Not long ago a friend made an interesting observation over the poker table: He said the most significant technological advance of his lifetime might well be the iPod.
I’m a little older than he is, so I’d probably go with the hydrogen bomb, that lethal Cold War cloud of annihilation hanging over the first 35-plus years of my life. (It’s still around and still lethal; the terror it poses just comes from a different kind of enemy now.)
But the more I thought about what he said, the more I realized what a genuine revolution in entertainment technology he was talking about. The iPod, of course, is just the most familiar physical manifestation of a larger phenomenon -- the digital revolution, in music and images in this context, and in computer technology in general.
The Thursday story about iPod’s 10th birthday brought that conversation back to mind. The gist of the story was that digital content’s portability has changed our whole relationship with music and, more recently, with movies and television as well.
Even a grizzled rocker like me considers most of this revolution marvelous. There’s so much about it to celebrate and precious little to mourn. I’m a Vinyl Age fossil who still considers CDs cutting edge, but the reality of being able to carry around a whole audio library in my shirt pocket, or buy music -- by the album or by the song -- through my iTunes account, or click on a link and pull up a movie on my laptop can still make me feel like a kid on Christmas morning.
It really has changed our relationship with the popular arts in more ways than we might think about. It has changed people’s relationship with radio, for instance, in much the same way the Internet has changed our relationships with newspapers, and both of those traditional media are having to scramble to catch up.
So there’s a lot more joy than nostalgia in this world of instant access, even for -- especially for -- somebody who doesn’t take it all for granted.
But it also brings to mind that speech from “Inherit the Wind” when Henry Drummond says progress comes at a price: You can have the telephone, but you give up privacy; you can fly, but the birds lose their wonder and the clouds smell of gasoline.
Privacy has been gone so long we don’t even acknowledge it anymore, and we polluted the clouds years ago. The sacrifices we’ve made for portable music are insubstantial by comparison. But a couple come immediately to mind.
One, already on the way to extinction with the advent of compact discs, is album art. That intimate and almost subliminal connection between music and the images with which it was packaged is something our grandchildren will probably never experience.
The designs of many popular albums are so much a part of our shared cultural consciousness that just the first familiar notes of a song can bring an album cover immediately to the mind’s eye -- four young Englishmen striding across Abbey Road; Carole King in a window seat with a cat; Linda Ronstadt on a beach in a wispy white dress; a plain white cover with “The Beatles” embossed in uppercase block letters.
The other thing I sometimes miss in the a la carte realm of digital music is a sense of continuity. That’s obviously important in a concept composition like “Tommy” or “Thick as a Brick.” But for some of us it works on a subtler level as well. I think most musicians put the tracks in a particular order for a reason, and the sequence becomes part of our connection to the whole. “Dear Prudence” is supposed to come after “Back in the USSR,” “Baba O’Riley” should be followed by “Bargain” and “Eleanor Rigby” comes after “Taxman.”
Unless I’m in the mood to shuffle (and sometimes, admittedly, I am), that’s the way music is supposed to be, and the world tilts slightly off its axis when things aren’t in their proper order.
The great thing about the digital revolution, of course, is that I’m free to listen to all that music exactly the way it’s supposed to be played, and others are free to pursue their own benighted and degenerate listening habits if they so choose.
When somebody can figure out a way to restore those postage stamp album icons on computer and iPod screens to their proper dimensions -- holographic projection, maybe? -- it will indeed be a perfect world.