Music Delivery and the Empathy Vacuum

When the technology industry willfully pushes a certain way to listen to music, extolling its benefits with no recognition of its disadvantages, well, I have to speak up. Because there end up being unintended consequences…

Considering the aftermath of a two-week digital cleanse, gifted singer/composer Gabriel Kahane recently wrote a post that began as a heartfelt defense of non-violent resistance and expanded into a musing on what we human beings may lose when we hand too much of our existence over to our digital selves. These thoughts in particular struck me deeply:

Empathy requires time, contemplation, and ideally, the physical presence and energy of other human beings. Twitter allows for none of these. In fact, by disconnecting people from the ideas they espouse, and reducing those ideas to words on a screen, it further diminishes our ability to empathize with the ideas of others.

Kahane was writing about life and death matters, with our country’s existence abruptly and breathtakingly on the line. Entirely sympathetic to his views, I want to dial back the stakes a bit, not because they aren’t important (oh, but they are), but because they are beyond my bailiwick. I believe his thoughts to be very relevant to our current political crisis; I also believe them to be relevant to the artistic crisis we have been experiencing in the music industry since the onset of the digital age. And in a weird way, they may be connected.

Let me try to records

The digital age, in music, began in earnest when the means to rip songs off CDs decoupled an artist’s output from their capacity to maintain ownership of their own work. I won’t yet again run through why the gleeful piracy instigated first by Napster and later by the torrent sites was so shameful; it’s old news here.

Then came the second half of the digital revolution, when the technology and marketing aligned to convince the world that MP3s were now, anyway, beside the point; what everyone really wants and needs is to stream music. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, and it’s all but limitless. You can listen to anything you want to, any time, anywhere. You’d have to be some weird kind of fetishist to still want to “own” music in the face of this digital cornucopia.

Now I have nothing against streaming at all. I stream music all the time, primarily as a way to listen to albums and/or songs that I might want to buy. But, yes: I still want to own my music. I have for years been trying to formulate the definitive argument on why owning is important and why it remains a necessary option even in the age of streaming, and I’ve been circling around a variety of positions without landing on exactly the right defense.

There’s the “streaming services don’t have everything” argument, which has its merits; there’s the “streaming services can go out of business” argument, which seems also important, given their ongoing unprofitability; there’s the “no music when the internet goes down” argument, which is compelling under certain circumstances. But I’ve always felt that deeper than logistical concerns like this, there remains a more profound reason to want to own music versus rent it. Sometimes I’ve posited the “you wouldn’t rent your clothes, why rent your music?” argument, which has its charms but never really caught on.

And then I read Kahane’s piece and the light bulb went off.

The disappearance of empathy

Kahane began with the thought that empathy requires “the time, contemplation, and ideally, the physical presence and energy of other human beings.” From the beginning of the digital age, when piracy ruled the musical oceans, as it were, I argued time and again against piracy based, ultimately, on the premise that it simply was not fair to the musicians. The idea of fairness always got pooh-poohed by the technology zealots who believed they were heralding a brave new world in which everything digital was somehow free because, well, the future.

But maybe the real reason the zealots, then as now, cared so little about fairness was because to be tuned into treating other human beings fairly requires a state of empathy. And if, as Kahane now asserts, empathy requires time and contemplation and the physical presence of others, well, aren’t these things that the digital realm erases? With its unstoppable flow of data, driven by clicks and swipes, digital content consumes our waking hours even as we spend very little time on any one specific item, so compelled we are to move from one thing to another and another. Not spending more than a few moments on any one piece of digitalia eliminates contemplation. And because it’s all happening on a screen, we are not dealing with any human being’s actual presence or interpersonal sense of felt energy.

And in this digital realm, vacuumed of humanist values such as contemplation and three-dimensional interaction, empathy far too easily disappears. Lack of empathy rather obviously fueled the piracy era; few people seemed willing even to consider the harm being done to actual individual human beings by illegally possessing and distributing music, never mind to consider refraining from piracy because of this harm. Even if the vast majority of people who pirated music during piracy’s heyday quite honestly “meant no harm,” had no evil intentions per se, neither did their actions ultimately reveal the positive intentionality that civilized society requires. Together, after all, we must do more than “mean no harm”; we must have the wherewithal to understand that active collective purpose to do good is also required.

This is why the MP3, to me, functions as a vehicle for empathy, even without a physical presence. The purchased download represents a conscious decision to be supportive, to reach out and connect with the artist, and your digital library, residing within your own personal computing space, becomes an articulated statement—not as public as records on a shelf, to be sure, but still, potentially, as intentional.

The age of streaming has introduced a subtler means by which empathy drains from the music delivery ecosystem. Streaming, even when paid for, falls woefully short of proper compensation to the artists. Maybe more to the point, streaming, removed from the engagement of owning, keeps listeners disinterested in the specifics of their streams. It has become more important simply to keep the stream flowing than to focus too purposefully on the songs that are flowing by. By making music ceaseless and ubiquitous (remember that widely-used ’00s metaphor about how music should be “like water”?), streaming subtly turns a connective, popular art form into a generic, dissociated sound delivery vehicle.

For casual music fans this may well be enough. And I am not disparaging anyone who does not feel a need to connect any more deeply with the music they are listening to. It’s a wide world and we all have different needs and feelings about what we listen to and how we listen. I get that.

But when the technology industry willfully pushes a certain way to listen to music, extolling its benefits with no recognition of its disadvantages, well, I have to speak up. Because there end up being unintended consequences.

Music minus any implied presence

Streaming is convenient, without question. But it is also now another digital activity that happens in an empathy vacuum. Because look: Kahane spoke above about how social media “disconnect[s] people from the ideas they espouse, and reduc[es] those ideas to words on a screen,” which “further diminishes our ability to empathize with the ideas of others.” I would say that streaming, relatedly, disconnects people from the music they are listening to by removing any depth of context from the act of listening—there’s not only no package to hold physically, there’s no linking of the sound of the music to any contextual anchor that would ground the sound in dimensional reality: no liner notes to consider, no organizational folder in which the song as an object, even a digital object, resides. Music is reduced to sound in a stream, which, echoing Kahane, I contend diminishes our ability to relate to it as the expression of a three-dimensional, living, breathing human.

What’s more, the stream we listen to now, as distinct from listening to terrestial radio, is generated without any apparent human intervention. What radio lacks in a physical product to buy and hold it makes up for with the aural presence of human beings—hosts to present the music, conversation in and around the songs. Best of all, radio offers community, baked into the understanding that what you are listening to on the radio other people are listening to also, at the same time. Radio is a communal experience. Streaming offers each listener his or her own hermetically sealed flow of music. There is no implied presence of anyone else.

I don’t think we, collectively as humans attempting to live peacefully together, can afford to engage in too many more activities that inherently sap us of empathy. While there is no way to correlate the rise of first piracy and now streaming with the rise of tribal intolerance online, and the election of a singularly unqualified and frighteningly autocratic man as President of the United States, I see a through-line here that troubles me.

The great music writer Alex Ross is the only person I’ve yet come across who has noted a correlation between piracy and autocracy in his December essay for The New Yorker entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” Speaking of the way an authoritarian leader can use mass distraction and misdirection to blind his supporters from the harm his policies are actually going to do to them, Ross pointed to the enabling mechanism of social media, which presents information without requiring it to be truthful—without, even, caring if it is socially poisonous. He writes:

From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics.

And so the snake eats its own tail: traffic trumps ethics, increased online activity vanquishes empathy, leading to more traffic, leading to more deplorable (yes I’m using the word purposefully) online denizens who seem if anything eager to glory in the misfortunes of others. (Have you seen those mugs being sold to right-wingers that claim to be filled with “Liberal Tears”? Has there ever previously been a political movement whose only apparent purpose is to revel in the misery of their opponents?)

I have strayed from my original purpose. But everything post-11/9 seems to connect back to our dire circumstances. At the same time, one thing the new president has surely done is light a fire under those of us who still remember what American values actually are. We must continue to recognize each other, nourish each other, and be humane to one another. Any true path of resistance is grounded in empathy. Don’t let your digital life strip you of this consciousness-raising trait.

And if you don’t have the energy to be too overtly political right now (we’re all on overload at this point), do yourself and the musical world a favor and buy some music. Schroeder would understand, and approve.

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