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Posted at 04:22 PM ET, 06/01/2011

iCloud and the burning house

You can tell that the Rolling Stones are dated not because they increasingly resembled drugged prunes, but because at one time they had the delusion that you can’t always get what you want.

Of course, that was before the cloud came in.

If there is a first law of modern life, besides the steady hum of increasing entropy in the background of all our interactions (13 percent of adults are now on Twitter!), it’s that you can always get what you want, and if not, there’s probably something wrong with your DSL connection.

I still have vague memories of a time when you couldn’t instantly reach out and touch everything else. But those are fading fast. “This only plays music,” I will tell my grandchildren, whipping out a horrifying old iPod Mini and forcing them to listen to mid-period Britney Spears. They might shriek in horror, but I assume that they will be too busy being overstimulated in their cyborg cortices to pay any attention to what I am saying.

Apple’s announcement that it’s moving to a musical iClou d, where you can access all your music anywhere from any compatible device, is just the tacit acknowledgment of what has already happened to our music collections. Take your iPod with you on a trip? Please! If you can’t reach all of it instantly from anywhere, using anything, it might as well not exist.

Our lives are more portable than they have ever been. When running out of burning houses, we’re almost at a loss for things to save. Baby pictures? Cats? Notebooks? Please. We have Facebook, Farmville, and GoogleDocs. In fact, a Web site called TheBurningHouse.com, depicting what you would take with you from a burning house, is almost depressing in what it reveals. “My iPhone,” writes a student. “Hard drive with a backup of everything on my computer. Pen & pencil.” We don’t, it seems, own anything irreplaceable. We can’t even buy anything irreplaceable. We can back up everything that matters to us, entrust it to the questionable benevolence of the Cloud.

We are quickly running out of excuses to ask people back to our places. Photographs or etchings? We can look at those on our iPhones. “Uh, there is a restroom,” we murmur. “I think it’s worth a look-see.”

But does this change the way we relate to things?

Music used to be inconvenient and non-portable by definition. You would leave your house and purchase a CD or an LP and then you would walk home and listen to it. You couldn’t afford too many of these, so you were stuck listening to the same ones over and over again, in order. Songs didn’t just get stuck in your head. They got carved into your brain, filling up whole summers with a single string of memorable notes.

At least, I assume they did. I don’t actually remember any of this, but I once read a very poignant personal essay from someone who grew up Back In The Day. I do remember having to wait a long time to download things because I had AOL dial-up, and it was mildly inconvenient, and so I appreciated that Usher single considerably more.

But in general, albums have been dead so long that they’re threatening a resurgence. And forget the age of the playlist! This is the age of the browser, multiple windows hanging open, each holding out a myriad miniature bursts of dopamine.

It’s telling that this announcement of the cloud comes on the heels of the news that the traditional iPod is on the decline. Remember when iPods were the news — you could carry your whole library with you! Suddenly the non-portable was portable. We came running out of the burning house with all our hard-earned music. But then came the iPod touch, fully plugged into Everything That Is Out There. It now accounts for half of iPod sales. But the same thing that made music easy to carry made it easy to acquire. Next our whole musical libraries, like our whole lives, will remain intact, across platforms, On The Internet Somewhere. We can always get what we want.

But music is an art form, like the Book, which instantly reveals its limitations when placed in juxtaposition with All That Lurks Online. No wonder iPods are on the outs. Just music? No video? Just music? No jokes? Just music? What are my eyes supposed to do while this happens?

Concentration is like monogamy. It leaves a lot to be desired. If you can suddenly whip out the entire Internet, forget paying attention to anything ever again. And, eventually, forget owning anything. Why pay for and download the cow when you can listen to it on YouTube for free?

I have nothing but respect for the human capacity for concentration, but when you consider that back in the day people tended to lock themselves in garrets to avoid distractions, and in those days the only distraction was that the horses were flatulent or there might be too much reaping, it tends to make you quaver. I guess the field mice in the neighboring field could get loud, or the rampant consumption might be worrisome, but there wasn’t even iTunes.

The Cloud is a nice way of putting it. It’s more like The Primordial Soup of Everything We Ever Wanted, and we’re each sucking it down through our individual straws as fast as our download rates can take it.

We can get everything we want from the Cloud, at the touch of a button — all the music we could ever dream of, every possible distraction. But we don’t have to dream very long; it’s at our fingertips in seconds.

We’ll be fine if the house burns. We don’t own anything that matters.

By  |  04:22 PM ET, 06/01/2011

Tags:  iCloud, the Cloud, kids these days

 
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