Independence at the Intersection
April 18th was National Record Store Day, and May 2nd is Independent Bookstore Day, both coalescing around the currency of something central to the American consciousness; independence. But what is the nature of their independence, such that it’s worth mentioning? Or to put it another way, what are they independent of?
In part the answer is self-evident: they are independent of technological juggernauts with immense commercial power, like Amazon and iTunes. As such, they also provide alternative commercial space that preserves a number of other critical features of American life, such as diversity, competition and choice. But as the tech giants gather more power—rendering competition and choice more tenuous—independent book and record stores serve much more than commercial interests. They maintain what Hannah Arendt called spaces of appearance.
As stated in a brief write up for Independent Bookstore Day, posted by Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA,
Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent.
Conversely, the technological hegemons offer the promise of digitized and automated “convenience,” where presumably the web of algorithmic influence will satisfy your curiosity and natural instinct to seek a lower price. In the case of Amazon, power bordering on monopoly has presented book and music lovers (myself included) with an equally enticing and disturbing dilemma; get five books or CDs shipped to your door for the price of three, or pay more for less somewhere else.
Of course, convenience and cheap are powerful commercial devices, but should our economic behavior be strictly governed by the saving of money and the pursuit of convenience? If so, are we doing anything more than racing to the bottom while simultaneously replacing the possibility of community with ethereal algorithmic networks?
As the tech-wonks march to the drum of progress, they tend to quickly cast such questions aside. But they do so against the idea—articulated by the great architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable—that “to lose history is to lose place, identity, meaning.” Moreover, she argued in favor of some form of continuity, which “can be achieved only if the past is integrated into the contemporary context in a way that works and matters.” Surely, this must be so in commercial activity, as it is in the buildings housing it.
On a recent visit (which nowadays feels more like a pilgrimage) to Seminary Coop and 57th Street Books in Chicago, this delicate search for continuity was clearly displayed in the marvelous architectural and commercial spaces that simultaneously encourage economic activity and human interaction. Where Seminary Coop has moved to a much brighter space than the romantic basement it once occupied, its post-modern interior design and labyrinth like layout inspire the same curiosity. With smart staff selections wrapping around colorful displays at every turn, wondering and wandering through the stacks was as inviting to me and my wife as it was to our children.
At 57th Street, you move from the postmodern into the tight quarters of a walk-down-garden-level-space, with low ceilings and exposed brick, reminding you that the physical essence of building construction and occupation is still, primarily, by and for people. And where Seminary Coop offered our youngsters an ideal space to play hide and seek, 57th provided a safe haven for their particular interests, trading Heidegger and Houellebecq for Harold and the Purple Crayon, in one of the most lovely children’s sections you’ll find around the country.
Thinking on the significance of these retail spaces—as compared to their digital competitors—I was reminded of the tech-critic Evgeny Morozov’s suggestion that we need to refocus our critical gaze from “drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technology,” and give more attention “to real struggles in the here and now.” Undoubtedly, he’s right; Apple, Amazon and Google (+), aren’t going away. So the question becomes, how do we maintain place, identity and meaning in relationship to quantum leaps in digitized and automated mechanisms that are dramatically altering human behavior?
As I watched my children explore and discover on their own terms—independent of digital assistance, without a screen in their face, or an automated device in their hands—it occurred to me that we certainly need to focus on the struggle of the here and now, but we also need to consider the joy too. After all, what can replace the sheer delight of watching your son or daughter happen upon a title that sparks their imagination, pick it up, walk toward you and say, “Daddy, can you read this to me?”
Surely the tech moguls provide convenience, and their algorithms are so sophisticated they can probably predict a child’s reading, listening, watching and thinking trends for the next two centuries based on their parents browsing and shopping history. But websites and algorithms are limited in their ability to cultivate meaningful human encounters, and there’s no algorithm to explain why thousands of people recently lined up around the country, before dawn, to participate in National Record Store Day.
Of course, in the wake of the digital revolution those who line up can so easily be cast as comically naïve. But is it any less naïve to be in awe of buzzwords like “change,” “innovation,” “prosperity” and “growth,” or ambiguous jargon like “the internet of things”? Is it really so silly to consider the endurance of what's past, or appeal to history in the face of commercial and technological operatives who bathe in the glory of their current demand? Considering, as Sue Halpern recently reported in The New York Review of Books, that the innovators of today are in many cases creating the technological and commercial conditions to eliminate their own work—“banking, logistics, surgery, and medical record keeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines”—at what point will the tech-ops beg to be saved from themselves?
We’ll see, but as Morozov smartly argues, we would be foolish to imagine a future where “boring automated work will be made somewhat less boring by the fact that you’ll have to save the file manually by pressing a button—as opposed to having it backed up for you automatically.” Automatic back up is going to happen, and like manual laborers of the past, surgeons, bankers, marketers and web designers (among others), may be facing a very uncertain future if artificial intelligence can supplant their efforts with more efficient production, sans retirement plans and health insurance.
So here, at the intersection of technology and commerce, we arrive at the inherent political challenges of the future; that is, as long as there are human beings to push buttons there must be something more to the human experience than finding easier (Dash) buttons to push (or not push), that will presumably deliver more efficient guarantees of convenience and pleasure.
Among the books I purchased on my last trip to Seminary Coop (without the assistance of an algorithm, and in conversation with some delightful staff members), one was Elzbieta Matynia’s edited collection, An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. In it, the former Czech and Polish dissidents share rich reflections on their friendship, and the central roles they played in the fall of the Eastern Bloc. But, they also observed first hand a new form of tyranny, stemming from a “one-dimensional pursuit of profit,” and the ubiquitous promise of “better,” that came with the transition to Western political economies. As Havel says, “it is a great illusion to think that ‘better’ suddenly comes and that we find ourselves in a paradise on earth.”
Perhaps then (by accident) independent record and bookstores—because they find themselves at this strange twenty-first century intersection, and their promises are not so utopian—are ideal political venues to reconsider the very nature of independence, and the need to preserve it, both commercially and technologically.
Undoubtedly, tech moguls will continue to promise paradise—according to AT&T, “a smarter planet”—but we humans are very humble and inconvenient creatures, and as Morozov says, “more humane” tech-conglomerates might not necessarily be “a good thing.” Surely, a more humane collection of citizens and consumers, who can still share pleasant and inspiring commercial spaces and participate in the economy of the human experience, would be.