It still feels a little shameful to admit to the fact, but what engages us more and more is not the content but the mechanism. Kenneth Goldsmith, in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay, writes of a recent day when he felt an urge to listen to some music by the American composer Morton Feldman:
I dug into my MP3 drive, found my Feldman folder and opened it up. Amongst the various folders in the directory was one labeled “The Complete Works of Morton Feldman.” I was surprised to see it there; I didn’t remember downloading it. Curious, I looked at its date — 2009 — and realized that I must’ve grabbed it during the heyday of MP3 sharity blogs. I opened it to find 79 albums as zipped files. I unzipped three of them, listened to part of one, and closed the folder. I haven’t opened it since.
The pleasure of listening to music was not as great as he anticipated. He found more pleasure in manipulating music files.
Our role as librarians and archivists has outpaced our role as cultural consumers. Engaging with media in a traditional sense is often the last thing we do. … In the digital ecosystem, the apparatuses surrounding the artifact are more engaging than the artifact itself. Management (acquisition, distribution, archiving, filing, redundancy) is the cultural artifact’s new content. … In an unanticipated twist to John Perry Barlow’s 1994 prediction that in the digital age we’d be able to enjoy wine without the bottles, we’ve now come to prefer the bottles to the wine.
It’s as though we find ourselves, suddenly, in a vast library, an infinite library, a library of Borgesian proportions, and we discover that what’s of most interest to us is not the books on the shelves but the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal System.
Goldsmith’s experience reminded me of a passage in Simon Reynolds’s Retromania. Reynolds describes what happened after he got his first iPod and started experimenting with the Shuffle function:
Shuffle offered a reprieve from the problem of choice. Like everybody, at first I was captivated by it and, like everybody, had all those experiences with mysterious recurrences of artists and uncanny sequencings. The downside of shuffle soon revealed itself, though. I became fascinated with the mechanism itself, and soon was always wanting to know what was coming up next. It was irresistible to click onto the next random selection. … Soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all. … Really, the logical culmination would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display.
What is the great innovation of SoundCloud, the popular music-streaming service? It has little to do with music and everything to do with the visual enrichment of the track display:
Who needs to listen to the song when one can watch the song unspool colorfully on the screen through all its sonic peaks and valleys, triggering the display of comments as it goes? Whatever lies on the other side of the interface seems less and less consequential. The interface is the thing. The interface is the content.
Abundance breeds boredom. When there’s no end of choices, each choice feels disappointing. Listening to or watching one thing means you’re not listening to or watching all the other things you might be listening to or watching. Reynolds quotes a telling line from Karla Starr’s 2008 article “When Every Song Ever Recorded Fits on Your MP3 Player, Will You Listen to Any of Them?” Confessed Starr: “I find myself getting bored even in the middle of songs simply because I can.”
And so, bored by the content, bored by the art, bored by the experience, we become obsessed with the interface. We seek to master the mechanism’s intricate, fascinating functions: downloading and uploading, archiving and cataloging, monitoring readouts, watching time counts, streaming and pausing and skipping, clicking buttons marked with hearts or uplifted thumbs. We become culture’s technicians. We become bureaucrats of experience.
Managing the complexities of the interface provides an illusion of agency while alleviating the agony of choice. In the end, as Reynolds puts it, fiddling with the mechanism “relieves you of the burden of desire itself” — a burden that grows ever more burdensome as options proliferate. And so you find that you’re no longer a music fan; you’re a jukebox aficionado.
As the manufacturers of digital slot machines have discovered, a well-designed interface induces obsession. It’s not the winnings, or the losses, that keep the players feeding money into the slots; it’s the joy of operating a highly responsive machine. In her book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Natasha Dow Schüll tells of meeting a video-poker player named Mollie in a casino:
When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. … “Today when I win — and I do win, from time to time — I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win.”
Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing — to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.”
I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there — you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
In a world dense with stuff, a captivating interface is the perfect consumer good. It packages the very act of consumption as a product. We consume our consuming.
The machine zone is where we spend much of our time these days. It extends well beyond the traditional diversions of media and entertainment and gaming. The machine zone surrounds us. You go for a walk, and you find that what inspires you is not the scenery or the fresh air or the physical pleasure of the exercise, but rather the mounting step count on your smartphone’s exercise app. “If I go just a little farther,” you tell yourself, glancing yet again at the screen, “the app will reward me with a badge.” The mechanism is more than beguiling. The mechanism knows you, and it cares about you. You give it your attention, and it tells you that your attention has not been wasted.