A Meditation On Guitars, DVD Players, And Multi-Use Devices

by , Aug 30, 2012, 12:34 PM
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This isn’t so much a column, I suppose, as it is a meditation. It’s the kind of column -- er, meditation –--that I write when I’ve been spending the week on Cape Cod, alone with my daughter, strolling out at low tide against a limitless sky, and, where the only tweeting is coming from actual, physical birds.

To be perfectly honest, because of the ubiquity of devices -- and the ubiquity of work -- it’s been a working vacation. Once Irina is in bed, I fire up the mobile hotspot on my smartphone and start emailing. But, then, once that’s done, I switch on a device that is quite singular; singular, literally, because it only does one thing: it plays DVDs.

(Now you could ask yourself why I don’t just play DVDs on my laptop, but right now that’s an impossibility that I’m attributing to the Great MacBook Crash of 2012. In addition to having destroyed its first hard drive well before its time last week, I discovered the other night that my MacBook now gleefully spits out DVDs.)

Which leads me back to our little Panasonic DVD player. I’ve been watching “It Might Get Loud” on it, one of many movies I’ve missed watching on so many other nights when I’ve spent too much time staring at more capable screens: screens that can word-process, stream, post, calculate. Watching that movie -- which is about a meeting of the guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White -- has probably also informed this meditation, since it has the underlying theme of technology’s influence on the guitar.

With the DVD player, this is what I do: I press the “play” button, and the device plays the DVD. That’s all. Since so many of my days (and yours, I assume) are a carefully choreographed shift from smartphone to laptop to iPad and back, from emailing to writing to tweeting to texting to streaming, it is profoundly weird to find myself at the end of the day with this low IQ device in my lap -- a device so backward that the only imprimatur I can put upon it is to rewind, fast-forward, play, stop, eject. I can’t use it to manipulate the movie’s visuals, or to tell people whether I like the movie, or communicate what kind of wine I’m drinking while I watch it. If I touch its screen, absolutely nothing happens. It’s kind of refreshing, while also offputting.

So what does any of this have to do with social media? I’ve been asking that question myself. But where all of this overlaps is that virtually nothing does just one thing anymore, an idea that we should remember about social, but also about our encounters with technology as both marketers and consumers.

It used to be that content-producing platforms, from blogs to videos, were controlled by media companies, marketers and agencies. The last few years have blown open the doors on who gets to create and distribute -- and of course, what those creations say.  One-way production and distribution, from the powers-that-be to the masses, have broken out into communications so varied in their content, direction and distribution that, when the powers-that-be try to pretend that their outsized clout still exists -- as the International Olympic Committee did with Olympic athletes, in trying to clamp down on their social media usage -- it seems not just silly, but as antiquated as a device that only does one thing.

And, our insistence on devices doing more than one thing has also led us, as consumers, to cobble together solutions to what is perceived as the singularity problem when we use a limited device. Many of our TVs could be regarded as dumb, as all they do is play video. It’s we, the consumers, who have decided that to really experience TV, we need to watch with our other devices close at hand, to participate in social media simultaneously. Do you have any doubt that by the time of the next Summer Olympics, this two-device experience will be collapsed into one?

And as for the movie? Jimmy Page’s double-neck guitar -- which later became a signpost for all that had gone wrong with good old-fashioned rock and roll -- was created so that he could play the two different types of guitar parts of “Stairway to Heaven” on stage. “It became a necessity relative to the song if you like,” he explains to Edge and White. His guitar did more than one thing.

The Edge? He uses so many different guitars and sound effects that it’s hard to even quantify. Suffice to say, he’s made his guitars so they can do more than one thing.

Jack White? He opens the movie by making a guitar out of a coke bottle, a piece of wood and some wires. How does this connect to the rest of this meditation? I guess it’s the first guitar that you can also drink out of

Enjoy the rest of your summer. I promise to be less metaphysical in my next column.

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