Editor's Note: Is There Anybody Alive Out There?
On Patton Oswalt’s new album, the frequently filthy, occasionally brilliant, and always hilarious Werewolves and Lollipops, the comedian comments on a news item about the record being set for the oldest woman to give birth with a simple summation of science gone too far: "All about coulda, not shoulda."
Not a week goes by that my email inbox isn’t graced with at least one announcement of some unique, innovative, and utterly useless example of the latest application for streaming media—like the one for a new site featuring user-generated weather reports. I’m not particularly interested in what the skies are looking like over Chip’s house in Secaucus, and can’t think of any other compelling purpose for such a site. All about coulda, not shoulda.
Needless to say, I’m not anti-technology, and, for what it’s worth, Oswalt makes clear that he’s not some reactionary, anti-science nut. But there are times when we—as technology users, content creators, and consumers—ought to interrogate our own motives and ask ourselves about the implications of doing things just because they’re cool, or just because we can.
What made me think of all this was when a friend of mine passed along a copy of the new Bruce Springsteen album, Magic, after it leaked nearly a month before its official release date earlier this week. (Don’t you love how we’ve been conditioned to say an album or movie "leaked," as if it somehow managed to trickle out through a crack in the studio walls under its own power?) By the next morning, it was all over the various pirate download sites, of course, alongside the new Foo Fighters, Kanye West, and 50 Cent.
I didn’t put it there, nor did my friend, who knows enough of the "right people" that he likely got his copy somewhere considerably less public (if no more legal) than The Pirate Bay. I did listen to it, I’ll admit, but a funny thing happened: My excitement over hearing the new work by my favorite artist was quickly joined by a sense of disappointment and, not to wax too romantic, loss.
Every Tuesday, known as "New Release Day" to entertainment geeks long before iTunes co-opted the term for its marketing emails, my office mate and I would ask each other "You buyin’ anything today?" We both still buy a tremendous amount of music, and neither of us frequent the torrent sites ourselves, but by the time New Release Day rolls around, we’ve more often than not heard the albums already. So when we go to the record store, we’re buying the packaging and better sound quality—thank goodness for that—but we’re not filled with the same sense of excitement and anticipation we once were.
Nor are we participating the way we used to in a shared event. Heck, back in college, buddies and I would line up in front of the Exclusive Company on State Street in Madison at 11:30 on Monday nights before New Release Day, and pick up the latest Guns N’Roses or U2 or Springsteen at roughly 12:03 a.m., along with dozens of other people. It was something communal, and more often than not, we’d take the new releases back to somebody’s house and listen to them together when we should have been studying, or at least sleeping.
As more and more content is available online—legitimately or not—more and more of us are watching or listening to it in solitude. We don’t need to go to the movie theater, the record store, or even congregate at the same time as everyone else in the country to watch the Sopranos finale—even that brought with it a feeling of participation in a shared, communal event. It’ll be available on-demand the next day, anyway.
Neither are the enterprise nor the academy immune from the on-going, increasing atomization of experience. The ability to receive training, watch a CEO message, or take a course from home is terrific, and brings with it far more positives than negatives. But the negatives include a fairly significant one: We’re no longer as freqently gathering in public places, sharing experiences and (more importantly) each other’s presence.
That’s not to say that streaming video, time- and place-shifting devices, or mobile access to content are inherently bad things, nor is it to argue that the onus for sharing an experience falls on anyone but the participants. Nor is it to say that technology hasn’t created communities where none previously existed; heck, I first met the guy who gave me the Springsteen album on a newsgroup, and have forged many other deep friendships that way. But they never feel truly real until we meet in person.
Do I wish I’d waited to listen to Magic? I don’t know if I’d go that far. But when I hear "Radio Nowhere," the album’s first single, I can’t help but hear a painful irony in the song’s chorus: "Is there anybody alive out there?"