Plate Spinning: The Information and Uncertainty of our Music Libraries

At the beginning of “It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content,” poet Kenneth Goldsmith recounts an experience of finding music on his computer:

“Recently I was in the mood to listen to the music of the American mid-century composer Morton Feldman. I dug into my MP3 drive, found my Feldman folder and opened it up. Amongst the various folders in the directory was one labeled ‘The Complete Works of Morton Feldman.’ I was surprised to see it there; I didn’t remember downloading it. Curious, I looked at its date — 2009 — and realized that I must’ve grabbed it during the heyday of MP3 sharity blogs. I opened it to find 79 albums as zipped files. I unzipped three of them, listened to part of one, and closed the folder. I haven’t opened it since.”

The squirreling away of music is common practice. What it creates is a music deluge more than a music library. Instead of measuring by pounds we weigh by the ton. Minutes turn to hours turn to days. My library is 9.9 days worth of music and growing. This is not an exception, it is the rule. We engage in keeping enormous storerooms of audio on our laptops.

But then moments of forgetting occur. Like Goldsmith, we find ourselves confused. Some music is left to gather dust after one listen. Other tracks are left unnamed after we burn a CD, leaving numerous songs with the ominous title of “Track 1”. Why does this happen?

John R. Pierce describes this in Symbols, Signals and Noise: The Nature and Process of Communication“In communication theory,” he writes, “we consider a message source, such as a writer or a speaker, which may produce on a given occasion any one of many possible messages. The amount of information conveyed by the message increases as the amount of uncertainty as to what message actually will be produced becomes greater.”

Then he gives an example: “A message which is one out of ten possible messages conveys a smaller amount of information than a message which is one out of a million possible messages.” Sound familiar? The more music we store on our computers, the more uncertainty as to what music we have access to. Uncertainty takes the guise of stories like Goldsmith’s and countless others.

But it is more complicated than that. As Pierce says, more uncertainty is hinged upon more information. That is, more music for our auditory pleasure. And we crave that. Music is hinged on discovery. What new artist can I find? What new album is coming out? Once a semblance of desire takes form, all we need is a click. This cycle of information acquisition keeps spinning.

But lest we forget: uncertainty is wedded to information. And perhaps we don’t forget. Maybe those instances of uncertainty are now routine. It becomes a game of spinning countless plates and knowing that we will forget about many of them. Fortunately, we have machines that will spin those plates for us.

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