ROCK, PAPER, SNIFFERS by Jaimie Vernon

We were promised a paperless society by the technology gurus of the 1980s. It’s been over 30 years since IBM launched the concept of the desktop computer. It was going to revolutionize personal communication – even before the advent of the internet – and they were right. But that vision was gratuitously optimistic. I worked for the company that built the wiring systems for these beasts…back when they were the size of a gas furnace and ran on steam power and 47″ floppy discs containing 64k of memory. We were contracted to build about 150 wiring systems a week for their machines. I went to head office in Don Mills where they had motorized robotic pool tables shuttling CPU’s and 70 lb. Scare-o-Vision cathode driven monitors through a warehouse larger than Cape Canaveral. They were moving 10 of these units at a time…and over the course of a year they were selling less than 50,000 of these.

Why would anyone want a computer – a glorified calculator and word processing hybrid – the critics asked? And sure enough, the North American consumer market wasn’t ready. IBM transferred its manufacturing to Scotland (effectively eliminating my job) and imported the finished systems back to North America for the elite business class who didn’t mind the $1499 price tag for a radiation spewing monochrome typewriter. IBM eventually abandoned their own investment in the PC market and went back to building systems that could run NORAD or Wall Street. Wosniak, Jobs, and Gates would dream bigger, invest harder and the rest, as they say is primordial.

But we’ve still got paper. The machines and their ever increasing vision of gaining self-awareness have yet to resolve the issue of permanent memory. Of information storage that can never be denigrated or destroyed. Oh, there are companies that will permanently vault your data in vaults beneath Cheyenne Mountain or the Salt Flats of Nevada, but that expensive real estate. The future professes a solidarity of sharing globally in ‘The Cloud’ – a virtual world where access to your important personal or business documents is instantly at your finger tips no matter where you are in the known universe.  Then why are we still cutting down trees and bleaching parchment for $4.99 a ream at Staples Business Centres?

Because technology still hasn’t managed to simulate the tactile and organic need that humans have for storing one’s historical records so that come the I.T. Armageddon, we will still have the Gutenberg Bible or the Dead Sea Scrolls to pass along to our fore-children. Oral histories became written histories when we realized that fire pits do more than cook food and cause our drunken brethren to sing bad campfire songs. It produces carbon in the form of charcoal. A tool used not only to camouflage the faces of warriors during prehistoric panty raids, but for scrawling graffiti on cave walls.

We are creative animals that flourish through our five senses (six if you include women who know when their husbands have been out seeing strippers). The internet has no smell. Oh, it is a festering pit of debauchery and depravity – just read any website written by members of the GOP – but it smells like nothing but the slow burn of carcinogenic biphenyls.

Paper has a smell. It no longer smells like trees, of course, but it has a clean smell. Old newspapers and magazines have smells too – musty, dusty, dank. To some it would be a turn off…to historians, it is the smell of the passage of time itself.

Similarly, old records. Vinyl has its own smell. Vinyl LP jackets have another smell entirely. Much of what nostalgia is built on comes from just that one sense unto itself. Visualization and the feel of these objects round out that sensory overload. Well, until you play the music itself. Then the experience is complete. As a movie theatre is with buttered popcorn on hand.

The paperless equivalent for music became the CD. Smaller, more portable and a lot less tactile. Nothing more exciting than cracking the bullet-proof shrink wrap with a set of hedge clippers on a new disc that filled your lungs with a wondrous new smell – biphenyls and printers ink. The musical equivalent of snorting black magic markets. And if you were lucky, the lyrics were a whopping 8 point type on a thrice-folded sheet of 7.5″ x 4.5″ glossy paper.  And now? The packaging is gone and only the music remains. There’s no physical product to hold, to visualize, to sniff. And yet it’s even SMALLER than the LP and the CD (WTF?).There’s been push back. The computer industry told us paper was “so yesterday, dude” and yet here we are. Still excising forests, still recycling 400 years worth of pulp product. And so the music fan has done the same. Labels didn’t want to store the inventory, pay for the overhead of manufacturing, or savour the smell of black polyvinyl pellets and a hot 14″ Easy-Bake Oven. They wanted you to buy hardware and with it a lifetime supply of musical memories sans any of the things that made the music memorable. Hell, half the glory of the 12″ LP was the amount of weed one could properly separate using the centre of a gatefold sleeve – usually on a well-worn copy of ‘Frampton Comes Alive‘. Or the aromatic chemical cesspool of cigarette smoke, spilled beer and stale sex in a damp rec room in your parent’s basement.

You can’t replace that part of music no matter how good the technology becomes. What we’ve learned in over 30 years of our Jetsons‘ wanna-be future is that we’re really good at making technology replace other technology. Everything we invent is obsolete upon birth. And each step gets us farther away – not from our original invention (which remains the king of its historical domain) – but from the thing that tried to simulate and replace it. In other words, we keep trying to better the thing that was the imitation of the progenitor object…like paper…like albums. We thought we were replacing paper – but instead we replaced the pen, and the typewriter.

We’ve come really close to replacing books – the advent of novels, et al on devices like KINDLE and Nook gives you a visual representation of reading (right down to faux page turning)…but when was the last time you turned off your digital reading device, curled up into the folds of a couch and inhaled its spine as you enjoyed the satisfaction of reading the final paragraph and flipping the last page? Try that with a Kindle on your morning subway ride. Believe me, your fellow commuters would be Instagraming photos of you and there’d be a torrent of bad comments in response, a Buzzfeed parody and T-shirts with the caption “Kindle Me This, Batman”.

When was the last time you read a good album cover? Or held one in your hands? To those who miss the nostalgia of their musical youth, I suggest going back to the source – and recreate the five senses of listening to music (maybe there’s some hash oil residue you can lick from the zipper of Frampton’s pants). And maybe even a sixth sense…where you instinctively know that an organic music experience has always been the perfect way to enjoy it. Better yet, share the experience with someone who has only ever heard music from a portable device while jogging.


Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon.

One Response to “ROCK, PAPER, SNIFFERS by Jaimie Vernon”

  1. Damon Hines Says:

    Truth… weren’t expecting THAT….well, hell, this week, hennyweigh, were we? I ask on behalf of the hoi-polloi, ol’ boy…Well, we weren’t, I’ll wager now. Nice one, JV, ta vvm indeed. Allons y, up, yup and oy vey, why worry, be happy, yodel, yuk it up, the best is yet to come or a deep-blue yeti with open carry and bad manners, turnabout being as close to fair play as may be hoped. Bonsoir, bud.

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