Lack Of Agency

Lack Of Agency

Seth Godin’s recent post hit a nerve:

There are institutions, professionals and organizations that would like you to believe that you don’t have much choice in the matter.

They want to take away your agency, because it makes their job easier or their profits higher.

But you have more choice than you know.

In our recent move, I’ve twice dealt with corporations and utilities that have made me feel like I have no agency. Most recently, Apple Support left me hanging on an Apple ID and iTunes issue. Apple! A company I’ve supported each of my adult years!

Call support centers are a form of capitalist nihilism. There’s no reason for any of the decisions made except to make the company’s situation better, and to help you feel powerless. It’s rare that a support interaction has a positive outcome – so rare, that we marvel at Creation when it happens.

My Apple interaction was especially galling. From 2005-2008, I purchased a bunch of music under an old Apple ID. From 2008 on, I’ve been purchasing music from a different Apple ID, unaware of the consequences, so now I have a bunch of music in limbo. The support center’s solution? “Switch Apple IDs each time you want to listen to that music.” Helpful! And silly. What they don’t tell you is that each time you switch Apple IDs in iTunes, it locks the previous Apple ID for 90 days.

Three months! Unacceptable. And completely arbitrary.

So now I’ll be sticking to downloading my music from companies with fewer arbitrary restrictions (as Godin writes, keeping the “ability to shop around”). It’s one of the reasons I don’t rely on subscription-based music services. There is, by definition, no agency involved in that transaction. If you unsubscribe, all the music goes away.

The larger point can be applied to creativity and photography, of course. There’s creative agency – that sense of not being held hostage by expectations and self-imposed pressure. On the technology side, by submitting our work to Instagram and Tumblr, you’re giving up a bit of agency. And if something goes wrong, your only recourse is a faceless call center, if that.

My one weak spot: Flickr. I rely on Ol’ Reliable for so much of what I do, including image hosting for this very blog. And I have a lot of time and infrastructure wrapped up in that website. If something goes wrong, I’ll be in a bit of trouble. It won’t be catastrophic, but it certainly won’t be fun.

When we keep our agency, in the form of hosted, backed-up websites and blogs, we have a bit more say in the matter. We can always pack up and put up our tent somewhere else.

Things I Like: iPhone 4S

Things I Like: iPhone 4S

What can be said about the iPhone that hasn’t already been said?

Personally: I (gladly) waited for the second one. I love having a camera with me at all times. I sync it every night.

It’s my everything. My muse. My camera. My window to the world. My mobile fact checker. My jukebox. My communicator.

I’ve broken it. Dropped it. Had to replace it. Upgraded it. Traveled with it. Did my work on it. Everything.

I waited a long time between the 3G and the 4S models, and in a lot of ways that worked out well. Now I think I’ll stick to the “S” updates: the good made better. The beautiful, revised.

And when the new one comes out, I’ll get that one, too. Gladly. What else would I do?

// VSCO Kodak T-MAX 3200+ (switched to color mode)

Things I Like: iPod Shuffle

Things I Like: iPod Shuffle

One time I got something stuck in the headphone jack of my iPhone 3G.

Being the DIYer that I am, I decided to fish it out with a Q-tip. Bad move.

From then on, no audio jack plug worked with my iPhone. The fibers from the Q-tip became stuck inside the audio jack, preventing a secure connection. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

This meant I couldn’t listen to albums or podcasts on my morning commute. Thankfully, my trusty iPod Shuffle came to the rescue. I used it every single day as my on-the-go audio device until I purchased an iPhone 4S.

To say the iPod Shuffle is simple is to be coy. There’s no visual interface. Just a few buttons and a clip. But its simplicity is its beauty – and its usefulness. I use mine all the time.

The blue one was my first one. It was a refurbished model, all of $50, that lasted until I left it in a pants pocket and it took a trip through the wash cycle (I’m hard on my iPods). Try as I could to save it, it was done. Retired.

But I didn’t want one of those goofy 3rd generation Chicklet models. No, I wanted real buttons. So I bought a 2nd-gen model on Amazon – a low-key silver one that works like a dream.

These days I mainly use my Shuffle for gym workouts. The clip is everything: it helps the iPod stay out the way, stay secure, and stay with me. And it does one thing well: plays audio. Boom.

The one complaint I have is that, if you accidentally his the Reverse button, you erase all the progress on a podcast – meaning you have to fast forward through to the point you left off. It’s annoying, and it happens enough that I’m complaining about it.

But despite the abuse, despite it’s simple nature, and despite being a two-generations-ago model, I do appreciate the little bugger.

Things I Like: Apple’s Newton eMate

Things I Like: Newton eMate 300

It had been so long since I booted up my Newton eMate that, before taking a photo of it, I had to recharge its meager battery.

But like clockwork (and like all of Apple’s Newton PDAs), it started up like no time had passed – it’s familiar grid of app icons hinting at future Apple products.

It used to be that I ran a decently popular blog, Newton Poetry, writing about the eMate and its MessagePad cousins. There used to be not a day that passed that I wouldn’t scribble on one of these green screens, hacking my Macs to get them to install new software, or discovering some long-abandoned app that still, after all these years, seemed useful.

But now my eMate sits on a shelf in my office, along with my Newton MessagePad 110, a few non-working iPods, and other miscellaneous Apple products. It’s joined the assorted classic Macintoshes that I just haven’t found room for in my life.

Not after buying a house, and not after taking up photography as a full-time hobby.

The truth, though, is that booting this little green guy up made me happy. It made me happy to still see it working. It made me happy to see all the apps I installed to monkey around with. And it made me happy thinking about all those fun blog projects, from 2007 to 2011, that I tackled.

I keep thinking I’ll kick-start the blog again, instead of leaving it languishing with a few random photo posts here and there. There’s a collection of articles just waiting for commentary. The project stuff, though – there just doesn’t seem much room for that stuff. Not any more.

Still, my eMate and I? We had a lot of fun together. And now that I brought it back to life, maybe we’ll have some more fun.

On CDs

By all accounts, physical music media is on its way out. The MP3 is the new king, and – arguably – has been since the late ‘90s.

These days, the only way you can actually hold your music is with an iPod. Otherwise, it lives in binary 1s and 0s on a hard drive or flash drive somewhere. It’s hard to get romantic about the idea.

I grew up in the cassette age – a barbaric period for music, requiring rewinds and thin, black tape that got caught in tape players. It was an awful medium for music (and for movies in VHS tapes), and we were all rescued when the CD, invented years before its heyday, came on the scene. It seems extraordinarily obvious now, but the idea that you could start listening to an album at any point, at any time, and at great sound quality, was mind-blowing.

To those Baby Boomers, the LP was the epitome of audio quality and music appreciation. That artwork, those liner notes, the way you could sit with an album and soak it all in. That was the stuff.

But to my generation, the CD was our LP. Tremendous sound quality, music booklets you could flip through, and a degrade-proof medium that was more portable than the classic record. Sure, CDs skip and scratch – but so did records. And with no needle to replace, the laser-read CD was the new record for the digital age.

This was the era that I came into in high school, right at the time I was developing a greater appreciation for good music.

Over time, the digital music era began, stemming from CDs ripped to computers. But eventually, the need for CDs disappeared. If you could download your songs, why do you need to buy a shiny plastic disc?

And the idea took off. Like a rocket. Thing is, there was nothing artistic, besides the music, to enjoy. It was just songs. To learn anything about the band, you had to visit their web site or Myspace page. There was nothing physical to hold in your hands.

Now Apple is trying to bring back the album idea, transforming it into it’s new iTunes LP format. The iTunes LP idea, like movie extras stuffed into a DVD, is compelling because it lets you go even deeper than LPs and CDs let you go before. Sure, there’s liner notes and credits and lyrics, but there’s also band interviews and music videos and the whole shebang.

As nice as it is, it’s just not the same.

I remember, especially in my high school years, taking a new CD, popping it into my stereo, and sitting down with the booklet and pouring through the lyrics as the music played. It was a way to connect with what I was hearing. I looked at the photos, and tried to parse through the thank-yous, and get a sense of the album’s direction by following along in the lyrics. It helped me memorize my favorite band members’ names and the song titles. For that hour, it was me and the band.

In fact, I would get upset if a band scrimped on their CD booklet. No lyrics? No multi-page nuggets of band trivia? When that happened, I felt cheated.

Now things are different. When I download an album from iTunes, I don’t get that connection that I did before. Now, music is something that plays in the background, while I’m working or cleaning or cooking. There’s nothing to hold on to, except my iPod, so I don’t hold on to anything. Not the song titles, not the band members’ names, not the little mysteries that unfolded when I would sit and listen and digest.

It’s totally different now.

It could be that I just don’t have the time to sit and marinate in my music like I used to. Part of that is true, I’m sure, but there’s something else.

I’ve always been a print guy. Paper and me go way back, and my career features skills that I developed in the print world. Only recently have I begun to learn more about web design and graphics. It’s a different way of thinking, for sure.

To hold a piece of paper with so much information on it, while listening to good music, is a feeling that electronic music formats can’t reproduce – not with iTunes LP, not with an iPod Touch, and certainly not on the web. The physical thing. That’s what I cherish.

I’m a hold-out. I still have every CD I’ve purchased since high school, after that very special Christmas when I got a Playstation and a CD boom box. They’re all still in their CD trays, stacked alphabetically, and some even have tickets when I’d go see the band in concert. Each CD is a slice of my history, and by opening up the CD tray I get whisked away to some time in my life. Maybe it’s when I first bought the CD, or when I first “got” the music. Whatever. Each one has a place in my home.

It’s heartbreaking when my CDs get scratched.

Sure, MP3s don’t scratch. You don’t lose them (unless your hard drive crashes), and they can’t get stolen from you. They’re robust and universally accepted, and it’s not hard to figure out why they’re so popular.

But man. To pop a CD I haven’t heard in years into my car stereo – to feel the CD player tug at the disc and whir as it spins it alive – that’s music appreciation. To pick a CD out of one of the stacks, to see the faded artwork on the cover, and to have a concert ticket spill out on the floor…

…it’s like real sex versus phone sex. Sure, you can get plenty of benefits out of masturbating with some poor schmuck on the other end. But nothing beats the in-your-face physical act.

And that’s why I’ll continue to go to the record store, or visit, and purchase real, live, physical manifestations of my music. I can rip them to iTunes, after all, getting the benefit of both the physical (and backup) copy and the electronic copy that lives its life in electrons. The CD makes both options possible, and I own both a physical and electronic copy at the end of the day.

Music has a special tie to memory. I like to hold both in my hands for as long as possible.