Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nuts Gathering

I sometimes search for old music at An Album A Day. The site is just what the name promises. Every day for a year an album is posted from the author's stash of retro, out of print records. It's a nice clean operation. The selections are sometimes hokey but often good, and they're almost always unfamiliar to me.

For each album posted in the past week there's a consumption option: Stream or Download.

Stream or download? Hmm. Stream or download? Well. Goddamn. It may seem a simple choice, but for me Stream or Download is fraught with baggage. Since childhood my default mode has been Download. But  —if you'll allow a metaphor of permanence— I can see the writing on the wall and it's a Stream

Most of the information I encounter daily online is delivered in a series of parallel and sometimes intersecting streams. Facebook and Tumblr are typical. They pull content from beyond and funnel it into a sequence which pass across my desktop before disappearing. It's more of a river than a stream actually, but you get the idea. Within an hour content is gone and forgotten. I've got a time machine called the scroll bar but I rarely use it. The view is usually upstream, toward whatever's coming next. 

Most content portals follow the streaming structure. I'm thinking of Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Netflix, Vine, Wanelo, Slideshare, Shots, Ello, Reddit, and whatever other fifty companies sprang up yesterday. Things come and go like startups in the wind, and we aren't meant to latch on to them. Dip in the river, hop out. Done. Why grab hold of anything? Why get hung up over "stealing" images or music? Ownership is for old folks. Content lives in the cloud, from where it can be loaned out short-term on demand.

The Cloud

Since switching to Gmail I don't even download my email anymore. It lives in cyberspace, streaming to me when I need it, receding when I don't. At least that's what the young computer-helper dude tells me. And it's not just online content. The physical world has shifted too. Uber, AirBnB, Zaarly, SnapGoods, Liquid, and the rest of the sharing economy treat ownership as an anachronism. Why "download" (buy) a car when you can "stream" (share)? 

For the millennial generation the streaming mentality probably seems pretty normal. But I'm an old dog and new tricks come tough. I grew up owning stuff.  As I mentioned earlier, that's my default mode. All those CDs, magazines, and baseball cards gathering dust in the basement? It's stuff I grew up owning, and now, for better or worse, I still own it. That big library in the next room? That's material I've pulled from what might be considered the book stream. It's mine now. It's stationary. It's not scrolling anywhere. Those loose cards, souvenirs, and ephemera? They're stationery too. In a sense I'm not much different than the old homeless guy you see with ten garbage bags on a bike packed with all his worldly belongings. Maybe the millennial homeless can let that stuff go. Maybe they can stream their possessions. But the older homeless, and me? We grew up owning.

The Stream

But it's even worse for me. I'm a fucking photographer. I download material from the raw visual world every day using a camera. I convert it to negatives, prints and all those other documents of light on surface stashed in garbage bags on my bicycle. I think most photographers have a similar instinct, the downloading urge or whatever you want to call it. Non-photographers can let the visual stream pass by them. But photographers want to freeze, possess, own, and make permanent what they've seen, then file it away somewhere. Don't ask me why. Let's not go there. A squirrel has to gather nuts, ok? That's just how it is. And for the type of photographer (quickly vanishing?) who collects recordings of visual detritus, the downloading urge is fundamental.

I'm not sure if musicians share this outlook. Many seem to enjoy the process of playing even without recording. An hour later all that's left are memories, but it doesn't seem to bother them. They're a different breed. Their cousins the record collectors, on other other hand, are more like photographers. Possession counts. An Album A Day, for example, assigns different monetary values to streaming or downloading. You can stream all you want from the whole archive for free. Be my guest. But after a week's grace period, you need to pay to download. 

The Web

On the face of it that option doesn't make much sense. Why pay for something which you can stream free anytime? For the sake of collecting, that's why. If you're an old fogie like me, that pile of crap that you've downloaded over the past forty odd years isn't merely the discardable behemoth your wife claims it is. It's been carefully shaped by you. You've pulled some things into it, sometimes at great expense or energy. And you've kept many things deliberately out. Whether it's a series of photos, an old mix-tape cassette, or every issue of Spiderman, you treasure that selection. It's not just the material imbued with meaning. It's the act of shaping.

There's a word for this: Curation. At the higher levels of art, curation is what separates the museum wall from the bicycle junk pile. Unless you're Rauschenberg. But it can operate closer to earth too. For a photographer it's what separates your stash of photographs from the rest of the visual world. In a strictly visual sense, photography is curation. A camera is a decision maker. Every exposure is a choice to download material. 

Curation exists too in the streaming world. A Spotify playlist, Amazon wishlist, or well-organized Tumblr are examples. A series of likes or reblogs might be seen as a form of crowd-curation signifying or even guiding web behavior. That's curation for millennials, and I suppose it works fine for them. But I like physical aggregation. To me a streaming curation is just a list of arrows pointing here or there. The arrows are the curation, but the actual content exists elsewhere. Take away the arrows and the content recedes. 

It's all an illusion of course. Life is short. Every stream dies. Eventually the sun follows suit. On the cosmic scale streaming and downloading amount to pretty much the same thing. You move some cookies into a pile for a little while. Then things change and material flows back to a former site or shape. Or into stardust. Still I choose Download.