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Nick Carr writes a long disagreement with the book, based on my statement that the track is the “natural unit” of music. (Nick does not comment on anything beyond that sentence on page 9.)

Nick is correct. Tracks are clearly not “natural.” The book overall is an argument against there being a natural units and a natural organization of them. I meant the “natural” to be lightly ironic in this case. And he is of course also right that there is value in how albums arrange tracks so that the whole is more than the parts. [Added a few hours later:] But, in the third order of order, we can get not only the Beatles’ way of arranging their White Album, we can also get George Martin’s remix, how Ringo wanted it played , the revelatory way some unknown kid in Akron mixes it up with the Beach Boys, and the original order minus that one song we can’t stand (AKA “Revolution #9”). The miscellaneous isn’t about there being no order. It is about the potential for many, many orders.

So, I don’t agree with the characterization of the argument of the book he derives from this one phrase. I’m disappointed that Nick found this sentence to be a “stopper.”

18 Responses to “Nick Carr thinks it’s wrong, at least up to page 9.”

  1. on 20 May 2007 at 10:22 pmpeterme

    Well, Nick Carr doesn’t really demonstrate anything resembling intellectual depth in his analyses of, well, anything, so I wouldn’t take it too hard.

  2. […] For his part, Weinberger understandably bristles at Carr throwing down the book at such an early stage: Nick Carr thinks it’s wrong, at least up to page 9 […]

  3. on 21 May 2007 at 12:02 amsean coon

    carr is a friggin’ borg.

    i’m on pg. 81 and diggin’ it, david. a lot of neat thoughts and great historical context so far…

  4. on 21 May 2007 at 9:50 amPhil

    Well, “we learned that the natural unit of music is the track” is a very different claim from “we found that using the unit of the track to organise music creates new and unanticipated possibilities”. I’m not sure you can bridge the gap between the two by invoking irony.

    Then there are Nick’s objections to the rest of the paragraph he quoted:

    “For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory.”

    That’s a great story which fits into the EiM worldview, but are you saying that’s how it actually, y’know, happened? Because Nick says not, and he’s got cites and everything.

    Sorry to be snarky, but I hate to see a good question sidestepped.

  5. on 21 May 2007 at 10:40 amDavid Weinberger

    I’m not only invoking irony. I’m invoking context. Nick is quoting from an initial example intended to give a reader a taste of what the miscellaneous is about. As the rest of the passage says, iTunes isn’t even a great example of miscellaneousness. It’s just a familiar one. So, I think I’m within my rights to explain my point by indicating some of the nuance that’s to follow.

    Wrt to the passage taken in isolation, I am happy to learn from Nick that LPs were initially designed to accommodate artistic needs. Very interesting. But it is also the case that bundling tracks onto albums had the economic advantages my passage lists. So, had I known the history that Nick knows and supplies — I am sometimes wrong and often ignorant — I would have said something like, “Although originally designed to accommodate longer classical pieces, the LP became…”

    It seems to me that the larger and more important point remains. It is significant that we can now organize ideas, information, knowledge (and tracks) freely, socially and in multiple ways. EiM aims at exploring and understanding that significance. Most of that exploration occurs after page 9.

  6. on 21 May 2007 at 1:36 pmJon Husband

    I thought his point about the naturalness of the track as a unit was an interesting point.

    I then interpreted his elaboration as essentially a reinforcement of the larger argument you are positing. Some units become the units they are by the stitching together (for whatever reason, but in his example a ‘wholeness” to the experience of a theme) of other units, in this case X tracks on one side of the vinyl gave him a satisfying experience. But others might find that album side more appealing when ingested track by track (at different times) or when one or some of those tracks are clustered together with other music.

    Recorded music is now bits, just like so much other content … and as you note you have offered many examples, assertions and questions that unpack the issues involved in organizing now that there are new and interesting methods available for “constructing” knowledge.

    I’d like to know more about bundling tracks to accommodate artists’ needs. I understand the point, but am not convinced yet.

    Nick did say several times that he was intending to read the rest, but I found it more interesting that his initial caveat, almost the first words off his keyboard, were that he does not agree with you too (or very?) often. I guess he was trying to be controversial, but it’s always useful to be more careful than he appears to have been.

  7. on 21 May 2007 at 2:20 pmDavid Weinberger

    One of the chapters of the book is in fact about the problems posed by the lack of natural units. What’s the unit known as the play “Hamlet”? Which edition? And we might also want to track (and thus re-find and combine) individual lines, all the lines an actor has, scenes and acts (a structure imposed after Shakespeare), the famous quotes, or the footnotes to the Polish translation of a work based on Hamlet. We only have units of meaning, carved by interest, and meaning lacks the stability and fixity of the natural.

  8. on 21 May 2007 at 10:16 pmfp

    I’m still hung up on the circumpolar gull swiving in your previous post.

  9. on 21 May 2007 at 10:21 pmJohn A Arkansawyer

    But, in the third order of order, we can get not only the Beatles’ way of arranging their White Album, we can also get George Martin’s remix, how Ringo wanted it played , the revelatory way some unknown kid in Akron mixes it up with the Beach Boys, and the original order minus that one song we can’t stand (AKA “Revolution #9).

    And here I thought that song no one liked was “Helter Skelter”, which I spent a lot of time playing on jukeboxes to piss people off (and for my own listening enjoyment, because it’s a killer song). Or was my use of the jukebox to isolate that track a way of hearing the song differently?

    No, I don’t think so. My playing the jukebox was a coerced compromise with the market. There was a certain aesthetic pleasure in hearing the song out of context, but the context I was breaking was the surrounding commercial environment, not the White Album.

    Now we have internet-enabled jukeboxes which can spit out any song for a dollar. It’s great for commerce, I suppose, but it takes the joy out of finding a bar where the jukebox is carefully tended. No more requesting of the owner that the limited selection on the jukebox be augmented by adding Sticky Fingers so I’d never be out of reach of “Sway”. No more reading the jukebox to get a sense of what bar I’ve wandered into.

    David, I grant you there are virtues to being able to rework (for instance) the sequence of songs on an LP.

    Listening to This Year’s Modelin the British version (twelve songs, with “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Night Rally”) is certainly different from listening to the American version (eleven songs, with “Radio Radio”), and different in an interesting and enjoyable way. Listening to the CD, which makes a compromise by putting all the thirteen songs in “order”, is not so enjoyable. “Night Rally” and “Radio Radio” are both closers, and both very different songs. “Night Rally” suffers badly in this ordering, and that’s sad.

    (I first knew “Night Rally” from Taking Liberties. It’s odd to hear it followed by something other than country and western.)

    Musicians put a lot of care into track ordering (and set lists!) for a reason, and that ordering should be privileged.

    I’m not an absolutist about the primacy of authorial intent–I’ve acquired a lot of alternative versions over the years–but I suspect we lose more than we gain when it becomes ever easier for listeners to skip over “Revolution #9”. Yes, I’ve skipped that song (though I love it) on occasion, but having it in your ears, and in your face, should be the default, just as the John/Yoko alternation of Milk and Honey should be the default. Doing otherwise strips the songs of their context, aesthetic, cultural, and personal.

    It’s good for sales, though. I give that devil its due.

    There’s a lot more to say about this, but it’s not really germane to your book (which I’m still looking forward to reading). I’ll be putting something up on my own weblog soon, and I’ll track it back in the event there’s interest.

  10. on 22 May 2007 at 8:21 amDavid Weinberger

    I’m not convinced that we lose more than we gain, John. The point about the miscellaneous is that it enables multiple orders. So, if you want to listen to the music the way the musicians want, you certainly are free to. That ordering does indeed have special significance. Order counts! But if you want to skip a song that grates on your nerves, you can. And if others find orderings and juxtapositions that bring out different meanings, they can.

    Yes, reordering strips the songs of their context. But it can provide new context…new meaning. And the old context is there if that’s what you prefer.

    Would you find no value in being able to listen to, say, Keith Richards’ Beatles playlist via an Internet jukebox? Or a playlist of anti-war – or pro-war – songs? Or Noam Chomsky’s favorite rock songs? Or your roommates playlist of favorite arias? Should we not have that freedom? Or are you saying we’d be wise not to avail ourselves of that freedom because we lose the songs’ original context? Or are you bemoaning the change that is upon us, and reminding us that there’s a cost to our new freedom? Or some of or none of the above?

    (BTW, your comment is totally germane to my book. I look forward to your post.)

  11. on 23 May 2007 at 8:58 amNick Carr


    To return to Phil’s question: My fundamental point regarding the album form wasn’t just that it was originally developed for an aesthetic reason (to accommodate longer classical works than 78s could accommodate) – which I agree you could have dealt with in a clause – but that, as it was adapted to other musical forms, it set off an explosion in creativity in popular music. Far from being a constraint on expression – imposed on musicians and listeners by the economic requirements of the physical world – the rigid physical format of the LP actually liberated artistic expression and created a wealth of new choices for listeners. It would be a mistake to assume that the malleable, digital playlist represents an improvement over the rigid, physical LP.


  12. on 23 May 2007 at 9:51 amDavid Weinberger


    First, thanks for the contribution, here and on your site.

    Since playlists give us both the artist’s expression plus the possibility of many other expressions – some reflecting mere personal taste, some exploring deeply the meaning between various tracks – I don’t think it’s a mistake to assume that the playlist is an improvement.

    Let me put this differently: If the ability of artists to add value and meaning to their work went up once they were able to stipulate a play order, how much more value and meaning is created when others are given the same ability? Not everyone is going to be good at this, but some are.

    And on a small point, Nick: In the book I do not “assume” that the playlist is an improvement. The rest of the book is an attempt to show that our ability to fluidly order and re-order ideas, information and knowledge is (a) new and (b) significant. And, yes, overall (c) I do think it’s good thing for business, culture, science, education. But, then, I’m just a happy fella :)

    Nick, I truly hope you weren’t so turned off by the passage about iTunes that you were unable to read any further. I look forward to being taken to task by you about the rest of the book…

  13. on 23 May 2007 at 9:53 amDavid Weinberger

    It will perhaps not be a surprise that I very much liked what Media Influencer (Adriana Lukas) has to say about this discussion.

  14. on 23 May 2007 at 11:11 amSeth Finkelstein

    David, let me break my New Year’s Resolution again, since I’ve been active in the other threads, and say something of my own:

    I know writing is hard work, and congrats on finishing the book, on a personal level. But …

    What bothers me is the structure, as shown here, of a constant commercial for Internet evangelism: “[blather][patter][hype], so Old Media BAD, New Media GOOD” (for “BAD”, read “constraining”, for “GOOD”, read “liberating”).

    When anyone points out the “[blather][patter][hype]”, you have options of, e.g.:

    1) Misunderstand them
    2) Say “But still, I believe Old Media BAD, New Media GOOD” – ignoring the objection that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise
    3) Apply even MORE “[blather][patter][hype]” – it’s about philosophy, it’s about Aristotle, it’s about anything *other* than being accurate in the reasoning

    Here, you had a pitch to make about iTunes and unbundling – and how you got there was to tell a story that was *wrong*. When it’s pointed out to you that the story is wrong, in fact almost backwards from what really happened, your defense is that, had you known it, you would have told a better story (“had I known the history … I would have said something like”)! Umm, OK, but that really seems to indicate that it’s just a manipulative component in service of your primary goal of the sales-pitch.

    The questions about win/lose is a complex one, and there’s a trivial argument that more is better. It isn’t always automatically better, if bad drives out good. And there are deep mathematical phenomena where increasing options can lead to less performance overall. But it’s impossible to have a rational argument if reasoning is subservient to evangelization (or, inversely, fogeyism).

    What seems to make the book a marketing brochure, rather than a philosophical reflection (even popular philosophy), is that your business constraints won’t allow you to grant anything against the business interest. You can refute this by pointing me to the passage where you are most critical – where you say : this is *not* as good as what went before, we are losing this, the effects are negative (note people like Keen make their living by being the mirror-image, by denying we gain anything, which is also unfair).

    And serious question: At what point would a blogger be justified in writing: “I’ve given this book a chance, but what I’ve read of it seems like it’s full of constant commercials for the author’s particular brand of net-gurudom, so I didn’t find it worth going further.”?

  15. on 24 May 2007 at 12:39 amBrian H

    Speaking of bad driving out good, (Gresham’s Law) I give you — C-Rap!


    As to the general discussion, the alternative to disorder is obviously datorder. Or maybe an udderorder.

    So to speak.

  16. on 08 Jul 2007 at 10:59 amDino

    Nick is 100% wrong. The physical limitations of the 78 necessitated (due to ECONOMIC and DISTRIBUTION reasons) a move to the LP. So one physical limitation led to another. Isn’t that pretty much your point David?! It may have had some positive results, but it was still driven by analogue limitations.

    The SONG is definitely the natural unit, plain and simple. To Nick’s point, any margins (set arbitrarily) can inspire creativity. No one is arguing that. But in this case, the margins were defined and set by physical demands, which, again, is your point. There is absolutely nothing inherent

    I just recently picked up the book, but if those are the kinds of arguments you have to defend the book against, I feel for you.

  17. on 18 Jul 2007 at 10:39 amTim

    Grouping things together for a purpose is what we do. Authors write book, musicians create music, editors puts news together, producer puts sense/song together, librarians put books to places. The outcome of this process is not physical while its delivery vehicles might be, at least for now, if it has a value to others.

    Being physical might limit where you could put a thing, but it has nothing to do with how many ways we could categorize things. The Internet just make it simple and obvious, that’s all.

    Song is a natural unit, so is an album (a group of songs). In fact all beings are natural units. In any case, an album is more than a list, and it is a natural unit worth being categorized.

    I guess my point is, a group is ALWAYS larger than the simple sum of the things within the group, and EVERYTHING is a group.

  18. on 18 Apr 2008 at 8:17 amLoretta Dyer

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