The idea and the thing
The end of collecting
First published in the November/December 2012 issue of THIS Magazine.
I’ve always been a collector. Records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, books, my house is filled with them. I’m basically a Neil Young box set away from hoarder status.
I used to genuinely enjoy the rituals surrounding buying this stuff. I enjoyed dropping all of my disposable income on new CDs and DVDs every Tuesday when I was a kid. As an adult I enjoyed spending 90 minutes in a video store with my wife trying to choose a movie to watch. (Seriously. It was one of our things.)
But there were also rituals to owning. My collection was as decorative as it was functional. Actually, more so: you can only listen to or watch one thing at a time, but you can display all of it. Like a lot of people, the media I owned helped define me. I was the sort of guy who listened to the Pixies and Nirvana, but only on CD. The Who I rocked out to on vinyl. I owned the Star Wars trilogy in multiple formats. I was big on cassette hip-hop compilations. I owned the Godfather series on a hefty six VHS tapes. But nothing about ritualistic media consumption used to be practical. VHS tapes are big. CDs aren’t durable. Books are heavy. And it all takes up so much space. But still, I collected this stuff like it was fetish porn.
Today I am no longer a collector. Today my ritual is paying monthly fees.
We live in an amazing time. For just a few dollars a month I can consume media on-demand and (almost) commercial-free until my brain rots. I no longer buy anything. I don’t have to because services like Netflix and Rdio give me access to everything. Never have we been able to get so much and simultaneously have so little.
Theoretically this is a better system. What’s more important? The song or the disk? The idea or the thing? Well, it’s the idea. The song. And with Rdio, I have all the songs I could ever want to listen to. I can enjoy them on my laptop, listen through my phone, play them in my car or stream them to my home stereo. In the Rdio interface, I can add music to “My Collection.” This seems suspiciously anachronistic. I am no longer a collector, therefore I have no collection. I get all the music. I get all the movies and TV shows. I get everything, but I’ve collected nothing.
Now, when my wife and I want to “rent” a movie, we just sit in front of the TV. I suggest some titles. She picks one. Occasionally we watch a trailer before deciding. And, ironically, while I have more disposable income than ever, I only need to spend a combined $18 every month. I don’t know how my younger self would feel about that. I mean, this has to be better, right? So much for so little. The promise of the future has finally been realized.
Of course, it’s not all fun and bubblegum. Having access to everything makes it hard to find that unspecified something that would be perfect for right now. To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. And computerized recommendation engines are terrible things—Netflix insists I’ll love My Little Pony, which I find mildly insulting. The guy at the video store never would have recommended that. And I’m always at the mercy of each service’s agreements with content owners. My entire “collection” can evaporate overnight and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Most of this is nitpicking, but we have lost. I’ve lost my Tuesday music shopping sprees and visits to my local video store, which soon won’t even be a thing. See also: record stores. Eventually book stores, too. These places that used to mean so much will just cease to exist. My kids will never know them.
And I’ve lost my ability to collect things—my right to own this stuff and have it say something about me. Not only have I been able to avoid buying new stuff, I’ve managed to claim some shelf space back from the old stuff. You can’t come into my house and judge me based on my taste, because there’s nothing there to judge.
I can’t say that the thing is more important than the idea—the disk more important than the song—because that just seems wrong, and more than a little shallow. But that doesn’t mean the thing isn’t important at all. People are conceptual beings—we love ideas—but we’re also tactile, which is part of the reason we loved the things to begin with. Interestingly, it’s through digitalization of media that the things have become conceptual—the record itself is now an idea, represented in cover-art pixels on my display. But it’s not the same, and as much as I can’t help but love getting so much, part of me regrets having so little.