Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Story(ies) of Progress: "Old Fashioned" Vinyl and Trains

I'm wondering about the persistence of vinyl, and our understanding of progress and the growing sense that we are at a particular hinge moment, or the concept that we are at a point of emergence.

But before going there (and I won't here), I'm curious about vinyl records in relation to music, musicians, the music industry and other recording and storage technologies.  Or more to the point what is progress in relation to the emergence of new recording, storage, and distribution of recorded music

What is this story?  Having the technology to record, store and playback sounds, at the moment of the invention, didn’t lead obviously to the recording of music as the primary use of these inventions.  Sometimes a technology is invented and its eventual use isn't immediately apparent, though for us now this is perhaps hard to conceive. Recorded music and the industry around it are taken for granted. Now musicians and bands begin recording their music almost as soon as they are rehearsing and playing gigs.

Part of the story here is freedom and choice (Thank you Benjamin).  The paths of recording and distribution technologies have created ever more freedom and choice for the musician.  It has also done other things, but given the choices available to musicians what about vinyl records?  How do we account for this persistence or resurgence, especially if new and technological progress is seen as an unquestionable improvement over technologies of the past?

I can't (and wont attempt here) in this post account for all the reasons for the persistence of vinyl records (I'm not aware of anyone releasing music on 8 track or even cassette tapes these days, so it isn't that technologies don't die and pass out of use.)  I don't think it's just nostalgia, plenty of people I know are nostalgic for cassette tapes, yet that doesn't result in bands releasing albums on cassette tape (or at least I'm not aware of such a phenomenon) and it seems a universal opinion that 8 track was from the get go a bad piece of technology.  To put it another way the goal of choice and flexibility may not be the most important goal to everyone.  Other values and goals may be at work in evaluating a technology, and it’s place in a progression.

Some lovers of vinyl claim some form of superior quality to vinyl over other recording and storage technologies. The pops and hisses in playing a record could be seen as flaws.  Also, records are described at times as having a "warmth' of sound.  But I've heard the argument that beyond all that that vinyl records reproduce sound in a way that better captures certain aspects of instruments that other technologies don't. You may read this and think such claims are bunk(and they might be even provably so), but I'm not so concerned about whether we can all agree on the properties of vinyl as a recording and playback technology, but that the persistence of vinyl as a preferable form of recorded music, tells a different story about recorded music and technological progress in relation to music. The goals aimed for if one prefers vinyl are different from the goals and ends of a preference or use of other technologies.  The persistence vinyl records suggest to me that we don't all see progress in the same way.  Or to say it in post-modern nomenclature, there is more than one possible metanarrative of technological progress in recording technologies, and the persistence of vinyl deconstructs attempts at a singular narrative of  recording and the music industry. 

While we tend to view progress as singular and self-evident, (and I wonder if we also are viewing emergence in this way as well), what we actually have are multiple stories of what progress means, depending upon our location, desires, and goals.  Part of that story is an explicit or implicit story of what is good.  Progress implies a goal.  If my goal isn't the same as yours then my sense of progress whether in a particular technology or of humanity as a whole, is going to differ.  I may even see your sense of progress as devolution from an apex.  Only in agreeing upon what is good and the goal or end based upon that good can we agree on what progress is or means.  Without that agreement we simply will be telling different stories about a certain technology, or historical process.

Another technological example of this is the train and its demise in the United States as form of transportation while the train has not only persisted but also made advancements in other parts of the world not put into use in the United States.  We still make use of trains but mostly trains are nostalgic for us, and we use them in limited ways as an old form of technology.  In the United States the train isn't part of our story of technological progress, while in other parts of the world it is and advancements in that form of transportation continue to be made.  Though, this is slightly different then the phenomenon of vinyl records persisting.

Progress then isn't a thing that simply caries us along into the future.  Rather progress is an amalgamation of change, innovation and the interpretive framework we create to understand change and the goals toward which we put innovation.  It seems to me that we tend to speak of  progress as innovative change that has a singular and self-evident track into the future, so that anyone not on that track is retrograde, nostalgic, or old fashioned, i.e. "stuck in the past."   What I'm suggesting is that "stuck in the past" may not mean stagnation but evidence of differing goals and understanding of what is good, and thus a differing path of progression.  Progress isn't singular, because our goals and stories and concepts of what is good aren’t singular.  In that sense the mythology of Progress as singular and inevitable is an attempt to legitimize a particular goal and sense of the good and hiding alternate paths and goods, by giving the sense of inevitability of a particular path towards a particular goal.  But we should not be surprised that we will have differing understandings of what is good and the goals toward which we should progress.