Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 22, 2016

Prince, tech, and the Californian Ideology

I recently gave some talks to a gathering of clergy that focused on the effects of digital technology on the cultivation of traditional Christian practices, especially the more contemplative ones. But when I talked about the dangers of having certain massive tech companies — especially the social-media giants: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — dictate to us the modes of our interaction with one another, I heard mutters that I was “blaming technology.”

I found myself thinking about that experience as I read this reflection on Prince’s use of technology — and his resistance to having technological practices imposed on him by record companies.

Prince, who died Thursday at 57, understood how technology spread ideas better than almost anyone else in popular music. And so he became something of a hacker, upending the systems that predated him and fighting mightily to pioneer new ones. Sometimes he hated technology, sometimes he loved it. But more than that, at his best Prince was technology, a musician who realized that making music was not his only responsibility, that his innovation had to extend to representation, distribution, transmission and pure system invention.

Many advances in music and technology over the last three decades — particularly in the realm of distribution — were tried early, and often first, by Prince. He released a CD-ROM in 1994, Prince Interactive, which featured unreleased music and a gamelike adventure at his Paisley Park Studios. In 1997, he made the multi-disc set “Crystal Ball” set available for sale online and through an 800 number (though there were fulfillment issues later). In 2001, he began a monthly online subscription service, the NPG Music Club, that lasted five years.

These experiments were made possible largely because of Prince’s career-long emphasis on ownership: At the time of his death, Prince reportedly owned the master recordings of all his output. With no major label to serve for most of the second half of his career and no constraints on distribution, he was free to try new modes of connection.

No musician of our time understood technology better than Prince — but he wasn’t interested in being stuffed into the Procrustean bed of technologies owned by massive corporations. He wanted to own his turf and to be free to cultivate it in ways driven by his own imagination.

The megatech companies’ ability to convince us that they are not Big Business but rather just open-minded, open-hearted, exploratory technological creators is perhaps the most powerful and influential — and radically misleading — sales jobs of the past 25 years. The Californian ideology has become our ideology. Which means that many people cannot help seeing skepticism about the intentions some of the biggest companies in the world as “blaming technology.” But that way Buy n Large lies.

hello, it's me

Remember me? I used to blog here, back in the day. I stepped away because I was working on a book that overlapped a bit too much with the typical subjects of this blog; but things have changed a bit. A good bit.

The plan then was to write a short book that expanded on these Theses for Disputation — but it proved to be impossible to find the right length and right approach. So an expanded version of those theses will appear in a future issue of The New Atlantis. Please stay tuned for that.

That noted, I have a few further updates:

  • My employer, Baylor University, has graciously extended unto me a research leave for next year. 
  • My first task, as soon as the current semester is over, is to get to work finishing this book — which I hope to do by the end of this calendar year. Ora pro me
  • It is possible that as soon as that is done I'll turn to a smaller project I haven't mentioned here (or anywhere else) at all, but I'll be quiet about that for now. 
  • Either after that smaller project, or instead of it, I feel compelled to write about what on this blog I have called the technological history of modernity. I am in conversation with a publisher about a contract for that. More updates as they become available. 
  • Those theses for disputation, and my earlier book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, were really enriched by my writing this blog and by comments I received here from my readers. I miss this place as an idea-generator and idea-developer. I am hoping to be able to resume blogging here, perhaps irregularly; but we'll see. 
  • This morning I have a review in the Wall Street Journal of two books on technology, knowledge, and memory. Please check it out
More soon, I hope!