d_Revolution #1 ...

march 24, 2005.

In less than no time at all the digital personal audio players, iPod and others, have made the cassette walkman a thing of the past. I noticed - and so did you, I suppose - how walkmans started to disappear from shop windows, and how inside shops the couple of models still available got banned to some shelf in the back, or to a far away corner ... Simultaneously, and all of it rather sudden, they started to pop up all around me. Up front in shops. But also in the metro, on busses, in the streets, around necks, in handbags, in pockets ...

I estimate that about eight out of ten people I see listening to a 'personal stereo' device nowadays are using an mp3 player. Of the remaining two, one uses a portable CD player; and it is only one-in-ten that has her earphones still plugged into a cassette player. (I imagine that as a high school kid at this time and day it takes a pretty strong character to ignore and shrug your shoulders at your peers' sneers in view of the outdated knobs-and-vinyl-tape machine that you're still carrying around ...)


The cassette ... ?
The walkman ... ?
They are h-i-s-t-o-r-y.

I find it utterly fascinating, this development in audio recording. From mechanical(*) (phonograph) via magnetic(**) (tape) to digital(***). [ A development that of course is paralleled in the history of all other keeping of records - of words, of images (photo, film)... nothing specific to audio here, it's a development common to any recording ... ]

(*) In the first, early (pre-mediate) case, the sound literally is carved into wax; its wave-form is physically inscribed there; you can - modulo a magnifying glass or, even better, a microscope - actually see it being held there, within this substance, this object that became the sound's support; which now is its holder. Where sound and holder meet, the noise that comes with each of the sound's play-backs resides: that noise is the support's hold on the sound's inscription (the stronger the hold, the louder the noise); it can be reduced, but it can not be eliminated.

Mechanically inscribed sounds are easy to play back. If you want to have some idea of what's on a vinyl record, even a badly broken one: once you thought of a way to spin the thing (use, preferably, the hole in the middle to pin the (remnants of) the record loosely to a flat surface, and with your hand turn it with more or less constant speed [practice! :-)]), you actually need no more than a needle attached to a paper cone to hear ...


(**) In the second, inter-mediate, case, an electric signal which is analogous to the sound's wave-form, is used to induce a continuous pattern of magnetization on a very long stretched band of plastic tape covered with a magnetizable material; the 'magnetization pattern' is analogous to the electric signal which is analogous to the sound's wave-form. Again, the sound('s analog) is held materially, and there's noise where sound and holder meet.

Here it is far more difficult to 're-sound' a recording. Let's for now forget about how one would be able to recognize 'magnetic tape debris' as the probable support of a sound recording if one is not familiar with the format [ Possible: the form - wound, long, stretched - suggests 'something time-based'; but, as we know, a tape might also contain a video recording; or other data. We have come to use different 'sizes' of tape for different purposes, but the use has never been exclusive; for example, early data-storage for home computers was done on standard audio cassettes. ] for the problem already is: without disposing of a dedicated, and working, playback device, you will need rather specialized skills, technical knowledge and a certain number of electronic/electrical materials to be able to play back the sound stored on (remnants of) magnetic tape. But if you do have working cassette- and reel-to-reel players, even the most worn and deteriorated bits of tape will continue to reveal at least part of their 'secret' to you ...

[ Last sunday, for example, when returning with the kids from a stroll in the park, my son Alec found a bit of tape (#128) when we crossed the avenue de Paris at the pedestrian's crossing near the avenue Antoine Quinson. It's a two-part cross, with two sets of lights, and in the middle of the road a 'safe haven', fenced off with metal bars. The bit of cassette was there, at the foot of one of the fence's bars, wound around a bit of weed. And it looked like it had been sitting there for quite some time: about half of of the tape's covering had disappeared; much of it was blank, transparent, as you may check for yourself in the picture above. There's only a handful of smallish 'brown islands' left. But after unknotting, and the mounting back of this 'debris' onto a cassette, what is left does play; it also is obvious from the start that this is the recording of a symphony orchestra playing, and the couple of audible seconds long fragments suggest that it is a Mahler symphony that's being performed (I think the snippets are from the fifth's 'Adagietto') ... ]

(***) The third - the digital, the mediated (im-mediate) - case, again is fundamentally different. Here it is not the (analogue of the) sound's wave-form that is stored, but a numerical encoding of it. There is - still - a material (magnetic or other) support for this encoding (DAT, MD, hard disk, CD ...), but it is in fact the encoding that forms the real - immaterial - support of the sound. And because of the code's immateriality: ... there is no noise. (Support and sound do not meet, rather: they collapse, merge into the numerical representation).

No noise ... Which implies that broken code leaves no debris ...

I cannot imagine it being totally impossible, but at the time I would not know of any easy way to, for example, recover (parts of) sound files from a bad or broken (audio of other) CD, or drive. [ I guess technically the problem will be related to repairing/accessing data on a broken hard disk. I should try to learn more about this. ] Could one start collecting broken and discarded CD's and mp3-players, like I collect broken and discarded tapes, in order to recover (parts of) the sounds? Except in trivial cases, it seems unlikely that this would be possible without pretty sophisticated technical means, both in terms of software and hardware. First one needs to be able to access the support of the data, in order to then - second step - recover and restore (parts of) the encoded information itself, based upon knowledge of the (possible) encodings that were used originally. (With a drive failure or a CD's physical crashing, the data - which are the sound's true support - invariably get damaged, are beheaded, become un-formatted ... And a beheaded code is no longer a code ... it's just a number. The code got erased ... without supplementary information it is impossible to know what - if anything - is being represented by the number(s) ...)


Note how each of the steps - from pre-mediate to inter-mediate, and from inter-mediate to im-mediate - comes with a dramatic increase in both ease of duplication of the records, and transience of their individual copies ... I think that for simplicity's and argument's sake, it is gratifying to emphasize this: lost or broken digital (sound) data are simply that - lost. And that what was encoded disappeared.

And indeed there is something here, which may seem exaggerated (because it is frightening), but at heart is essentially correct (anyone that had his or her PC's harddisk-without-backup crash has to agree): the more and completely (a) culture becomes 'digitalized', the easier it will be to wipe it out. [ You may pose it as a definition: "A fully digitalized culture/society is one able to disappear without leaving a trace". ] Because a such culture would be a 'culture without noise', and all that can remain (can be traced) of a culture past is necessarily contained within its 'noise' ... And yes, a culture that might just disappear without leaving a trace, is also prone to 'control', 'modification' and 'manipulation' - without trace ... One should take some time to just think about this ...

I did. But, hey! I'm an optimist. So I imagined how each of these barren(?) 'digitalized - phaze III - societies' came with its - continuously oppressed, but flourishing, and always going strong - analog underground, printing and distributing book-on-paper-like records, keeping and producing magnetic audio tapes and vinyl records, drawing and painting on canvas, taking and archiving 'chemical style' pictures ... You get the idea ... (it's not that I am nostalgic about or would want to idealize the 'old media'; don't get me wrong: I luv' me mp3s ... also, I do not at all want to suggest that a society or culture's eventual 'disappearing without a trace' is necessarily something bad, something to be avoided at all costs; I'm not sure, really) ... [ Someone must already have written some social/science-fiction along these lines? If so I'd love to have some pointers! ] ...

I did. Because last monday, march 21th, it was precisely three years ago that I halted and bent down to collect my first bit of thrown away cassette tape, along the tramway track in Bobigny.

I did. For I guess I could hardly have picked a better moment in time to start collecting this debris ...

[ ... ]

[ More or less related: Atom Egoyan - 'Memories are made of hiss' (The Guardian, feb. 2002) :: Tobias C. van Veen - '[Prediction #1] Treacherous Computing' (jan. 2005) ]

[ Earlier vaguely related SB-entry: Found Tapes for Spies; next vaguely related SB-entry: Low-fi: the new Readymades ]

[ modified - april 13th, 2005 ]

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d_Revolution #2 ...

june 09, 2008.

A recent blog-post by dutch writer Dirk van Weelden made me realize how observations similar to the ones above pertain not only to the carriers of all types of information, but also to the tools that one uses to store it (to put it down, to in-scribe it).

"Mechanical machines are bodies," Dirk writes. "They share with us, humans, the tragic aspects of being a body. The strain of competing with gravity, having joints that wear out, getting tired, bent. Humans can recover from injury, mechanisms can get repaired. Humans and mechanical machines can both function even while being less than perfect; old, tired or even half destroyed." On the other hand, he continues, "[d]igital machines hardly ever get repaired. They perform and when they don't they are replaced and recycled."

In his blog-entry van Weelden is referring specifically to tools used for writing. The mechanical (analog) machines used for writing are typewriters; the digital ones are our all-purpose computing machines that, among many other things, also may execute word processing software.

Though of course similar observations could be (and surely have been) brought forward by photographers with respect to camera's and dark rooms and by musicians using sound recording equipment as a compositional tool, arguably far more often so than in any other form of expression / art, a writer is likely to entertain a mystico-magical relation with the tools of his trade: the tool is his of her fetish. Examples abound of writers that exclusively worked with a certain type of pen and a certain kind of ink, who used a certain brand of paper, or always wrote in the same type of notebook; also in a time and age that most of professional writing was already done by means of a machine: the typewriter.

Within these pages I see myself as a 'digi-scribbler'. I actually 'compose' these blog-posts, along with their mark-up, directly within the code-window of an HTML editor running on my laptop. I have come to rely upon the possibility of the endless (and painless) re-working of phrases (and their typography), so much so, that even though every now and then I still scribble some lines of ideas or thoughts with a pen or a pencil onto a piece of paper, I consider such 'proto-digital' writing as merely approximate, awaiting its final 'molding' in my code-editor ... Most of the sentences you read here have gone through a great many re-workings - mostly minor, sometimes major - before in the end they are 'posted'.

But I do know the pleasure of typing on a mechanical - an analog - writing machine ... One of the joys of my youth was the secondhand portable typewriter that my father got me as a birthday present - I must have been about ten years old. I have been in the possession of some mechanical writing machine ever since, and still am the proud owner of a _very_ heavy Olivetti (it must date from the 1950's), which I acquired about twenty years ago, and that I used to hammer, sign by sign, the text of my master's thesis (in mathematics) onto white sheets of paper. Around the same time, alone together with my Olivetti firmly and proudly posed upon the pink painted wooden surface of the table in my living room, in the course of one single long winter night, I laid down page after page of the Urtext of what became De Purgatorio ...

Over the years, however, my way of working, of writing, adapted itself to the advancing word processing technologies. As a researcher in mathematics, starting with my doctoral work, I coded/wrote all of my articles in LaTeX, and many fruitful ideas took shape along with their thoughtful coding and re-coding. In those years I witnessed the birth of what one might call digi-scientists, a species of researchers that grew up with these new digital typesetting tools, and developed a corresponding way and rhythm of working. A friend and former colleague, researching in functional analysis, used to arrive at our office in the morning, sit down at his desk, switch on his computer, start up his LaTeX, and type "Theorem :" ... In the course of the working day he took it from there, typesetting all of his math directly in LaTeX.

Were I to write these posts on a mechanical typewriter, I guess that in the end, content-wise, they would not turn out to be that much different. But I'd have to drastically adapt my way - my rhythm - of working, of writing, as the continuous flip-flop and permutation of bits and pieces of phrases that I got so much used to, simply will be too tiresome and wasteful on a mechanical machine ... I would surely, willy-nilly, gradually re-adapt my way of working to the analog machine. The tool would change the ways and the rhythms of my writing ...

The nostalgia that van Weelden and others express with respect to mechanical typewriters seems to be foremost caused by a sense of 'loss' of the very specific physicality inherent in their use. It is a nostalgia for a certain way, a certain rhythm, of working. Thus I can imagine that one might long, to the point of a cannot-do-without, for the specific touch of a such machine, for the effort necessary to overcome the resistance of many an old typewriter's keys. Which, btw, is at the heart of its mechanics and therefore is the sole characteristic of a typewriter that can not be emulated on your PC - without adding some sort of ... mechanics ...

Different as it may be, also the use of digital word processing tools comes with its proper 'physicality'. Whether digital or analog, there - obviously - is always some sort of inter-active relationship between 'me' (man) and 'it' (machine). Whenever one sits down to use a machine, one enters into a physical relation. But from the one to the other this relationship will differ. Just to give an example: used as I am to the specific constellation of my laptop posed on a desk or table and me looking down at its screen, I have come to find it nearly impossible to write (blog-entries) using a desk-top machine with a large screen that I have to look up to ...

So in a way I can relate to Dirk's and others' sentiments regarding tools and their 'feel'. And even though I would hardly consider - except, occasionally, for conceptual reasons - a return to the use of analog tape-equipment for my day-to-day sound editing work, I did choose to switch from the almighty ProTools to (an old version of) the very basic one stereo track no-bullshit Sound Studio. Because I want to be limited in my possible choices and actions. And because the rhythm of working that a such one-track editor imposes, the ritual it evokes and that it calls for, suits me. Now maybe it suits me, because it is close to the rhythm of working that I know and got used to when I first began working with sound; which was with analog editing equipment. That is a possibility. Maybe it is a likely one. But for me no reason to feel nostalgic for analog equipment ... (However beautiful it may be ... ;-) )

Dirk van Weelden is an analog writer. He still - or rather: again - writes texts and books on a mechanical typewriter. Because, like all of us, he may choose to do so. Because that way of writing for him comes with a rhythm that suits him.

Sometime in the autumn of last year (2007) in Amsterdam I assisted at the festive presentation of Dirk's latest novel: "Het Middel". As part of the celebration Dirk also unveiled that as of that moment he would be present on the web: then and there he launched his very own WordPress blog. Because I know Dirk, and was curious to find out what it would all be about, I subscribed to its feed ... Of course a weblog is very much a digital writer's thing, and so it probably was but natural that Dirk's blog turned out a living proof of him not being a digi-writer, and some of the earlier entries seemed to have been written by someone who for the very first time was spending some time on the web. Now there is nothing whatever wrong with that, mind you, and also most digi-writers had to pass that stage; but it quickly made me loose interest. Which moreover, in view of the very sporadic and from one to the next mostly unrelated postings, also seemed to be the case for Dirk himself ...

typecastUntil recently, that is, when he discovered how to be an analog writer and a blogger at the same time... His recent postings introduced me to the fine art of typecasting ...
Of course the use of images in order to place texts on web sites is an old and much applied technique. Often and rightfully scolded for reasons of - for instance - utter lack of accessibility (which includes 'invisibility' for search engines), it currently is no longer done to include relevant textual content on a website in the form of an image. That is 'politically' not correct, say ...
But of course Dirk's is a writer's blog, and he may chose to do on his own site as ever he likes. So why not let out the analog writer inside? Thus he wrote the past couple of his blog-entries on a typewriter. He then scanned the typewritten pages, and posted the images ...
Though over the years I came across several artist's web sites that were 'images only', I do not know of (or can't remember) any (written text) blog that consists solely (or mainly) in such typecasts ... From the links that accompany Dirk's recent postings I gather that there are some sites dedicated to the idea of typecasting. With few exceptions, however, these seem to use the format principally to discuss the format. What I'd like to see now is bloggers using the typecast-format to write and report on subjects that interest me.
I do find the idea/concept very attractive.
Also, typecasts are easy to select, collect and mail on to your friends.
You may print them out, and paste them on walls ...
Fold them and fly them ... They're transdigital ... That's a good word.
So I do hope that Dirk will persist.
What other than a such transdigital blog could be closer to an analog soul?

# .264.

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