and how to construct and record tape loops out of old cassettes (snip-snip Other Ones analogs!) Each night, a succession of a half-dozen acts took to the stage, playing pretty damn abstract music on modified Gameboys, speak-n-spells, delay pedals, and overflowing buckets of gear.
Though the crowds were never large, those who attended listened to the music with rapt attention, the attendance barely dwindling through multiple sets. At the conclusion of the final evening, a traditional two-turntables-and-a-mixer DJ began to spin, playing music that wasn’t too different than what people had just sat through. If I closed my eyes, I could easily imagine it coming from some combination of shredded electronics and patch cables. Despite the fact that the music was so similar, the crowd dispersed almost instantaneously. People had no fascination in watching somebody manipulate vinyl, even if it sounded the same.
There was — as I realized — a hugely physical component to the music that I never entirely suspected: the idea that one gets something very different out of it by watching and listening than if he had merely listened. Abstract information revealed in musicians’ gestures and physical manipulations is often what creates (or reinforces) an emotional impression as much as the music itself. With a DJ, in that context, that was lost, and — even if audience members didn’t consciously realize it — they somehow knew.
I’m sure I learned a lot through the presence of random-ass catalogues on the kitchen table, unconsciously filling out my knowledge of myriad subjects simply by glancing at the way they fit into their own worlds. There is something shared in physical objects like catalogues and acts like waiting on line at a record store to buy tickets, a different kind of common experience than knowing that somebody is sitting behind a computer somewhere.
It’s hard to know how this will change anything. ‘New sounds can be found,’ Mike Doughty once claimed, ‘very very rarely, but not new feelings.’ But the strange thing about feelings is — ‘new’ or not — they often feel like we’re experiencing them for the first time, or at least coming at them from meaningful new angles. The world mutates, but people are people, as confused as we ever were, regardless of the wonderful labor-saving devices with which we’re presented. Perhaps we merely experience new forms of confusion. Is there such thing as ‘new’ chaos?