(Contemplations on content and context)

Kindle and Spotify are my best friends. They are my favorite digital apps because they bring me two of my favorite things in life: words and music. I have turned to literature and music all my life for inspiration, comfort, edification, and pleasure. I loved books and records, not as physical things but because of what they conveyed. As techies are wont to say these days, they are wonderful “data carriers”, but it’s the cargo they deliver that really interests me.

Of course, as you savor a pleasure, you tend to become fond of the objects that bring it. I liked the feel of a book in my hand, and never turned up page corners or folded paperbacks in half because I didn’t want to sully their structural integrity. I liked them crisp, clean, and intact. I did sometimes write notes in the margins, albeit reluctantly because I disliked disrupting the purity of the page and its orderly rows of dutifully aligned words and sentences.

I also treated LP’s with tender care, if only to prevent scratches that would destroy their sound. The black shiny discs did have a groovy coolness about them that required a respectful handling by the edges, and the ritual of sensually slipping them in and out of album sleeves just added an elegant importance to the music it contained.

I especially enjoyed studying album cover art and their liner notes. They were objects of affection because they housed and conveyed such delightful sounds, and offered a visual dimension to the artistic message inherent in the music. Especially when some musicians like Frank Zappa took an active role in designing the visual packaging that housed his musical offerings. It was more than just music, it was a multimedia artistic statement.

But in both cases, the real object of my pleasure was not the packaging that delivered it, but the pure content. I read to understand and enjoy the ideas that are conveyed by the manner in which writers use words to form sentences and then assemble them into paragraphs and pages. For me, reading is a twofold pleasure: the artistry of the language and the depth of the ideas that are conveyed. It’s the same with music. Imaginative album design may enhance and expand the message in the music, but it’s the pure music, best enjoyed with eyes closed, that reaches deep inside me and stirs thoughts and emotions that few other stimuli can produce.

When I first discovered e-books I too was sceptical. But when I received a Kindle as a Christmas gift, I was forced to give it a try. It didn’t take long to embrace this new way of receiving those sacred words, sentences, and ideas. I had already been introduced to the concept of words on a screen thanks to computers and the Internet. As I soon learned, my Kindle did it all so much better.

Acquiring information through words is a professional necessity for me. My first exposure to digitalized newspapers quickly proved to be a much more efficient way to acquire large batches of information quickly. Reading the news on a TV-like screen of an IBM monitor didn’t have the physical embrace of holding a hefty newspaper in my hand but it sure did give me a lot more information in a substantially shorter period of time. The laptop brought the experience even closer, and the hand-held tablet started to feel like what reading a book or newspaper used to feel like. And with each technological innovation, the ease and efficiency of fishing for, hauling in, and processing large batches of information from increasingly more distant corners of the world became exponentially better.

The Internet gave me magazines, newspapers, blogs, articles, essays, and countless other sources of words and their inherent ideas, but my Kindle gave me books. Thousands of books. A seemingly endless array of books. Not everything in the world, but more than I could ever dream of reading. It gave me any book I wanted in seconds. Entire books, from the prologue to the epilogue.

In the past, if I heard or read of a book that sounded interesting, it would take weeks or even months to search for it. It meant going to the library or the book store, unless I knew someone with a copy. In any case it took time. But the Kindle in my hand was a magic door into a enormous library that contained almost as many books as Borges famous infinite Library of Babel. And I could open any one of them, any time I wanted, and start reading. Not only could I take books out of the Kindle library, I could keep them for as long as I wanted.

I once used to collect books and stack them on endless shelves. Now I could keep them all in my jacket pocket. Pocket books indeed. All I had to do was take my Kindle, poke the right buttons, and my Personal Library opened up right before my eyes. Anything man had written, published, disseminated, and stored over the last few thousand years was there for my taking. I could dialogue with Socrates, will my power with Nietzsche or run the streets of Dublin with Roddy Doyle. All while waiting in line at the airport.

While I remember a lot of what I read, I forget a lot as well, and like to go back to refresh my memory or lift a clever quote. In the past, relocating a passage I liked required two searches: first, I had to rembember where in the blazes I had stuck the book. My shelves were somewhat organized, but not greatly so. Second, once I had the book, I had to plunder thru the pages in search of the quote, not sure whether I had underlined it or not. Often enough, either task became too formidable and I gave up.

My Kindle cured all that. It takes a second to open my Kindle, another to open any book, and only a few seconds more to find anything I had highlighted, underlined or otherwise noted. It was all there. In Kindle, anything you highlight in a book gets compiled in a handy file that keeps each quote in sequence and can be instantly accessed with a tap. The file itself becomes my personal Cliff’s Notes summary of the author’s best and brightest observations. I can navigate any book at will, jump back to earlier passages, and re-read entire sections from different points of view.

I love words, collect as many as I can, and relish discovering the meanings of those I don’t understand. Kindle helps there as well. It’s a got a built-in library that delivers meanings at the touch of my finger. Another tap takes me to Google where I can expand my exploration with pictures, maps, and a near infinite web of pages that flood my curiosity with explanations and edifications. As a student I often passed over place names and other references, vowing to look them up later but I rarely did. I missed a lot.

Kindle gives me words and Spotify gives me music. A seemingly endless stream of music that pours down invisibly from the heavens in glorious torrents every minute of the day. Heraclitus be damned, this is one stream you can step into over and over and over again.

When radio was all there was, I was a captive audience of the ratings-driven marketing mavens who packaged everything they and their sponsors wanted me to hear. The airwaves were public but the sounds that traversed them were mercantilistically commercial. We had AM and FM and little transistor radios to catch the trickle-down tunes that were spoon-fed to us in between the ads. We grabbed whatever sounds came our way.

Of course, if I really liked something, and had the money, I would buy an album. Black vinyl had a brittle delicacy to it that enhanced the near ritualistic gesture of placing the disc on the roundtable and dropping the needle into a welcoming groove. But an LP was just a data carrier and what I was after was the music it conveyed. I wanted lots of it. Since albums cost money every impending purchase led to the same old dilemma: do I buy more of someone I like or explore new musical frontiers? The music that slowly filled my existential musical cocoon was wonderful but I knew that it was just a microcosm of all that was out there. The few sounds that I could get and store on vinyl, tape, cassette or CD were just the tip of the musical iceberg that was far out of my physical and financial reach.

Spotify broke the barriers of time, space, and meagre finances and put a world of music at my fingertips. Literally. Not only new music, but old music, odd music, familiar and obscure music. With a few taps I could access everything from classical to kinky. But the clever Swedes who created Spotify learned how to get into my head, figure out what I liked, and proceeded to give me even more of everything that tickled my musical fancy.

If I liked a particular genre, like blues rock, and listened to Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa for a day, on the next day those clever cyberelves at Spotify would dish up a dozen other artists of the same ilk. “If you liked that, you might like this.” More often than not, I did. My music collection grew exponentially. It was all in my smart phone and that put it all directly into my head.

The old radio stations forced me to listen to prepackaged pop, while Spotify offered hundreds of genre-specific radio stations and playlists that far exceeded anything I could imagine. Spotify had mastered the mind-reading of which Gordon Lightfoot had so solemnly sung. They even read stuff that wasn’t in my mind but should be. I’m a big Steve Earle fan and find that I tend to like what he likes, but rarely had the opportunity to know what he listens to. On Spotify I can spend an evening sipping whiskey, sitting with Steve and digging the stuff that he digs. Invariably I have discovered dozens of new artists that have both inspired and emulated him.

Back in the previous century I used to make my own musical mixes on tape cassettes, which was time-consuming and filled endless boxes. Spotify streamlined all that. It lets me create playlists instantly, on the run, as I’m listening. And when I’m not assembling my own playlists, Spotify offers theirs, based on what they think I may like. Their insight is uncanny. One of my favorite Spotify-produced playlists is called ‘Swagger’, where I uncovered the feisty likes of Bones Owens, Barnes Courtney and Devon Gilfillian. Spotify wasn’t just a musical provider, it was a creative partner. We make and take beautiful music together.

While Spotify gives me a lot of new artists, it also allows me to rummage back into the past and discover old classics that I missed because in my youth when I was too broke to buy their albums for myself. These days I can explore the full repertoire of bands like Alice Cooper, Dream Theater, and Pentangle, while discovering heretofore unreleased releases by Bob Dylan, Alabama 3, and Jethro Tull.

Unlike a crystal ball, my smart phone can’t reveal the future. But it is a remarkable window into the past and is pretty nimble at keeping up with the present. I’m man of words and music, and my obsessively updating digital devices deliver them both. In spades. In seconds. In full color and stereo sound. At a moment’s notice, whenever and wherever I want

In his book ‘Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the thing that makes our species so special is its uncanny ability to communicate. He writes, “We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.”

My Kindle and Spotify are nothing more than the latest technical iteration of that distinctly human penchant to communicate. Once we did it with smoke signals, tribal drums, and epic poetic recitals around the bonfire. Today those same words and sounds are suspended in the endless ether that envelopes us and we just have to reach out and pluck them. Doesn’t matter how it gets there, it all eventually goes to our heads.

Dylan needed a dump truck to unload his head. Kindle and Spotify keep filling mine up. A modern-day Dylan would simply call up an app that’ll clean out his cognitive cache. The times are still changing and so is the way we choose to harness them. But the song (and the thoughts) remain the same.

Ojars Eriks Kalnins

January 2019