Friday, April 11, 2008

Municipal Analogue Shuffle Mode

The other day I went to the library. Actually I have been going to libraries a lot recently for professional reasons, but the other day I went to my local one and joined, on the evidence of an unpaid mobile phone bill, and walked back out again with 13 CD’s.

Once upon a time everyone went to the library. This was before they routinely shuffled a deck of twenty personal credit cards and had the illusory spending power of a small country. If you look at photos of, say, London in the 1960’s, the age range of cars on the street is probably around twenty years. If you looked at one now it would be three or four. Going to the library flies in the face of the logic of 21st century capitalism. The veins of consumer spending are so finely spread and run so deep that an institution not dedicated to it is like an archaic ruin, or a preserved fossil. It does funny things to your choices too.

Freed from the restrictions of having to use your own financial resources the mind can run rampant, unfettered by Added Interest on New Purchases, through lush musical pastures of delirious possibility. Constrained instead by Hackney Council’s limited spending capabilities and the arbitrary collective taste of the council employees charged with buying up what looks like the bits of Dalston Oxfam Shop not already featured, the librarie's CD collection is a bracingly random cross section through popular culture.

Basically you have to shelve any idea of going in to try to find something specific. It doesn’t work like that. Which is just as well for me as going into a music store (physical or digital) induces instant amnesia anyway. So it’s a lottery but one where a limited jackpot win awaits you every time. Freed from the need to be fashionable, niche, retro or cheap, freed in fact from almost any contemporary determinant of value, the library represents a social utopia of taste.

This is the opposite of personalised radio, which works on the basis that you might never have to hear anything that doesn’t already sound like something you have. It represents the endless refining of niche taste till your ears hurt with the over-familiarity and your brain folds in on itself. Unfortunately, I can’t get Xfm’s Personalised Radio to work on my mac, so I’m not quite sure how refined it can get.

It may be possible for instance to listen exclusively to Songs Featuring Excellent Voice Distortion (sample playlist: Kylie Minogue Put Yourself In My Place, Cher I believe, Sally Shapiro He Keeps Me Alive, ELO Mr Blue Sky) or Songs About Outer Space (The Beloved’s lost classic Outer Spaceman, The Carpenter’s Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Most Extraordinary Craft, Chris De Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling) and nothing else. Or indeed Taylor Parke's Right Wing Rock. Ever. So, the choice is: the digital precision or refining your music taste into an ad campaign for the contents of your own head, or the random joys of municipal shuffle mode.


Anonymous said...

Actually, we have never all used public libraries - since they began in the 1850s, there has been a constant struggle to get people to use them. They went from being considered places for only the poor to use, to places for the middle classes, who don't need them anyway. The most successful period for public libraries (going by no. of borrowers and borrowings) has been WW2 because people spent so much time stuck indoors / in shelters.

Anonymous said...

P.S. (can you spot a library nerd?) just remembered - statistically more people are using public libraries than ever before - but a lot of them aren't borrowing books.