The Electro-Fascism Genre and anarchiTunes

Erik Davis is a writer on a large field of topics, including dark metal, information theory, mystic energies, iPods, and paranoid delusions of popular science fiction authors. His website, Techgnosis, is a compendium of sorts for columns and musings that he publishes in various places. It's also in my Google Reader list. Recently, he wrote a column for Arthur Magazine, "Archive Fever". In which he discusses the way that certain folks archive their digital music collection. Digital music and its access is a topic he has discussed elsewhere, and I've found it an interesting focus. Everybody knows the common story on how "Napster changed everything," but these sorts of story lines run in a very generalized sense, as in, how the commercial market is changed. Davis' articles provoked thoughts of my own on how the individual's interaction with the media is changing, both through a connection with digitized media and also through mobile technology. Since I happen to be on a bent of discussing mobile, digital technology and its effects on individual consumption, and I also stumbled into a huge increase in my collection of digital music, I collected some notes, by way of the fact that they are related, yet find a slightly different conclusion than Davis about the urge to fiercely manipulate the way one catalogs one's digital media.

In the past year, through situations I don't really understand, I've become a "DJ" of the sort that does not have any art to it. Rather than co-mingle the latest tracks on the dance floor for the new digital underground, I am hired to set up stereo equipment and a playlist for weddings, alumni events, and other horrible things that seem to occur every day behind closed banquet hall doors. The point is, that through this, I was able to get my hands on roughly 200 gigs of new music (or about 50,000 songs) to add to the 50 gigs (12,000 songs) that I already had. Most of it is complete crap, not even having the interest of cultural artifact that pop music has. However, there is a considerable number of oldies, motown, doo wop, and other forgotten mini-genres that would be lovely to have, and now have fallen into my lap. I'm guessing, however, that I will probably end up deleting about half of the volume before I wrangle it into any sort of usable library, by deleting misnamed, duplicate, and racist country songs (they listen to weird stuff at weddings in oregon).

This is a major databasing task, merely to get the data into the right order to begin to pick and choose what I want. I can tell you that I am also an anal-retentive freak when it comes to my music collection, not unlike Cory Doctorow, as discussed in Davis' column. My track info in iTunes (my music player of choice, perhaps unfortunately) is immaculately maintained--I like to have artist, title, and album info all perfectly correct and relevant to other tracks by the same artist. In addition, I also try to make sure the year of recording is also correct, and I have thoughtfully genre-fied my music into a specifically-small set of 17 genres. Being presented with this horde of poorly-cataloged music is a great source of anxiety for me; I have gone so far as to only work with it under terms of quarantine--I have set up a separate iTunes library for working with it, so that its files cannot be released into my general population. I believe that the ability to form separate, disparate libraries with iTunes was introduced in iTunes 7; I only say so because it seems many users aren't familiar with the ability (hold down shift, or possible the option key with a Mac, while you click and open the iTunes program. A prompt will be launched to allow you to create or select a new library to work from).

I can tell what you're thinking (can I?): I am suffering just the sort of massive commodity hysteria that Davis' referenced. The ability to reduced so vital an art form as music to bits of data has created a new neurosis; now we "own" rather than "listen". I see it a different way. This, is an unbridled opportunity to actually interact with what we are doing, and seize control of our own relations of desiring-production. This is nothing less that anti-fascism, in Deleuze and Guattari's sense.

Here's how I see it: information, regardless of media, is a sort of "literary" substance to our culture. Just sort of take that as is for a minute. Now, if we also consider that "those in power" throughout the centuries have also tried to control other people through their use and control of information, we can see that this information substance is molded, shaped, distributed by those who use it to maintain certain power structures and relationships. Almost like they produce it. Post-structuralism, post-modernism, etc. We've heard it before. At any rate, nobody will really argue that Gutenberg's press wasn't a giant victory for the little guys. And radio as well; the ability to transmit information to a large population near instantly had a profound affect on the way governments and others wielded their information substance. As a result, powerful entities tried to regulate these new technologies. The internet and net neutrality, is the modern incarnation/incantation of this dark necromancy called "freedom of information". But this is all basic history, and hardly anyone would disagree.

What is both different, misunderstood, and related to Deleuze & Guattari's philosophy (ha!) is that we are dealing with the aspects of what they discuss in the plateau of Thousand Plateaus entitled, "A Geology of Morals". Beyond all the distinctions of form, substance, content, etc. there is a crystallization of information that is it's strata, its very existence by way of its molecular structure. Even beyond molecules, because they certainly were not after desire as a new atom; you can always push the zoom one lens deeper (if a visual metaphor even applies). What is being released now, very quietly, is the ability to change the data for ourselves. How do we change it? By altering the structure in which it is produced, and used (consumption-production, if you will).

With Napster, they tried to threaten us. "If you keep downloading music than artists won't make any more money on it and then they won't make music anymore." A pathway that anyone with a job (or a boss) can understand. As if the millennia-old aspect of homo sapiens that creates art in the auditory realm will up and stop because the money does. What were they really saying? "If you behead the boss, then he can't pay you anymore." Or, "if you like Metallica, you better stop, because Metallica likes being rich, and they won't make music if you don't make them rich." The idea that music could be easily stolen en masse was one thing: the RIAA was going to lose their lock on the pattern of distribution; their control over production, their power, was being threatened. In 200 years the idea of the RIAA having the right to control music production and sue to protect it will be as strange as the idea of the Catholic church having the right to censure all books. Well, maybe 400 years.

But the "stealing" thing was only the face of the battle, depicted for (again) media consumption in order to win control in the moral structure of the courts and public opinion. I think the real battle was about the form, the digital music file. Not only is it easily copyable, it's also mutable, in a way that no other art form has been. Remixes and mashups aside, with programs like Winamp and iTunes the control of music listening itself has been taken away from the distribution networks. Radio is no longer necessary; just look at the glut of "HD Radio" ads to see how the radio industry has recognized its own twilight. Music stores, and the harsh distribution control networks behind them (ask any indie record store owner how much money they get from the sale of a cd) are no longer necessary, even for legally sold music. And, relevant to this discussion, more abstract methods of control like "critics", "acclaim", and "genre" are becoming defunct.

This is all about distribution. There are literally, millions of songs out there. But how do you know which to listen to? No money will flow if the track isn't played. Hype, airplay, word-of-mouth, are all very important, and until recently, these could be controlled, i.e. bought and sold, by those powers that made music "popular". This Band Could be Your Life is a well-known saga of the compiling of these sorts of distributive indicators, these cultural markers, what in a more Marxist tongue could be called the means of production and distribution. Casey Casem is out, and even your little sub-culture is not so important outside of its figureheads; now the blogs are in, and the individuals who publish them.

Personally, I think mp3 blogs are great. It isn't Napster; I don't get what I want when I want. Instead, I have to search until I find some individuals who are interested in similar things to myself. Then, via their posted downloads and my comments, we communicate and share. Overall, its a highly lucrative (music-wise) and non-pretentiously rewarding system. Also, a great resource for archiving music that is out of print, nearly unheard of, or both (if that is what you're into).

This, along with the rise of RSS feeds, is what I think the next generation (in the low-gestation period that is the web's reproduction) will be. First it was info, plain and simple. Then, it was user-generated content, out of the control (almost) of "content providers". Now, it is the customization, the cataloging, and the seamless access of such content. Using an RSS reader like Google Reader, or any number of other free web apps, I can customize my flows of information directly to my desires, to conform to my day to day whim. In five minutes I can create my own custom newspaper, with sections for news, arts, entertainment, economy, conspiracy theory, agitprop, personal ads, or whatever else I deem interesting.

And this (at long last I come to my point!) is what the categorization and genrefication of mp3s is all about. Doctorow, myself, and other "geeks" are not just clamping our bureaucratic sphincters closed on our informative flows, we are wielding them. With my smart playlists, and my immaculate data keeping, I can get the computer to play me what I want to hear, when I want to hear it. Of course, when I write or do other work there are certain albums I want to hear, or, certain genres, or time periods. But often I can relinquish that direct choice to a semi-intelligent algorithm that will bring me "songs that I've listened to once per month but not more that five times in the past week." I hear something I didn't expect, but I didn't hear my mp3s of Ginsberg reading "A Supermarket in California". Randomness is good, randomness is bad, but algorithms are me. It's not typing, its not banging my head against the keyboard; its cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop. It is decidedly anti-fascist (in terms of the lesser, micro-fascisms) because all control is given to the user, who can then define his/her own level of control. Doctorow rates his tracks with the star system; I don't, because to conform my various subjective rating systems to a five-star system is too hard for me. I use the "times played" counter as my most significant metric, because I find it to be the most true. If I like a song, I've listened to it. If I don't like it, I don't. Easy enough.

However, there are problems. I first started heavy digital music cataloging after I worked as music director for my college radio station. I was interested in statistics and databasing, and this seemed like a fun little project. I was, however, distraught at various elements of iTunes. The "times played" count is not tallied until the song has played completely through, leaving un-counted half plays, which is especially disheartening in the case of "secret tracks", when the last track of an album contains some 10-15 minutes of silence so there can be a last song right before the CD runs out of capacity. There are also limited ways to programs the relationships between data types in the smart playlists, no way to view statistics as a whole outside of through the song lists, and no easy way to edit information or transfer information outside of the linked relationship between the iTunes library and the literal song folder. I sent Apple an email detailing all this a while back. Some things have been made better (there is now a "grouping" data type in addition to "genre") but others haven't (the proprietary iTunes library language).

And this is a big problem. iTunes, through its clean, white browser, easy compatibility with Apple devices, and its iTunes store, is quickly becoming the standard. The users, even the power users, are still left with a lot of the "power" not in their hands. Winamp has similar but different problems; a dearth of choices and compatible content providers makes the hands-on control also quite hands-off, and despite improvements, I still think the software has running issues. I have faith though, because thanks to "ubergeeks", there is no technology that can be created that cannot be reverse-engineered, and no proprietary software that cannot be replaced with open-source. This is what the modern "geek" is, s/he is the cyberpunk, that can unlock doors that other people see. Of course, this power can be used for good or for bad (like all power), but it is heartening the way that those very knowledgeable about information systems and programming languages seem as drawn toward anarchic distributions of that power as corporations and commodifiers have been drawn to control. It makes me think that perhaps all of this post-structuralist liberation stuff about overcoming the hegemony of signifiers, the commodification of desire, etc. might actually not be an idealistic dream. Perhaps Marx's dreams of contradictions leading to capitalisms downfall are not as outdated and they are outmoded. iTunes may not be the Hitler Youth yet; but I think of it more like liberal democracy. There are elements of freedom, but still a very certain, very deliberate control (supposedly, the algorithm behind the generic "shuffle" is one of Apple's most closely guarded secrets). Music is a very personal experience, and while music is not exactly the same as syndicalized production, if you can't have anarchic information relations, it seems unlikely that you could have an anarchically liberalized production environment. In many dystopic tales of authoritarian regimes, they certainly don't forget to include the wide proliferation of public-address systems that cannot be turned off. Collection of information (surveillance and reporting) is certainly kin to the distribution of information (publication and broadcasting).

Hopefully I won't freak out while trying to add 200 gigs of music to my collection. Slow additions is the key, I think, rather than a general merge. Much the same could be said for bureaucracy; a general goal to catalog a certain area of life with data can easily fail or cause more problems then it starts. But if it is a rotating view (a databasing term that means the axis of reference can be switched out easily for another) with good data organization, one can really own one's data. And if control of oneself rather than submission to ulterior organization isn't revolutionary, I don't know what is!

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