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What do we lose when everything's available?

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Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008

I was wondering about this when I wanted to watch a Japanese film called Death by Hanging- part comedy, part drama, part fantasy, part social commentary on prejudice, the rule of law, imperialism and of course capital punishment.  This 1968 movie by Nagisa Oshima is not out on DVD and though it just made the rounds at the New York Film Festival, I missed it there.  So what was I left to do?


I could keep it on the wish-list of movies that I’d like to see or rent some day if gets screened again or put out on DVD.  Or… you could use the power of the Net and see if it’s available ‘otherwise.’  What that usually means that like songs or albums that are long out of print, you can go to P2P or bit torrent sites to download the material yourself. Or you could just do a Google search and see if it’s available otherwise.


That’s exactly what I did.  Much to my relief and surprise, someone had actually posted the movie in a dozen parts on YouTube.  Rather than wait around for the film to appear in a theater or DVD, I just watched it online.  I’d been dying to see it for years so why would I pass up the chance?


Now of course when you take the quick route like this, there’s a lot happening that you don’t realize.  Obviously, the studio, director, producers and anyone involved in the movie don’t get any money from you.  You could argue that they wouldn’t anyway since you otherwise wouldn’t get to see the movie so what’s the difference?  Another counter-argument would be that your selfishness means that there’s less incentive for the studio to get the movie into theaters or on DVD since there will be less demand for it.  Seems logical but then how do you explain Radiohead’s success with their latest album which they offered for free (if you like) and then it’s subsequent chart-topping status?  There’s aren’t easy issues to suss out, are they?


But I also wondered about the ease that the Net provides us with finding almost anything that we want.  If I had enough money, I could snap up all the out-of-print books, movies and CD’s that I’ve wanted from somewhere like Amazon’s used market.  If I didn’t and still wanted these things badly enough, I could go to P2P and torrent sites to grab the movies and CD’s though the size of the former makes it less likely that many people would bother (as for books, even if you grabbed an e-book, you’d still need a reader to see it though there’s places to legally get old classics which fell out of copyright).  Some music services (Napster) offer you monthly charges where you can stream as much music as you want to hear from their service and now even some cell phone companies are working up offers of monthly ‘buffet’ packages that let you actually download as much as you’d like for a set fee.


In a way, that’s great that we all have access to all of these wonderful bits of culture.  But is it always a good thing?


That’s when I started to wonder about the premise of the title of this blog entry: “What do we lose when everything’s available?”  If all of our cultural consumer needs are at our fingertips, how does that change us?  Do we just pile up all these things and later figure out when or if we have time to go through all of it?  Do we just become bloated on all of items and take them for granted since they’re all in our possession?  As crazy as it sounds, on some level, don’t we also love the thrill of finally tracking something down after years of patience, research and diligence?  In the end, if we have easy access to everything, does that mean that we really have access to nothing?


Another problem with having everything stored up on our computer or hand-held device is what I call ‘digital amnesia.’  When rows of CD’s or DVD’s or books are sitting on your shelf, you’re probably not going to obsess over them every time you walk by or glance at them but their mere presence is going to be a reminder that they’re waiting for you to discover or rediscover them at some point.  When they’re inside your computer or device, they’re not staring out at you, reminding you of their existence.  On many MP3 players, you have a random feature that lets you mix up and rediscover everything that you’ve loaded on the device but even then, you have to remember to load everything that you’ve downloaded to your computer there (unless you’re buying things wirelessly and directly to your player).


In the end, all of us can have great movie collections, great music collections and great music collections but then we have to figure out what we’re going to do with this huge mountain of material we’ve gathered up.  Careful what you wish for?


As crazy as it sounds, what I think I’m also arguing here is that we have a need to need.  When we’ve amassed all these cultural toys, what’s left?  What do have to long for, to want, to hunt and search for?  Even more importantly, then we start to ask deeper questions about why we want these things, what they amount to and what it says about us.  The things that we collect speak volumes about who we are or who we’d like to be but having them all at our disposal doesn’t mean we’re completely satiated.  We always hunger for something else, something more.  Once many of us are able to reach that point, it’ll be interesting to see where that takes us and what else we want.  Rest assured, once we figure it out, there’s gonna be someone ready to sell it to us.

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