Lost in cyberspace

This lengthy but thought provoking article appeared in The Sunday Age on Sunday 15 November. It asks the question that if “possessions define us… what does it say about our identity when iPods replace CD racks and Kindles take the place of bookshelves?”

How many of us have perused the CD collections and bookshelves of friends and lovers to help us form our opinions of them?


November 15, 2009

A YEAR or so ago, Professor Bob Cummins, convener of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life, emptied his shelves of books and left them on a table where staff and students at Deakin University give away unwanted stuff, like promotional CDs and old pieces of fruit.

It was liberating, he says. Utterly practical, too, given almost every piece of information he will ever need is available in compact electronic form. But he glances at his bare wooden shelves now and pauses. ”I feel like I have lost a social marker,” he says, finally. ”The fact is that I just never read those books and was never going to read them again – they were just academic props. But maybe they filled a function as that – as a prop for who Cummins is … probably shouldn’t have done it.”

Entering his office, you search for clues to reveal his likes and dislikes, fascinations and expertise. ”I guess walking into an academic’s office and finding a wall of earnest books is quite consoling; it means at face value you look like the real deal. Someone sitting in their office with bare shelves – how odd, what’s wrong with them?”

Perhaps a giant wall poster of Albert Einstein might suffice, he says, laughing. Anything to fill the void left as visual markers disappear behind blank computer screens.

Possessions help define us, brand us, but what happens when they start to hide away in boxes in top cupboards – CD stacks supplanted by iPod docks, film collections by downloads, libraries by wireless reading devices. Perhaps it’s part of a broader disconnect from society. As the world grows more intrusive, we retreat.

An article in Vanity Fairin August called this trend ”The Vanishing”. In mock-horror tones, the glossy mag moaned how homogenous e-books and iPods had stopped culture snobs showing off their superior tastes in literature and music to the masses. Equally, it was becoming impossible to spy on other people’s tastes and make judgments about them.

Sitting on a New York subway, writer James Wolcott watched a woman hold up a Kindle – Amazon’s wireless electronic reader, which became available to Australian readers this month – at an angle to catch the light. ”Unless you were an elf camped on her shoulder, what she was reading was hoarded from view, an anonymous block of pixels on a screen, making it impossible to identify its content and to surmise the state of her inner being, erotic proclivities, and intellectual calibre.”

Books ”help brand our identities”, he wrote. So what might become of us as such branding vanishes? Book jacket design might become a lost art, like album-cover art. The average coffee table book may not survive. Selected titles might be showcased in wall-mounted frames, with a small, built-in ledge, like a stage. Imagine every home displaying Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father above otherwise clean, white bookshelves.

Beyond books, technology means we have to squint or turn our heads sharply, to read the small print on the sides of DVD cases. Music is now ”residing in our heads rather than resounding off the walls”, as speaker docks have replaced CD collections. Some bloggers have resorted to posting shuffle lists of their iPods online to advertise their eclectic tastes. Parties are reportedly held at which young hosts now hook up digital frames to their iPods, simply so guests can watch album cover images for whatever tunes are playing.

One particular passage in Vanity Fair, quoted in turn from The New York Times, resonated: ”After two decades of defining ourselves in terms of our possessions, we now need to figure out who we would be without them.”

Two years ago, I packed my meagre music library of about 200 CDs inside a cardboard box, inside a bedroom cupboard I need a chair to reach. The heavy wooden CD tower vanished from the front yard in the next hard waste collection. In its place, sitting in a speaker dock in my living room, is an anonymous iPod that can store about 20,000 songs – each of them nicely arranged by artist/album/genre.

It’s neat and clean and compact, if not a little lonely sitting there atop the bookshelf. I wonder if my small library of books might one day disappear the same way, subsumed by a single digital device that I can take on holidays and read on the beach without the breeze ruffling the electronic pages. But what to do with all those bare shelves?

Futurist Mark Pesce packed about 2000 books in a storage unit in California six years ago before moving to Australia. He visited them last year in an attempt to winnow away about half the titles – but it’s hard graft. ”In a way that no other possession I own is me, they’re me, they’re absolutely me,” he says.

And yet, he reckons weighty textbooks, which are expensive to print for a niche market, may one day be sucked holus-bolus into digital reading devices. Reading for pleasure, whether handsome literary classics or those airport books hidden at the back of the bookshelf, will be the last thing to go. ”The thing that has scared me the most is, as an intellectual, I always like going into someone else’s house who is an intellectual to see what books they have. I find it extremely satisfying and exciting to look through someone else’s library,” he says.

”But I strongly suspect they will reappear in some other form. Already, some web-based services, such as Safari, are like a library where you can indicate what books you read. They’re like a web-based bookshelf, so before you go to see somebody, you drop by their electronic bookshelf and see what they’re reading.”

A Twitterer he follows recently declared how much he enjoyed listening to the rather earnest West London folk band Mumford and Sons. Once, Pesce might have had to rifle through a CD collection to make such a discovery. Now, many people are more inclined to reveal themselves through digital pointers rather than actual physical objects.

It’s different, sure, but who says it’s better? There are some obvious pitfalls to relying largely on the self-selections of others. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But nor do they know you’re lying when you pretend to have read Proust. A university peer once claimed he had finished Ulyssesand thought it ”not a bad read”. I wanted to punch him in the jaw. Now, he can list his most memorable titles on booktagger.com.au, and annoy so many more people all at once.

Pesce says there is so much clutter online that something has to give. ”I read a Tech Lunch piece by a music reviewer who realised his 14-year-old son had been exposed to more music by that age than this older man had been in his entire life,” he says.

”This 14-year-old had never lived in an age where media has never been instantly available at the click of a button. Now we have an age of such hyper-abundance of media that, in fact, there is no place we can put it all. So much is coming from everywhere that things need to vanish.”

Here’s a neat game: next time you see someone wearing headphones on the train or walking down the street, stop them and ask what they’re listening to. You may need to nudge them to get their attention.

I tap Shane Cameron, 36, project manager for a smallgoods company, on the shoulder as he stands on crutches at Southern Cross Station, waiting for a train to North Melbourne. He’s been forced to catch the train since knee surgery – the downside to years of indoor soccer and taekwondo – and passes the time listening to Texan alternative rockers Sparta on a white iPod. ”It relieves the boredom,” he says. ”I always have something to keep myself occupied.”

On a separate train to Flinders Street Station, Gerard Richardson, 20, is listening to Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, while reading The Making of Julia Gillard. Small-business owner Anna Parente, 62, alights at South Yarra Station with a portable radio tuned to 3AW. ”I’ve had three train cancellations this morning. I’m furious. This takes my mind off things,” she says.

Massage student Jess Keighran, 21, is travelling to Richmond from Essendon, and leaves one earphone in while we speak. ”I usually read and listen at the same time, so you don’t have to listen to other people’s boring conversations. I just zone out, forget about what’s around me,” she says. What are you listening to now? ”I’m listening to nothing, the music just stopped.”

We plug in and plug out, often as soon as we walk beyond our front door. The headphones go on, we tap away at text messages or hunch over mobile phone screens on the train, playing solo computer games or watching the latest episode of our favourite TV shows. It’s another form of vanishing, really. Another way we disappear behind mobile technology, disconnecting from the inane bluster and bustle about us. Morning peak hour is like being stuck inside a mobile phone dead zone, with only the tinny bleed of noise from your neighbour’s overloud MP3 as company. It doesn’t matter that no one’s talking to each other, because no one’s listening any more.

Well, almost no one. Sound designer David Franzke spent 18 months riding Melbourne trains to record conversations for use in Anna Tregloan’s play, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which premiered at last month’s Melbourne International Arts Festival. The sound of silence made his work frustrating, he says now, as we trundle along on a city-bound train from North Melbourne at 9am.

We are close enough to touch our fellow passengers, their hands busy checking text messages or sending emails, their ears piped with blather. I’m conscious Franzke, scruffy and curious amid so many suits, is the only one talking. ”I don’t think a lot of people get to do what they want to do with their lives. They end up taking a gig where they have to pull on a suit and go to work every day, and I don’t think it’s very much fun and I think they do shut down,” he says.

”You don’t hear as much now as you once did. You watch a group of kids who are travelling to school together and, let’s say there’s seven of them, at least three are going to have earbuds in their ears. They hit each other to get their attention.

”You see a lot of girls split their earphones to have one each, so they actually are in each other’s worlds for a little while. But it’s devolution not evolution. We’re actually losing the ability to communicate.”

Deakin University’s Bob Cummins – he of the empty bookshelves – says such disconnection is symptomatic of an age when people increasingly live alone. Paradoxically, at a time when it is possible to touch more people than ever before online, we position ourselves as islands from each other. ”People are retreating into themselves even further and taking themselves away from the bothersome interaction of other people,” he says.

”You can only do it in the anonymity of a large city. But people might want to do it because they are so overloaded with other information, or overloaded from too much social contact from Facebook – I mean, how much can you deal with?”

But Jenny Lewis, author of new book Connecting and Co-operating, instead sees Facebook and Twitter as opening opportunities for new, far-flung social interactions. ”To say we don’t know everybody who lives in our street and we don’t all go out for dinner, doesn’t say we have no friends. We have changed away from very local versions of connectedness to these other, maybe even virtual, communities,” she says.

We still use social markers to reveal our preferences and dislikes to others, but in less tangible ways, she argues. ”I see people comparing libraries on iPods and iPhone apps. It is not so easily accessible to look at things on bookshelves but I think people still swap and share their connections, just in different ways.

”Some people use their iPod defensively, to block out inane talk, but you wonder whether it is very different from how it used to be. It is not as if people used to strike up conversations that often before. We’re just so busy and time poor that we often feel too stressed and don’t feel we have time to do those basic things. So the moments we do get, we want just to ourselves.”

One train conversation detailed in The Dictionary of Imaginary Placesinvolves a girl who says she wants to quit Facebook because she feels too exposed. ”I don’t want to be found, that’s why I moved away,” she says. ”I actually hate it when I go in there cause there is 1001 messages going, ‘So and so has requested a friendship. So and so has changed their mood.’ Some people I might have gone to high school with; I might have sat next to on the train and I wouldn’t know.”

Her words ring in my ears as I stand on a quiet train, stuck in the interminable circle of hell that is the City Loop, and notice a man in the carriage reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

An older man in a dark blue suit sits with his white earphones in and his eyes closed, a beatific smile on his dial. And I wish I were in his world, if only to the next station.

I recently culled the vast majority of my CD collection as I was sick of dusting them and I never listened to them outside of the iPod. Books will prove different for many teacher librarians I believe, me included.