Your media libraries are alive through your engagement with them. Your media libraries link you to myriad unseen other people, about whom you have no awareness at all. Music libraries, streaming video libraries, photo libraries, ebook libraries, libraries of social media transactions... your media libraries are an intimate part of your everyday existence. And they are not yours at all.
Before the nineteenth century, there was only one kind of media library: a library. These were the possessions of the wealthy; visit a stately home and you will find at least one room packed with books on all manner of subjects, often including sheet music and theatrical plays. When paper was the storage medium, libraries were made of books and sorted both by subject and alphabetically. Now that digital bits are the storage medium, libraries are comprised of files and tags (properties assigned to a file such as its name, the attributed author, subject or genre and so forth). With digital file formats for all kinds of data, we have outsourced the act of maintaining a library to corporations, and left to us is merely the scant act of creating an additional index, such as a list of favourites... and even this belongs to the corporation, who is under no obligation to permit you to take a copy of that data.
As a media library cyborg - a composite entity made of a human and a vast computational data network - you have become the marketer's dream. For every media library you use compiles data on you and your media habits that enable it to offer you ‘more of the same’, an attribution constructed from drawing patterns out of the tags and other data that have been derived from your actions. The illusion that you are in complete control of this situation comes from the choices being offered to you at every stage... We sometimes like to tell ourselves we are not swayed by the popular, but we don’t need to be... the media library cyborg has digital slaves working behind the scenes who dutifully position the popular so we might choose it.
In the twentieth century, media libraries in the so-called developed world were uniquely personal. Not the province of the wealthy, everyone had some kind of media library - vinyl records, VHS cassettes, game cartridges, DVDs, photo albums... we were all librarians, and we learned (albeit in differing degrees) the skills and excellences of the library. A vinyl collector has more than a pile of objects: they have a library of creative work that they curated, organised, and can use to ‘travel through time’, to the human context that gives each record its personal meaning. A Netflix or Spotify cyborg outsources much of this to robots, who know exactly when and how often we have watched or listened. It is a perfectly convenient arrangement. But I question whether any aspect of it is virtuous.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #66