Existential Vertigo

Is the risk of losing digital identities in a flash really a fair trade for infinite access? Or should we all just defer to the old shoebox to keep photos of grandma safe?

In the not so distant past, owning things was seen as a positive attribute—in part because in many cases people didn’t have any choice but to own physical objects. And even when they did, apart from taxi cabs and apartments and maybe power tools, renting things was seen as low-class. Solid citizens owned things, whether it was homes or cars. Ownership meant that you had earned something you could show to others, something you could touch or hold.

And when it came to music and movies and other forms of entertainment—certainly with books—most people wanted to own them even after they became available online, to have a physical library, whether it was records and tapes or CDs and DVDs.

That all started to change over the past decade or so, with the rise of the consumer internet, peer-to-peer networks and the “sharing economy.” Now, increasing numbers of people don’t own homes or even cars—nor do they want to. They rent them, or pay for access to them when they need them. And when it comes to TV shows and music, owning physical products has largely given way to the use of streaming services.

This is convenient in many ways, but it has also fundamentally changed our relationship to the media we listen to and look at. Instead of having photo albums filled with childhood pictures, or shoeboxes and slides somewhere in the basement, we have a collection on iCloud, or Photostream syncs it to our devices automatically. Or we’ve uploaded them all to Google’s photo storage, or Dropbox, or we have albums on Facebook.

Instead of having CDs, we just listen to whatever music we want to hear on Pandora or Spotify or Google Play. And instead of having movies and TV shows on VHS or saved on our set-top box, we stream them through services like Netflix and HBO and Shomi. Of course, cable TV and radio were always streaming services, in a sense, but now they have both been cast free of their moorings and we can enjoy them whenever and wherever we want.

On the one hand, this sea change in the way we experience media and entertainment has some major benefits: it comes when we want it, not when some TV network or record label or radio station wants to give it to us. And there is a lot more variety as well, with hundreds of TV shows and movies to choose from, and music from around the world. Much better than some tiny one-channel town with a 200-watt radio station playing oldies.

There are downsides to this new era as well, however, and periodically we see these negative aspects rear their ugly heads to warn us that nothing good ever came without some kind of sacrifice. Take the recent demise of the online radio service Rdio, for example. After five years of offering streaming music services to millions of internet users, it went bankrupt in late 2015 and was acquired by Pandora, which immediately shut down the standalone service.

Like many streaming-music services, Rdio simply couldn’t make enough money to stay alive given the onerous copyright licensing deals that it was forced to strike with the major record labels. But why it failed isn’t really important. The important part is that for millions of users, it had become the replacement for both radio and their record collections, and now it was gone. And there was a substantial outcry on Twitter and elsewhere about it. It was as though users were coming to grips with the death of a loved one.

For many, it wasn’t just about having to move all their playlists and favorites over to another service; although that can often be cumbersome. It was more that they had invested thousands of hours of time in the service over the years—in curating their own private radio and record collection from the vast ocean of content on the Internet—and had gotten it just the way they liked it. Music in particular is such an emotional experience that it can be disturbing to suddenly find that it is no longer there.

Rdio isn’t the only one to bring these questions to the surface. Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms have triggered similar panic attacks for some users by changing their terms of service. In the case of Instagram, the company altered the agreement that users have to click on before they sign up. It appeared that the service was planning to take control of the photos that users uploaded to the app and that those pictures might even show up in advertising on the service, or be used in some other way.

After an outcry, Instagram made it clear that they weren’t planning to sell or use anyone’s pictures without their consent, and that the terms of service just meant that the company had the right to show them to other users (which is the whole point of the app, after all). But even after the explanation, it’s not uncommon to see postings on Twitter or Facebook that quote the terms of service and make it seem like users’ photos are being stolen somehow.

In fact, these kinds of posts show up periodically in reference to all kinds of services, including Twitter. And the regularity with which people seem to get hysterical about them reinforces two things: First off, most people don’t really understand the legal ramifications of the terms of service before they use such services, if they even read them at all; and second, there’s an undercurrent of fear that these photo- and music-sharing services will suddenly turn on their users, robbing us of what we thought we owned.

In some cases, of course, that’s exactly what happens. A surprising number of iTunes users have found their entire music libraries have suddenly disappeared, for no apparent reason and through no fault of their own. And then they have to be painstakingly reconstructed.

The free-floating fear of this happening creates a kind of existential vertigo—the kind the internet specializes in. After all, where are the photos that we put on iCloud and the music that we put on iTunes? They all exist in some virtual world, both existing and not-existing at the same time like Schrodinger’s cat—until we need them and (hopefully) they appear. Until then, they are present only as ones and zeros in the memory of a computer server somewhere in the desert, cooled by liquid nitrogen or hidden under thousands of tons of rock.

It’s even worse, in some ways, with a platform like Facebook. If you want to communicate with large chunks of your extended family or friend groups, the giant social network is just about the only economical and free way to do so. And in return for getting this massive, globe-spanning network, with all the free file storage and free messaging and photo services built in, all you have to do is turn over every speck of information about yourself.

Is this a fair trade? Most people don’t even think about the question. But every now and then something happens that reveals the hidden machinery behind all of those theme-park style services: Facebook will remove a photo of someone breastfeeding, for example, or someone will share a picture of their relatives in a bombed-out village in Syria and it will suddenly disappear, as though it never existed. A cryptic email about having breached the terms of service will appear by email, but no human beings will be available to explain the photo’s absence, nor will there be anyone with whom to bargain for its return.

Is there anything we can do about this new modus operandi? Not really. We can all go back to storing our printed photos in shoeboxes and listening to a physical radio. We can cancel our Facebook and Instagram accounts. But then if we want to share any of our thoughts or photos with other people, we will have to convince them all to come to our houses. And if we want to stay in touch with friends and family, we will have to write them printed letters and call them on the telephone.

One thing we can do, however, is remain aware of the bargain we are making when we sign up for these services, and perhaps keep an old-fashioned copy of the things we love, just in case they vanish. And we can pressure companies like Facebook not to take liberties with our data, regardless of their power to do so. Apart from that, perhaps a kind of existential vertigo about our emotional possessions is just the price to pay for all of this progress. No one said the future was going to be easy.

Mathew also writes in this issue on struggles of the media industry over the last decade.

We choose access over ownership because convenience is seductive. Until it’s gone. (We’re still hurting over Rdio.) But as one would previously learn through a house fire or a burglary, our connection to “our” things has always been ephemeral, and sometimes unexpected blank slates can be opportunities. As Mathew argues, perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of the deal we are making. Which is to say, making new playlists is a great way to procrastinate from finishing magazines — AR

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.