In music, as in everything, the disappearing moment of experience is the firmest reality.” —Benjamin Boretz
I found my record player on a spring afternoon, the day after my apartment was burglarized.
Thenightbefore,I had come home to find my computer missing. Almost nothing else had been taken, except for a pickle-jar filled with loose change.
Once the initial disbelief and anger had passed, I felt an acute anguish at the loss of the computer’s hard drive, which held my prized music collection. Each and every album on there had been carefully curated through years of borrowing, burning, and downloading. I had spent hours, days of my life huddled in front of that computer screen, assembling that collection. And it had vanished without a trace.
The morning after the theft, however, I was unexpectedly serene. I realized that my attachment to that collection was purely sentimental. I could easily replicate it with a few concerted downloading sessions; or with even less effort, I could stream most of the tracks on Grooveshark or Spotify. The music hadn’t really disappeared. What had been taken from me was merely a vehicle, the temporary home of my digital music.
Nevertheless, it was strange to be without my computer that morning. My routine was disrupted. I couldn’t put on a song or read the news. Instead, I sat in silence, looking out my window at the building across the street. The sounds of car horns, radios, and faint birdsong streamed in and out with the breeze. Disconnected from my digitally mediated existence, I left my apartment and drifted into Manhattan, feeling open to whatever the world had to offer. As I passed the window of a record store in the West Village, I glimpsed an old wooden box out of the corner of my eye and halted in my tracks.
The store clerk delivered the kind of sales pitch I thought only happened in movies, and only for used cars: Ah this old girl, she was only used a handful of times by an old couple, who didn’t even like music all that much. They only played it on Saturday afternoons, and only to listen to a certain Tchaikovsky record. He winked, and I pretended to know what he meant. Hell, I’ll take it.
During college, I had discovered my grandfather’s record player tucked away in his old barn in Vermont, along with a box of ancient records. My excitement barely contained, I dragged the old thing into the house and plugged it in. To my surprise, it worked (albeit not very well). These old sounds, which my grandfather had heard and loved, poured into me. I proudly hauled the thing back to my dorm room. Two weeks later, it broke down; I threw it out and forgot all about record players. That spring afternoon, when I brought my newly purchased machine home, these memories came flooding back. I remembered the immediacy of the music, the way it brought the past into the present. That afternoon, it just felt right, like it couldn’t be any other way. I knew then and there that this record player would transfigure the landscape of my life.
In hindsight, the burglary was a singular blessing (though one that came at a regrettably high material cost). How appropriate that my discovery of the ephemeral record should so immediately follow such a stark reminder of the impermanence of possession. The digital rug pulled out from under me, I was able to see what had been there all along: music, plain and simple.
As digital technologies like tablets and cloud-based storage move into the mainstream, our perception of the world is undeniably transforming. We now have an infinite digital library of stuff—movies, music, news, books—instantly accessible from a single device. So many of the diverse activities of life have been consolidated. Increasingly, life takes place in front of a screen.
There is a video online in which a one-year-old, a so-called “digital native,” attempts to manipulate the images of a paper magazine with her fingers. She assumes they will respond, like the images on the iPad she knows so well. Her confusion is at once humorous and unsettling. The comic image of the child who points the remote control out his window and finds it doesn’t work has become a reality. It’s no longer a joke, but a poignant fact: a digital interlay exists between humankind and the world.
“Digital natives” will come of age in a world in which information is instantaneously available at virtually any time, in virtually any place. It is undoubtedly liberating. There are more potentially enriching experiences available to more people than ever before. But the myriad benefits of this digital revolution come at a cost, which is clear to anyone who has watched these changes take place. Though the long-term psychological effects of this transformation is hotly contested, our capacity for attention is unquestionably threatened by the now-dominant experiences of digital media. When everything is available at any time, when the next distraction is a finger-swipe away, it is difficult to justify attention on any particular thing.
Consider this essay you’re reading right now. If you’re reading online,you might have three or four tabs of your browser open to news sites and blogs, YouTube and Facebook; you might have Spotify open, your favorite playlist accompanying your reading. You might not be truly paying attention to these words as you read them. If you’re reading this in print, then take a moment to contrast your experience with the online one. All you have before you is words on paper. The only place this magazine can take you now is further along. No lateral movements, no pop-ups. Of course, you might also be distracted as you read. Your stop is next on the subway. You really love the song that just came on. But those distractions are exterior to the medium. All you have in your hands is material for reading.