The Death Of Stuff

To mourn the CD is to mourn stuff. It’s to mourn a time when the cultural vitality of western civilization was defined by the amount of stuff on various sorts of media we produced and bought. We bought books, magazines, newspapers, and comics made from dead trees. We bought records, CDs, cassettes, and DVDs made from dead dinosaurs. We made all kinds of economies out of dead stuff.

“If CDs had a decade, it was in the 1990s. This was the brief golden era of CDs before Napster and downloading, and devices such as smartphones and ipods changed everything. Becoming mass market around 1983, the first big CD blockbuster was 1985’s Brothers in Arms by the Dire Straits – it was the first time an album sold more on disc than on vinyl, passing the 1m mark. Annual global sales surpassed 1bn in 1992 and 2bn in 1996, and “the profit margins were the stuff of dreams. The CD was cheaper than vinyl to manufacture, transport and rack in stores, while selling for up to twice as much.”

Digital Killed The CD. Will Anyone Mourn It?” | The Guardian | Brigid Delaney | 04/27/2018

That was a world of cultural scarcity. We couldn’t just watch any TV show or movie, listen to any song, read any book. We had to make choices about what we’d consume based on our passions and discretionary income. And so we defined our living and workspaces with stuff that signaled to others how cool, how educated, how geeky, how down we were by giving them a glimpse of what we read, listened to, and watched. Until about 10 years ago cultural scarcity helped us define who we were as a function of commerce.

Which is to say that to mourn stuff is to mourn the selves we constructed out of all the stuff we bought but could never resell at full value.

Now we (re)produce all types of culture by simply copying and pasting 1’s and 0’s. Hitting Command-C and then Command-V costs nothing. Even streaming, on-demand, and digital content services are really just copying and pasting enterprises. They’re selling unlimited access to content, not the content itself, because there’s no longer such a thing as “content itself” if it can be infinitely copied with no degradation and no cost. You can only make so many books out of trees. But you can make an infinite number of books out of 1’s and 0’s. The former is a function of cultural scarcity. The latter is a function of cultural surplus.

Cultural surplus is replacing cultural scarcity. In doing so, it’s also changed the calculus of how we define our inner lives. The shelf space I once devoted to books, magazines, CDs, records, DVDs, and comics is now disk space housing commodified memories. They’re always already at the click of a mouse, reminders that the death of stuff is the death of things we could throw away.

This process won’t stop anytime soon. It reminds us that cultural surplus killed music stores as easily as it killed CDs. It has done so more efficiently and ruthlessly, a virus whose next victim is public space itself. As goes public space, so erode the bonds that connect us as citizens.


Image Source: CD Collection by Dave Morris

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