From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 26, 2000*: Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!

Though this revelation may come as a surprise to people who see me as a bit of a technological junkie, I'm often slow to try out new internet tools. My ICQ number has seven digits instead of a status symbol six, basically because, while others around me were already sending messages right and left, I resisted using it and quite a bit of time transpired until I recognized the potential in that tool. It was in a previous column that discussed ICQ that I noted that if I'm any sort of techie at all, I could best be described as a retro-techie. In the three years that have transpired since that column was posted our home has taken some significant strides toward entering the twentieth century, but since then we've also arrived at the twenty-first. And though well-versed in computers, I've remained (to my mind at least) rather detached from the hype. When new operating systems appear I'm among the last to embrace them - if they really do something really new and impressive they probably have a steep learning curve (not to mention compatibility problems with older files), and if they don't, they're probably not worth the effort. The speed at which new and improved versions of just about everything continue to appear on the market means that often when we finally feel as though we've mastered a particular tool it's probably a sign that the newest version is already available. Much as I love doing so, I don't really have enough time to devote to continually checking out new software, or the latest versions of older software. I'm always on the lookout for new tools that can increase the possibilities of collective learning via the internet, but a few new buttons isn't enough reason to install something new.

Having said all this, a confession that I only started flirting with Napster around the time that the courts had pretty much finished it off should come as no surprise. Admittedly a great deal of what might be considered my free time is spent in front of a computer, and if I can choose between television or the internet, I'll go with the latter. But I never really understood why someone would prefer to devote time to locating and downloading a piece of music instead of devoting money to buying it. In this particular case, the trade-off between time and money would seem to favor spending the money. For me free isn't necessarily something that I get without having to pay for it (as though a computer and an internet connection don't cost money); it can also mean getting something with minimal effort that could be better devoted to some other activity.

But I suppose that it was inevitable that I'd get around to trying it out, and even discover that I like it. What is there, after all, not to like. If you've got a good connection and enough time to look for what you want, digitized music is there for the taking. Of course numerous problems present themselves once you get started, but even someone like me who complains about not having time to waste can benefit from not having to go to a record store. My first Naptser-related problem is similar to that I encounter at record stores. Just as record stores often don't have the sort of material I'm looking for, so too Napster is top-heavy with popular music which isn't really to my taste. Then again, that may actually mean that it's just what I need.

What do I do with Napster? Download music, of course. But what music? After all, though I've already admitted to having far-from-mainstream musical tastes, my main problem isn't not finding something I'd enjoy listening to, but instead not having the ability to sit down and listen to music as I'd like. So far I've looked mostly for music that Tzippi needs for teaching - finding these items on CDs in a record shop is probably much more time consuming, and I've had quite a bit of luck. I've also got a list of items that I've wanted to find because they're probably good, or at least interesting, examples for my Copy and Paste as a Way of Life presentation, and here too, I've had good luck. Some of these I have on disc but find much easier to download as mp3 than to convert them myself, while others I haven't been able to find by other means. And sometimes, of course, I simply run a search on something that I'd like to hear, and if it's available, then why not!

But there's a rub there. If finding something is so easy, the searching starts to become an end in itself: "Let's see if I can find this song", and the like. And when that happens, we start to spend more time using the tool, than making use of what the tool was designed to find. "Did you listen to that mp3 you downloaded?" "Not yet, but I've downloaded four more since then."

And having admitted, once again, at the beginning of this column that I'm a bit of a retro-techie, I should also acknowledge, toward the end, that there's a certain sort of retro-ness in Napster. When we download, we download in digital, mp3, format, which means that we can listen while sitting in front of our computers. But in the long run, how many of us really want to listen to what we've downloaded only when we're in front of our computers? We want to listen via our CD players, maybe even listen along with other people on a home stereo. But in order to do that (today) we have to convert our mp3 files into a regular audio format. Converting those files isn't really difficult - numerous tools are already available that allow us to do so. But if we do that we're relating to the digital medium as little more than a conduit, a means by which information gets transferred, but not really used. It becomes a transitory, rather than a permanent medium. And though no law exists that demands that we do everything digitally, there's something distressingly regressive about using the promise of digitality for little more than that.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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