Friday, November 27, 2009

The Cost Of Convenience

Yesterday being a holiday, and my house being filled with people (14 people, representing 4 generations) I was forced to ponder some heavy stuff. It always happens that way, when all the trappings of “normal” and “traditional” surround me my mind goes to other places. This time, as I was spending the entire day in food preparation I started to think about what change our society has undergone in terms of food gathering and consumption. Somewhere in the mid-20th century we became a society that stopped making food and started having it prepared for us. We become more and more used to the concept of “Fast Food” and as a result more than one generation of Americans has had their health destroyed. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and the calamitous results of factory farming on our environment have changed the world for the worse. Of course, when one starts examining this problem, it becomes clear that the race for convenience has affected all parts of our life. Television, while offering the most convenient form of information gathering and entertainment by bringing it right to us, has had a ruinous effect on our ability to focus on anything important whatsoever. It seems like a never-ending parade of pernicious influence, over-hyped bad news (mainly the morbid killing and sexual abuse of children), and inaccurate weather predictions designed to keep us inflamed and at perpetual orange alert - whatever the hell that is. Now, of course the Internet has made TV seem like child’s play. With no regulations or editorial oversight, it truly is the Wild West of misinformation, pornography and advertising. This is truly a golden age for an ideological vacuum.

Obviously, my mind had to turn to music and how the convenience factor has affected it. The 500-pound gorilla in the room was the five-ounce Ipod staring at me from my dresser. I purchased it a few months ago because I started to really feel bad about the little toxic pellets I was planting in the earth every time I threw out another set of batteries from my Discman. I loved my portable CD player for exercising and traveling, but those batteries were making me feel guilty. So I broke down and bought the Ipod, loaded up all my mix CDs that I use for exercising and went running. As promised, the Ipod is an incredible storage device that organizes or un-organizes your collection with minimal fuss and maximal speed. It didn’t skip, and best of all the battery could be recharged very easily and the charge lasts for a good long time. So where’s the big butt you say? It was there from the first second I opened the package. Steve Jobs is an evil genius. He designed the thing to be completely useless without the interface of the internet. It reinvents the hapless consumer’s way of thinking completely, by subverting the need for all physical manifestations of the art itself. There is the little silver box and that is all. It is the fast food of music. It is the ultimate of convenience, and the ability to do it is so simple a child can master it in seconds, and the tools are all free. Wow, I’m blown away by the clarity of Jobs’ vision of how to rethink everything. Is it comparable to other forms of music? Most of the people I deal with here at Twist and Shout actually care about music as art. The individual parts that make it up are important to them, specifically the integrity of the artistic vision and the quality of the sound. Artistically, the cover art becomes unimportant and the playing order is also irrelevant. Most disturbing to me, the sound SUCKS. I’m sorry, I’ve heard this that and the other guy tell me this that and the other thing, but I have to trust my own senses on this one. I have spent the better portion of my life listening to and thinking about music and I know the difference between good and bad sound. The IPOD produces a shrill, compressed, annoying chirp whether you play it through the ubiquitous white headphones or dock it to your stereo, and under no circumstances does it compare to the quality of sound one achieves through a well-produced CD or certainly an LP. These are major changes and compromises for the consumer to make, and yet millions have made the leap pretty quickly. The aforementioned news media is constantly writing the obituary of the music industry, and yet 80 percent of music sold is still sold the old-fashioned way. It is the public perception that has been altered. People are being sold a bill of goods and, lemmings that we are, are buying right in to it. The very real fact is that with each leap of convenience we collectively take there is often a demonstrable diminution of objective quality. Fast food is less healthy than home cooking, no matter what the executives from McDonalds say.

My younger relatives and employees assure me this is classic “old-fart” behavior; railing against the newfangled in the face of modern innovation, but I would like to return to my initial point, and that is that in each step we take towards becoming a culture of convenience, we lose something. There are always movements to recognize the loss, and regain some of the value - think of the slow food movement, story-telling societies, or the interest in knitting. Initially the practitioners of the old ways are considered “ologists” or “ophiles,” and as time continues to move forward they become crackpots and weirdos - the guy who still wears a straw hat and suspenders. I guess this is inevitable, but I know for myself, popular culture is the reverse barometer of those things that are actually of value, and those that will give me comfort and meaning in my daily existence. I, for one am not willing to trade convenience for the finer things in life. Now please, another piece of that homemade pecan pie.


Jeff said...

Hey Sporkmeister - I would agree with you that the sound quality coming out of an iPod using their white phones and a compressed file (which is truly what an MP3 file is) is vastly inferior to CD quality. However, that can easily be fixed with a better set of phones (lots of great new earbuds out there, or you can go old school and pick up a pair of Grados, etc.) and, most importantly, uncompressed files.

I have been a Twist customer for years (my wife and I joke that we've probably put one of your kids through college) and have recently gone the streaming route of streaming uncompressed files through a Transporter (high end Squeezebox) on our home system as well as using uncompressed files on our iPods and iPhone. The big drawback is the space those files consume, but the huge bonus is that the sound is even better than CD quality (no wow and flutter as well as other distortions created by the CD transport). And iTunes has an "Apple Lossless" option when you rip your music (although iTunes sucks as a ripper ... better to try a freeware called Max to rip losslessly).

Anyway, that's my two cents ... I own a local business, too (at so I'm glad you're weathering this bad economy, and keep it up ... you've got more than a store ... you have a Denver institution.
Jeff Kear

Rick said...

Paul, I echo your thoughts that iPod sound completely sucks and headphone quality, in my opinion, is irrelevant- I've tried hooking up the thing to my stereo components and it still sounds boxy, tinny and underwhelming in all regards. Give me a good portable CD player anyday! Granted when trying to listen to music over 100dB of roaring jet engines on an overseas flight, iPod quality is fine.

Keep up the great work at Twist- I've been a customer since the store was over on Exposition. I remember my first visit, finding a brand new copy of Gary Numan's Living Ornaments LP box set (which I'd been looking for for about 5-6 years) and gasping out loud gaining some very strange looks from customers and staff!