Category Archives: Storage

From Walkman to iPod: Hello to abundance

Cassette and pencilDiary date: 30th December, 1985

My favourite Christmas present of 1985 was a Sony Discman my parents bought me to replace the ageing cassette-based Walkman that had served me so well on my travels over the previous four years. With its at-the-time revolutionary ability to jump from track to track instantly and its mysterious ESP – Electronic Skip Protection – the Discman (subsequently renamed CD Walkman) was a must-have for any mobile music lover whose collection was slowly migrating from cassette tape to compact disc. But despite its shiny shell and space age curves, it failed to solve the one issue which made travelling with a tape-based Walkman so difficult: the need to choose the limited amount of music you would take with you in advance.

Deciding which tapes – and subsequently which CDs – would accompany you on your travels was a major undertaking. Lack of space meant only a few albums or mixtapes would win a coveted place in your already packed rucksack – and the considerations and implications of your musical choices were legion:

Which of your current favourites had earned the right to come with you – and how would you choose them? Should you side with the novelty of the album you bought last week and still weren’t quite sure about, or was it better to stick with the tried and tested mixtape that could make you feel at home even when you were on the road? You might like both of them now, but how would they sound once you’d listened to them dozens of times in the space of a few days?

What would your choices say about you once your cassette cases were spotted by others? Would your tapes convey enough of a sense of taste, hipness, tortured artistry, fun and mystery? Would they make you more or less attractive to the opposite sex? And would your selection be sufficiently swappable and shareable as far as your friends were concerned?

How many albums would fit in your bag – and how many was it practical to carry? Which tape would start its life in the Walkman itself, and spend its non-playing days living in the cases of the other cassettes you’d chosen to take with you?

Then there were the practical considerations. Chief amongst these: batteries. I was lucky if my first Walkman lasted 2-3 hours with a brand new set of AAs – and even then the volume for the final hour would slip gradually ever lower. The condition of the tape itself was also important. Any cassette that had previously required rescuing with a pencil was immediately a non-starter. As for adding new music to your collection while you were on the go…well, a trip to a shop was obviously required, as well as careful thought about how it would fit into a bag that was already stuffed with the music you’d brought with you.

Today’s MP3 players have largely made the discipline and romance of restricted music selection a thing of the past. My iPod currently tells me it contains 1,985 songs, many of which – if I’m honest – I’m fairly sure I haven’t heard in a while. Albums too have been disassembled, with the miraculous instant track skip of the Discman replaced with the instant iPod shuffle between individually favoured songs.

These changes in the way we manage and consume music are symptomatic of the more general shift from yesterday’s scarcity of storage to today’s always-available abundance. Many of the choices we were once forced to make – trivial or otherwise – now feel like they belong to another age, and not a mere decade or two ago.

 

Is stupidity making us Google?

is google making us stupid - Google SearchDiary date: 12th September, 1985

My working stay in Sweden lasts around six to eight weeks. It was a real eye-opener at the time, but reading back through my 28-year old diary, the whole period feels distinctly analogue.

A lot of the time, I don’t really know what’s going on and frankly seem to have very little way of finding out. I write longhand messages to friends and family on pieces of paper which are then carefully transported to them over a period of several days by a series of paid messengers. I lose track of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and seem to struggle even to find out what’s going on in the immediate vicinity. I collect maps by the armful to help me get around. When I finally leave Gothenburg by train, I have no way of letting my family in Munich know that I’m two hours late, so they have to hang around the station just hoping I’ll turn up.

But taken as a whole, one thing stands out more than anything else in those innocent, analogue days – the tremendous effort I put into trying to know stuff.

And when I say know, I really mean know.

For certain.

You used to need to know stuff. Back then, it seemed really important. These days, you just need to feel reasonably sure that the stuff you’re concerned with is knowable, and that if and when it’s needed, you’ll be able to find it.

In other words, we’ve slowly but surely begun outsourcing the knowledge that we used to carry around with us – principally of course to the Internet and our friends at Google, but also to phones, satnavs, e-readers, tablets, MP3 players and lots of other devices.

So what are we doing with all the spare mental capacity that our outsourcing policy has presumably produced? Is it really all being spent on Angry Birds and watching cat videos on YouTube? Perhaps we’ve now got the potential to know a great deal more than we ever did before – albeit by proxy. Or maybe we’ve got surplus brainspace available to know and store more and more interesting/useful/esoteric/ephemeral stuff – leaving all the dull, heavy-lifting to the magic of the Internet.

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield for one has her doubts. She’s argued frequently and publicly that the human brain’s incredible ability to adapt may well mean that life online and our obsession with the “yuck! and wow!” of the Web will result in lasting and not necessarily desirable changes to how we interact, think and manage knowledge. She’s occasionally been criticised for her views, but she’s far from being alone. Even Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt sounds concerned that we’re losing the ability to think deeply enough to retain genuine and profound knowledge.

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking.

Celebrated technology writer Nicolas Carr – asker of the original question, Is Google Making us Stupid? – has written along similar lines, suggesting that the Internet may represent a Faustian pact that will trade ‘deeper’ thought for something more superficial:

For most of the past 500 years, the ideal mind was the contemplative mind. The loss of that ideal, and that mind, may be the price we pay for the Web’s glittering treasure.

Outsourcing both knowledge and storage is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years as evidenced by everything from the Pyramids to the Rosetta Stone. But the sheer power, speed and ubiquity of the Internet may well mean that unlike the mechanisms we’ve used in the past, this one has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the minds that created it.

The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape. To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to  permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.