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

June 30, 2002*: The Complete Works

Though I'm not really much of a consumer, my collecting habits - be it records, books, perhaps even in the distant past, baseball cards - are just what record companies and publishers love. If I discover that I like a particular artist, I'll want all of his or her records (or books), or perhaps all versions of a particular song, or all the recordings made at a particular concert. In other words, I strive for completeness. What good is having all but two of the baseball cards of the all-star team of 1961? If it's not complete, it's not worth anything.

Under pre-internet conditions I suppose that I would have been more than happy to have kept such a deviation out of the public eye. Though it's not necessarily something to be embarrassed about, it's not exactly something to boast about either. But popular access to the internet, and especially to peer-to-peer file sharing programs, has made this a critical issue, both because it raises the real possibility of developing a complete collection, and because at the same time it calls into question the very idea of collecting.

Perhaps an explanation on my listening habits is called for here. I'll be working at the computer, engrossed in writing something, when I say to myself "hey, I'd like to hear a piece of music". Before P2P the logical follow-up would be to walk over to the stereo, select an album, and listen. But today, why get up from the computer? While working (if it's called that, but that's a topic for a different column) I'll run a search via one of the P2P tools that I use, hoping to find something interesting. So far so simple. But it's only after I've found something I want to listen to that the problems start. If I've found a particular piece of music, why not download the rest of what's available from the same album? And then I discover that for some inexplicable reason parts of a record are available, while other parts aren't. I usually search for jazz, and I have no idea if this is the case with other styles, but on the whole I've found that often about 80% of an album can be readily found, with the rest either unavailable at all, or quite difficult to find.

All of this would hardly make much of a difference if all I wanted to do was listen to some music. But though I originally thought that that's what I wanted, I've come to realize that what I actually want is to have my own copy of that music. Thus it happens that in addition to my vast record collection I now also have quite a few gigabytes of music on my hard drive and burned onto CD. And these can quite readily be divided into two categories: complete albums and incomplete albums. Only the complete albums get burned onto CD, even if only as mp3 and not as audio files. Though I may start out with the intent of only listening to a nice piece of music, I soon find that I'm not satisfied until I've found the entire album that houses that piece of music, downloaded it, and organized it as an album for myself. I may not even like all of the cuts on a particular album, but I'll still try to download it all. I can almost physcially feel the sense of incompleteness that accompanies not having all the cuts of an album, and I feel this even if the album, as an LP is already part of my collection. So do we download music in order to listen to it, or to make it our own? Put another way, if I could listen to a particular piece of music whenever I choose without actually possessing it, would that be good enough for me?

Speaking for myself, I think the answer is something like: probably, but don't quote me. Universal availability is still somewhere off in the rather distant future so I don't have to deal with that dilemma quite yet. But even as I see that day approaching, I don't yet see a decline in my desire for completeness. Even if I had something along the lines of a library card that let me download whatever I wanted whenever I might want it, I'm fearful that I'd use it to download everything in sight. On the other hand, I sense that after not too long I'd realize that a distribution system of this sort would make having a copy of everything on my hard drive totally unnecessary. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing that day arrive. After all, it might ultimately release me from the various accoutrements of collecting, and permit me to concentrate solely on the basics - listening to the music.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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