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Saturday December 31 2005

What I have in mind is that when you buy little things like coffee or milk or tube tickets, you are actually buying something very big, namely the habit of regularly using this coffee, that supermarket for milk, and the regular practise of using the tube (underground for all you sad people who don’t live in London) rather than taxis, buses, a car, walking, or staying put and making greater use of electronic communication to get things done such as buying and selling things on the internet, which is another habit.  A lot of false analysis arises from not getting this distinction between a single purchasing decision and a habit.

For instance, my ruminations on the matter of intellectual property have got me thinking about the downloading, both illegally and legally, of music from the internet.  I currently do neither.  I have the CD habit.  My sense – but it is only a sense – is that, for me, all the music I want, conveniently, not too expensively, in nice sound, is available if I carry on with CDs, that is, with my CD purchasing habit.  I haven’t explored the alternatives “rationally”, because I am too busy exploring other things rationally, such as the influence of the military history of the last two centuries on the course of libertarian movement, concerning which I am to give a talk on Friday January 6th.  So, I reflect rationally on the course of history and of libertarianism, and I continue, maybe irrationally, to buy classical CDs for what seem like bargain prices to me, but which may well be an unnecessary fortune.

Besides which, I like CDs.  My CD collection, which dominates my kitchen and has also now spread into my bedroom, is a talking point among visitors to my home.  I like the shiny cases and the sweet little leaflets that the shiny cases protect from harm.  I like the discs themselves.  I like that when my computer is out of action, I can still listen to CDs on my separate and uncomputerised CD player.  I loved CDs for rescuing me from the horrors of vinyl and of tape, and I feel a loyalty towards them.  If I deserted them now, just because they aren’t so fashionable any more, what kind of person would that make me?  What kind of statement would I be making about myself?

If, on the other hand, I were to explore the wild and wonderful world of classical music downloading, I would be exploring it because I was thinking of making a fundamental shift in my life from one way of obtaining music to another.  But why would I want to do that?  My next contemplated CD purchase is, probably, Scott Ross’s complete set of the Scarlatti keyboard sonatas.  At no point will I sit down and consider whether I could get them more cheaply and conveniently – actually it would probably be more cheaply but less conveniently – by downloading them in some way (legally) or another (illegally?).  Provided the CD method gets me those sonatas at a reasonable price there is, as far as I am concerned, nothing to decide about.  34 discs for £50 in HMV Oxford Street is, for me, very reasonable.  As I explain here, even copying is not worth the bother when you can get new CDs at prices like that.

I do not have a problem.  CDs work for me.  One of the basic rules of modern life, and especially of modern technological life, is: do not unleash a solution upon circumstances which are not a problem.  Only buy a solution when you really do have a problem.

For remember, competitive pressure will often solve the problem for you.  Millions of other people copying classical CDs, and thus millions more threatening credibly to do it too, is one of several reasons why the price of classical CDs for me is nosediving.  So I get the cheapness of copying, without actually having to copy.

Bog standard PC computer users, again like me, get the benefits of all the convenience and user-friendliness that Macs have scared the PC into doing, without us having to bother with Macs ourselves.

Ergo, Scott Ross’s Scarlatti on CDs it will probably be.  Or not.  Those are my actual choices.

I have, however, acquired the habit of purchasing CDs that come in little cardboard sleeves (like the old LP sleeves) rather than the shiny plastic cases I prefer.  Live dangerously, Brian!  The Scott Ross Scarlatti comes in cardboard cases, in a smallish cardboard box.  These cardboard cases are less appealing to me than the plastic cases, but they occupy far less space, especially for big box sets like this Scarlatti set, and space is becoming a bit of a problem.  Not, however, enough of a problem for me to want to explore a whole new way of getting music.  If space really does become a hideous difficulty, then by far the simplest answer would not be for me not to switch to downloading, but simply to stop buying new CDs and concentrate on listening to the ones I already have, and to find some other excuse for taking a decent walk every days or two.

So, going back to those arguments about illegal downloading, you sometimes read arguments about how this particular download is cheaper than purchasing that CD.  And you also read absurd claims from the record companies about how they are “losing billions” from illegal downloading.  The idea here is that if people paid the CD price for everything they now download illegally it would come to 79 thrillion quiddles per person per year, and that’s what these thieves are stealing.  Rubbish.  If they bought CDs they would actually spend whatever they spent on CDs last year, approximately, which was a mere 652 quiddles.  But the record companies are right that they are probably losing many of those 652 quiddles, and they are genuinely hurting.  For once one of their CD purchasers gets the downloading habit, then they are gone for ever.  The idea that they can get those CD buyers back again merely by slashing the price of CDs is like saying that, now that I can buy classical tape cassettes in charity shops for 50 pence a pop (which I can), I will now switch back to cassettes (in those cases where they are cheap enough), when in fact you couldn’t now pay me to listen to those bloody things.

Oddly enough, I may be about to acquire the downloading habit from, of all things, my own activity as a comedian.  As reported here when it had just happened, I am now an amateur comedian.  But my efforts in the pub that night were being recorded, and may well soon be available on the internet, for about 20p per sketch.  At that point, I would definitely consider becoming a legal downloader, with all the hazards and confusions involved in that.

Which brings me to the mechanism which matters so much in this habit thing, and which has always been understood as mattering by the people who matter, namely the “killer app”.  The very existence of this phrase illustrates how very well understood the phenomenon is.  Remember those accountants with their “spreadsheet” thingies, which would only run on a Mac computer, way back in the paleo-gothic age of computation.  That was the killer app that got the Mac going.  The accountants had to have their spreadsheets.  Only the Mac gave it to them.  Ergo, all the inconvenience and expense of buying a Mac had to be accepted and dealt with.

(And please, no comments about how damned convenient blah blah blah the Mac is.  All new arrangements without exception are an inconvenience, no matter how convenient they turn out to be once you have got used to them.  There are definitely inconveniences (expense?) associated with Mac ownership, or we would almost all of us have them by now.  As it is, almost all of us don’t.)

Anyway, those comedy sketches might become my downloading killer app.  Once I sort out the downloading of those few comedy sketches that I am in, I will be ready to start downloading other comedy sketches, that I am not in.  Next thing you know, I’ll be downloading other stuff, which is not comedic at all.  Then I’ll start exploring what else I might download.  Then I’ll get organised for downloading – by which I mean organised for the downlaoding habit - by, e.g., getting a 5,000 grogobite hard disc and a 10,000 grogobite hard disc to back up the 5,000 grogobite hard disc in case the 5,000 grogobite hard disc gets the measels..

At some point during all this palaver, I would start wondering whether it might make better sense to get my Scott Ross Scarlatti keyboard sonatas by downloading them, rather than by buying a box of CDs.  I might then decide that Scott Ross doing Scarlatti is not a rational download, but that there are so many other downloadable musical delights for me to wallow in that . . . who cares?  At which point the record companies will have lost me.  I will be listening to different stuff, by an entirely different method.  And all because of me liking the sound of my own voice.

I mentioned milk in the first sentence of this posting, and it so happens that milk is, for me, a splendid example of a killer food app, so to speak.

I must have milk, for coffee in the morning.  Must.  And my local Tesco does the best milk, by which I mean it most often has the milk I want, and it least often (i.e. never so far as I can recall) sells me milk that turns sour a day later.  Sour milk in the morning coffee is not good, and avoiding it is, for me, a necessity.  So, despite the fact that in many other ways I prefer my local Sainsbury’s to my local Tesco, I regularly visit my local Tesco.  Sainsbury’s, I am mortified to report, sometimes sells me milk that goes off after a day or two.  So, I get all my milk at Tesco, unless Tesco is shut or has completely run out.  That being the case, I also purchase lots of other stuff in Tesco, stuff which is not that good, but which is good enough.  (Best to make the most of all that queueing once you have decided that you want something.) Tesco thus gets hundreds of quiddles worth of extra business from me, entirely because of their milk.  I have, that is to say, the Tesco habit.  (This suggests to me that it might well be worth Tesco’s while to have a policy of always having fresh milk abundantly available, and damn the expense.)

Okay that’s enough for now.  I am amazed that you read all that.  Have a happy new year.  From where I sit, you deserve it, and whether you do or not, have it anyway.

By the way, I do believe in New Year Resolutions.  This is a habit that I recommend, and all of my most successful ones have themselves been about acquiring habits.  This year, my New Year Resolution (and I have found that they work best if I think about them beforehand during November and December and then prioritise ruthlessly come the actual night) will be about this.

If that works my blog productivity will go up during 2006.  But, I promise nothing.  (Saying that is another verbal habit I have learned the hard way that I need constantly to practise, whenever I speculate about future good deeds that I am not actually, definitely promising.)