Digital Abundance and Spotify

At some point abundance goes from a benefit to a liability. We know this about material goods. Obesity, environmental destruction, and (arguably) mental illness are liabilities of a fantastically abundant consumer economy.

In some cases, abundance becomes its own enemy. For example, Walmart brings consumer abundance to small towns with its enormous selection of low-priced, imported goods, allowing the residents to buy more with the money they have. But Walmart advances a system that removes jobs from that small town, ultimately leaving the residents with less than they started with.

I don’t know the mechanism by which digital abundance becomes a liability, but I can feel it is happening. Some theories have been advanced.

Jaron Lanier, in books and numerous interviews, argues that the Internet is destroying the middle class. In simple terms, the cheap and free distribution of information, and the expectation that people should contribute content for free, undermines the ability of content producers (writers, musicians, journalists, entertainers, programmers) to make a living at their craft. For Lanier, the principle drawback of digital abundance is that it destroys jobs and hurts the generation of new content. It ultimately makes us poorer in the literal sense (the Walmart effect) and in the cultural sense.

Thom Yorke’s recent protest of the music-streaming service Spotify brings to light an example of this effect. As an example, musician Damon Krukowski describes the revenue that small artists get from the music streaming services: “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one– one– LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)” The New York Times offers this more comprehensive chart on the dire math. A solo artist would have to garner 4 million plays on Spotify per month to make minimum wage.

As another example, Evan Hughes argues that Amazon’s efforts to shut down physical bookstores will ultimately hurt its own sales, since most people discover most books that they buy in physical bookstores (though many go on to buy them cheaper online).

Taking a different approach to the question of digital abundance, Nate Silver, in his book, The Signal and the Noise, argues that data does not equate to meaning (signal). Although we have access to increasingly massive amounts of data, the problem we now face is that the noise is increasing faster than the signal, leaving us with less meaning than we had before. For Silver, this explains why predictions have not been improving with the increase in data and may continue to get worse for some time.

The notion is distinct from Lanier’s. Apart from the tendency of digital abundance to destroy jobs and thereby ultimately reduce the flow of important data (abundance as its own enemy), Silver argues that the increase in data itself hurts our ability to understand the world (abundance is the enemy).

Recently, I have been trying Spotify for listening to music. In principle, Spotify provides something I ought to be enormously excited about: instant access to almost any song I want to listen to, as if my personal mp3 collection had just grown to include not only my favorites, but any song I have a whim of an inclination hear. I was excited for about 5 minutes. It is hard enough choosing what I want to listen to out of my sizable mp3 collection, but choosing what I want to listen to out of anything? I run into something like a combination of decision fatigue and an unsettling feeling that Spotify is cheapening music (in the figurative sense; we already know it does so literally).

Taking Nate Silver’s notion somewhat far afield, perhaps access to any recording ever made, any time, increases the noise more than the signal. The “meaning,” if you will, the happiness or personal enrichment, one gets from music may be enhanced by having access to just the right song at the right time, but may be more-so diminished by the deluge of choices. The deluge may prevent one from spending much time with any one album, strip the personal significance from the way collections are obtained and cultivated, and limit the formation of the shared musical context that traditionally develops among friends and family members.

There is no doubt that digital music, and especially digital streaming services, enable you to get exactly what you want at any time. What I suggest is that getting exactly what you want is not the right goal in listening to music. Nor in life.

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