Cloud-based Music Services, Personal Workflow, and the Purpose of Human Existence

I’ve been a big fan of Grooveshark ever since a friend introduced me to it last year. However in recent months three big contenders have appeared, all of whom would like my full patronage of their service only. Amazon, Google, and Apple have arrived, and I am now forced to consider whether it is ultimately convenient to go all-in with one of these, or to spread my music around and try to remember what is stored where. Incidentally, that last one is hardly the obstacle it might seem. At the time of this writing, by my count, I have no less than six physical devices used for music storage, and four cloud-based music storage options. This of course does not count my “legacy” physical media, CDs and USB drives and external hard drives.

It’s a rather complex system, and I don’t doubt that Steve Jobs meant what he said at the most recent WWDC – that managing this is “driving us crazy.” I beg to differ, though – it is not driving me crazy at all.

I have scores of DVDs and Blu-rays, hundreds of volumes of manga, and thousands of books scattered all over my apartment. I have a filing cabinet (a real one, with real physical folders!) full of research material, notes, articles, and personal miscellanea. I have marginalia in a great many of my books, and notes referencing them in as many more. I have multiple domains with associated hosting, passwords, and databases. Contacts, accounts, twitter friends, applications to manage them for daily use and to back them up.

I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no way, ever, that there will be some magical solution to unify all that chaos. To be fair, only a small portion of it is unique to a digital lifestyle – much of the information management would be similarly difficult without any computers at all. The thing is, it’s not a new problem. And in many ways it’s not a problem at all.

Just about the only thing humans are any damned good at is pattern recognition. It defines us, from scientific inquiry to conspiracy theory to seeing Christ in a piece of burnt toast. Our advanced spatial reasoning and recall is tied to this pattern recognition – we can recall the general way in which to arrive at a restaurant a thousand miles away without remembering street names. We can find the one index card we’re looking for in a huge desktop disaster. We can remember virtually anything we’ve learned through long chains of recall and association, one to the other to the answer. We are built to manage information efficiently, and we do.

Remembering where a particular mp3 can be found is no great challenge, even with tens of thousands of files. The same is true of a note pertaining to some line in a lengthy poetic work – the times when we remember such things seemingly without effort are truly remarkable, and they outnumber the failures to an incredible degree.

This of course is not meant to suggest that we should make no effort to organize things, or that we derive joy solely from disordered, poorly organized information. On the contrary, proper organization is essential to managing data and maintaining the all-important associative links that allow us to remember the things that are important to us. Making these things organized, building our own patterns, is a good thing and we enjoy doing it.

It is not, though, something that will be delivered unto us by one or another of the corporations and services above. There is nothing wrong with promising (and delivering) seamless and simple experiences to a consumer, but I believe that the “problem” was strongly overstated at the WWDC. I already have music in Google Music Beta, a few tracks in Amazon’s Cloud Player, and I still primarily use Grooveshark for streaming. I have no doubt that I’ll be trying out Apple’s offering when it is available, as well. I don’t plan to settle for one over the other, and I don’t believe that any of these services is going to make my life any “easier,” even if I were to choose only one.

I don’t want my life to be “easier.” If I did, I certainly would not spend my time worrying about which tracks to keep locally downloaded on my iPhone as opposed to maintained in the cloud, or which albums to purchase from Amazon instead of iTunes. None of that is simple, and none of it contributes to a quiet, contemplative life. I love the complexity of my technological devices, the scattershot storage, the multiply redundant backups, different file architectures, operating systems, game consoles, dev libraries. I could no more call them a headache than I could a chess problem or a difficult passage in translation.

It’s all part of the game, you see. The pledge to keep everything in sync is not evil, but it is both an empty promise and a false dilemma.

We humans, thinking, organizing creatures, shine like gold on the sea of chaos. We don’t always make the disorder, but our essential purpose is to understand it and use it to our advantage. If it wasn’t fun, I don’t imagine we’d be very good at it, and if we were not good at it, we would likely be dust already.

Links of interest:

PCMag’s excellent article on the three big new cloud music services.
Daily Beast article on the iCloud offering
Nyan Cat
Synaptic Plasticity

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