Bulleting “The Organized Mind”—Vinyl Record Care (Redux)

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Welcome back to my multi-part blog series wherein I will briefly discuss bullet points taken from Daniel Levitin’s 2014 book entitled The Organized Mind—Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. In this installment we will look at a topic I have looked at in the past: The Care and Feeding of Vinyl Records. When I wrote The Care and Feeding of Vinyl Records back in August of 2013, I thought to myself, “This blog series is a stretch, it’s out there … what possible significance could an old vinyl record collection have?” Even though I had some hesitation I still felt that the passing of vinyl record collections in favor of digital MP3 music files was significant. Well, it turns out that I am not alone in this opinion. In his book The Organized Mind, social psychologist Daniel Levitin makes the same connection. As an example, Levitin observes, “Because record albums had to be purchased one by one [by traveling to a music store], because they were relatively expensive and took up space, music lovers compiled such libraries deliberately, with thought and planning [and care].” Simply, record collections were deliberate, required effort, and said something about the person doing the collecting. According to Levitin’s research, being deliberate, effortful, selective, and discerning form a set of integrated processes that help to organize the mind and the various brain centers that give rise to mind.

As I wrote about earlier, record collections take up actual space. My record collection takes up about six feet of shelf space. And records do require care. If you mistreat a vinyl album your listening experience will be diminished by a never-ending parade of skips, pops, scratch noises, and hisses. MP3 files do not exist in the so-called real world and do not require any care. Sure, MP3 files can be erased, however, with the advent of cloud services this possibility is greatly reduced. “[A] thing that has been lost with digitization and free information is an appreciation for the objects in a collection,” writes Levitin. He continues thus: “A person’s music library was once, not so long ago, a collection to admire, possibly envy, and a way to learn something about its owner.” With music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple’s new Apple Music, all of the “work” of acquiring and maintaining a music collection has been removed. But as Levitin makes clear, this “work”—being deliberate, effortful, selective, discerning, and caring—serves to organize the mind, to integrate the various brain centers. It is also the work that helps us to develop our Executive Function skills. This is why psychologists (like Levitin) and social critics (like Nicholas Carr) are sounding the alarm: The Internet in specific and the digital world in general are turning our brains into proverbial ninety eight pound weaklings who get very little cognitive exercise.

Levitin makes a strong case for returning to the days of gathering together actual objects to form a collection (the way museums still do). Here’s how Levitin describes the days of personal record collections:

We educated ourselves about musical artists so that we could become more careful consumers. The costs of making a mistake encouraged us to think carefully before adding a clunker to the collection. High School and college students would look at a new friend’s record collection and wander through it, allowing themselves a glimpse of their new friend’s musical tastes and the musical paths that he or she presumably crossed to acquire this particular collection of music.

The days of record collecting are over (although vinyl records are making a bit of a comeback). “Now we download songs we’ve heard of, and might not enjoy, if iTunes happens to stumble upon them in shuffle mode,” writes Levitin, “but the cost of making a mistake has been rendered negligible.” Here’s Levitin’s “take home” statement: “[James] Gleick [who wrote The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood] conceptualizes the issue this way: There used to be a line between what one possessed and what one did not. This distinction no longer exists.” Looked at from a psychodynamic perspective, when we no longer possess—when we no longer create a “mine–not mine” boundary—we erode the “self–other” boundary. Rather than possess we now Uber or rent everything. Even though it is tough for parents to hear their two-year-old continually shouting “no” or “mine,” this is a time for celebration because this young child is engaged in the developmental process of establishing his or her self. As Levitin points out, this self process extends into the realm of “in my collection–not in my collection.” In essence, we are now allowing the various recommendation algorithms that drive music streaming services to tell us what’s in our digital music collection and what is not. We have turned our selves over to suggestion algorithms. The same applies to Amazon’s recommendation algorithms. “[O]f course this is a global information problem not confined to music,” reveals Levitin. He continues, “How do I decide what film to watch, what book to read, what news to keep up with? The twenty-first century’s information problem is one of selection.” Here’s Levitin’s “bottom line”: “Selection becomes impossible.”

In an earlier section of his book Levitin talks about the lost art of writing and sending personal notes. Why? Like with album collecting, sending a personal note requires effort, discernment, and investment. “Before email,” writes Levitin, “if you wanted to write to someone, you had to invest some effort in it.” He continues thus:

You’d sit down with pen and paper, or at a typewriter, and carefully compose a message. There wasn’t anything about the medium that lent itself to dashing off quick notes without giving them much thought, partly because of the ritual involved, and the time it took to write a note, find and address an envelope, add postage, and walk the letter to a mailbox. … Because of e-mail’s immediacy, most of us give little thought to typing up any little thing that pops in our heads and hitting the send button.

The above situation has only gotten worse with such things as sending texts and tweets. Even punctuation, grammar, and sentence construction has been effectively thrown out the window. And there is a method to this madness. One of the central goals of postmodernism (a topic that Levitin takes up and I’ll cover in another post) is to upend all of the processes associated with such things as purposeful album collecting, purposeful note sending, and purposeful fiction reading (talked about in the previous post). Writing in his 2010 book entitled What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr tells us that “in line with the fashionable postmodern theories of the [1980s] … hypertext would overthrow the patriarchal authority of the author and shift power to the reader. It would be technological liberation.” Unfortunately technological liberation is also liberating us from opportunities to develop a strong sense of self expressed by an organized and integrated mind. This brings me to the following irony, which I will end on.

In a post back in September, I wrote about how boys and men were being stiffed (again). The “stiffed” frame comes from Susan Faludi’s 1999 book entitled “Stiffed.” Christina Hoff Sommers, in her 2001 book entitled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men,  reframes “stiffed” as “shortchanged.” According to Sommers, liberal feminists would have us believe that boys and men are being stiffed because they are being kept from the influence of girls and women. Using Sommers reframe, boys and men are being shortchanged because they have been prematurely ripped from their mother’s bosom. Part of the stiffed or shortchanged frame is to sell us the idea that boys and men should take more responsibility for care of the home. In specific, boys and men should take on more housework. This led me to ask back in September, “If liberal feminists wish us to believe that child and house care is demeaning, enslaving, and oppressive, why then do they wish that more men be willing to take on these forms of care? Why would men move into areas that women are leaving in droves?” Another way to look at this issue of care is to ask, “How can any of us expect young people—both males and females—to take on care of any kind when the advocates of postmodernism are liberating us from the hard work that would allow us to develop good care skills?” You cannot be for liberation from the hard work of developing care skills and for caring at the same time. Will not happen. If liberal feminists are truly concerned about care patterns, then they should be concerned with the negative effects advocating for digital liberation may bring. [1] Liberal feminists have succeeded in creating a “cake and eat it too” scenario. If you wish to improve the status of care, encourage kids to dampen their thirst for hypertext in favor of reading fiction (see previous post). Have them start and care for a record collection and dampen their thirst for listening to Spotify or Pandora. If you have a record collection in the closet, bring it out and put some vinyl on the old Victrola. Have them write personal notes to family and friends and give up texting and tweeting for a few days each week.

Developing care skills goes along with developing Executive Function skills. And the scientific community is clear: developing EF skills takes hard work. The digital world largely keeps us from that hard work. The digital world is the world of instant gratification. Rather than sending an IM or instant message, encourage kids to send a HWM: hard work message (namely, a personal note by good old snail mail).


[1] As I was polishing this post, I spied a Time Magazine cover that I found most interesting. The cover had a title along the lines of Help … My Parents Are Millennials. The cover image profiled a toddler in a very high tech stroller looking rather confused. From the side of the image emerged two arms. These undoubtedly were the arms of the toddler’s parents reaching in. But rather than reaching in with a bottle or pacifier (which would be so modern), the arms were reaching in with a smartphone and a tablet (which are so postmodern). I haven’t read the article yet, but the cover seems to imply that millennial parenting marks the transition from biological care (e.g., attachment to biological entities) to mechanical care (e.g., attachment to mechanical entities). I wonder how much Siri charges for babysitting. Now that self-driving cars and mechanical sex surrogates are a reality, are mechanical babysitters that far off? This is a topic that has not escaped the attention of attachment researchers. As an example, Noel and Amanda Sharkey wrote a 2010 article entitled The Crying Shame of Robot Nannies: An Ethical Appraisal (contact the Foundation for the reference). I agree with the Sharkeys: we should be concerned with the ethical implications of turning care over to mechanical systems like Facebook, smartphones, tablets, and suggestion algorithms. So, turning care over to mechanical systems is not just a liberal issue; it’s an issue that will affect all of us liberal and conservative alike.