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Collections, Time, Distance: From Medium to Meta-Data

These are interesting times for the collector. Collections of books, records, DVDs— these all used to matter. What does his bookshelf say about him? And did you get a look at his record collection? I never knew he collected DVDs of musicals with music by Cole Porter.

As the underlying media that holds these recordings moves toward the digital, the bookshelf and the record cabinet give way to the computer hard drive. The physical limitations of the bookshelf no longer trouble us. We can collect to our heart’s content.

Once we have every piece of music as a digital file on a hard drive, our relationship to the music is displaced from the recording medium (vinyl, tape, cd) to the meta-data about the file. We have no relationship with the bits stored on the disk. If asked to point to which bits represent which song, we would be unable to do so. So instead, we now relate to meta-data in an index. The index of titles assures us that we have indeed collected 20 versions of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. We can push this button, or that one, and call up the file to be played on a connected sound system.

When my music collection was encoded on vinyl platters, I had a direct relationship with the medium. I was careful not to scratch the vinyl. The record was kept in a paper sleeve that fit into a cardboard album cover. For very special records, I’d keep the album in a protective plastic covering so the artwork on the album cover wouldn’t get worn. I used a fairly complex system to clean the records with a special liquid and a brush. I have no such specific relationship with the bits that now hold much of the music that I ‘own.’

In fact, it’s largely a matter of faith that the bits I think I own are physically located on my hard drive. Frankly, the bits could be anywhere. In this relationship, all I care about is the latency between when I locate the song in the index and push the button that connects it to the sound system, and when the music comes out of the speakers. Increments of time displace the qualities of physical extension.

David Gelernter’s manifesto, The Second Coming gets to these changes very directly:

Today’s operating systems and browsers are obsolete because people no longer want to be connected to computers — near ones OR remote ones. (They probably never did). They want to be connected to information. In the future, people are connected to cyberbodies; cyberbodies drift in the computational cosmos — also known as the Swarm, the Cybersphere.

Where a song encoded as bits is doesn’t really matter. I’m only interested in what action creates the connection between the meta-data in the index, the stream of data from the file, and a system that can decode that stream into audible sound. At this moment in history, physical proximity along with wires and plugs seem to be the best guarantee of delivery of the stream with a minimum of latency. Once that service level agreement can be met via the Network, the local and the remote become displaced by the service contract. Apple’s interest in’s approach to collections of music reflects a recognition of how this relationship is changing as a matter of practice.

Real collectors, the completists, often don’t open the package, don’t interact with the collected item in any way that would damage its potential value. While actual contact is minimal, physical delivery of the items is important. A collector of digital bits collects meta-data in an index; however the emotion and the ritual of collection doesn’t really transfer to the digital realm.

As we make these transitions to the digital, we need to renew our understanding the metaphors we use to navigate this space. We take them granted, we assume desktops, two-dimensional screens, files and folders. Even the idea of name spaces could use rethinking.

Once again, Gelernter on how we create models from metaphors, and how those models are going to change by incorporating time (tangible time = the stream):

34. In the beginning, computers dealt mainly in numbers and words. Today they deal mainly with pictures. In a new period now emerging, they will deal mainly with tangible time — time made visible and concrete. Chronologies and timelines tend to be awkward in the off-computer world of paper, but they are natural online.

35. Computers make alphabetical order obsolete.

36. File cabinets and human minds are information-storage systems. We could model computerized information-storage on the mind instead of the file cabinet if we wanted to.

37. Elements stored in a mind do not have names and are not organized into folders; are retrieved not by name or folder but by contents. (Hear a voice, think of a face: you’ve retrieved a memory that contains the voice as one component.) You can see everything in your memory from the standpoint of past, present and future. Using a file cabinet, you classify information when you put it in; minds classify information when it is taken out. (Yesterday afternoon at four you stood with Natasha on Fifth Avenue in the rain — as you might recall when you are thinking about “Fifth Avenue,” “rain,” “Natasha” or many other things. But you attached no such labels to the memory when you acquired it. The classification happened retrospectively.)

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