more than the sum of its parts
I don’t recall where I picked up this link, but it’s a discussion of media (all media) and its future. The major point is, presented in analogy, that a music album (frex) is a molecule, and songs are atoms, and we as a society are increasingly interested in atomic rather than molecular content; we download individual songs, make our own mix CDs, and even get to sub-atomic levels in creating mashups. Nor does this apply only to music.
Here are some of the issues I have with the post and its comment threads (one of which says, “Most consumers are just playing with the atoms and discarding them, and any art form that expects the consumer to understand a complex molecular structure, whether created from whole cloth or from other atoms, is in trouble”). First of all, I don’t think this trend is inherently going to keep on as it has been. Personal experience prompts this feeling; I like listening to my music on shuffle, but after a while of doing that I found myself craving whole albums again. Now, I can’t assume everybody’s like me, of course, but I have a gut feeling that playing around with atomic content is something we’re doing a lot of because suddenly technology’s making it easier; the novelty, however, may well wear off, and then the atomic approach will become one of many ways we interact with media, instead of the Tsunami of the Future that will wipe out all others.
Second, it sort of carries the assumption that the molecules are no more than the sum of their parts. “They don’t want to buy a whole album just for that catchy radio single” — true enough, but the fault then lies with the way we market music, promoting one good song on the radio while the rest of the album may be mediocre crap. I wouldn’t want to buy the album then, either. But a good album is well worth buying, because not only does it have more worth listening to than that one catchy song, it has more than its entire collection of songs; it is an artistic work in its own right, with carefully chosen beginning and ending tunes, a flow from one song to another, a journey that lasts more than four minutes. Atomic media can only offer you small experiences — powerful ones, perhaps, but limited in their complexity. And I think we enjoy complexity enough for molecular media to still have their place.
Finally, look at this on a more extreme level. The quarks of writing, if you will, are letters and punctuation, or words if you don’t want to go that far. Anybody can mix and match them to their heart’s content. But not everybody can do it well, and so we pay writers (and musicians, and TV show creators, and so on) to put them together for us, to present us with something compelling. I make characters soundtracks (i.e. themed mix CDs), but I don’t listen to them as often as I do to professional albums, and I sure as hell don’t write my own music. I could be vaguely interested in the notion of a “mix anthology,” collecting my favorite short stories in one place, but a professional editor can probably do a better job of that than I can. A mix anthology from a friend would interest me more as an expression of my friend and/or our relationship, but a professional anthology would interest me more as literature. I don’t mean that to slam my friends, of course; could well be that one or more would manifest a heretofore unsuspected talent for that sort of thing, and produce a work of sheer brilliance. But on the whole, I consume anthologies (books, albums, movies, etc) looking for someone else, someone who has spent a lot of time learning how to do it well, to present me with an experience. The more I chop up their media, the more I’m undoing their work, losing the crafted connections that made the whole more than the sum of its parts. That can be fun, and it can produce amazing new works, but I don’t think we’re going to forswear molecules for atoms any time soon.