Published on The Doomstead Diner May 21, 2017
Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner
As regular readers of the Frostbite Falls Daily Rant inside the Diner know, I recently went on a major BINGE of buying new computer equipment to enhance my overall computing experience, which is one of the few pleasures and hobbies I have left to enjoy as we spin down to the close of the Age of Oil and the Age of Technological Gimmickry.
I haven't done any upgrades in around 3 years since I bought my last laptop, which was a relatively inexpensive model around $600 at the time as I recall. So that amortizes out to around $200/year, far less than my other main pursuits of drinking beer and smoking cancerettes. lol. Because of constant changes in hardware and in software, older computers tend to become obsolete no matter what, plus of course you have the issue they tend to get clogged with malware and bloat from programs you upload over the time period you own them. At a certain point, it's jst more efficient to replace the unit then to try and clean it out. Over the roughly quarter century of time I have owned my OWN computer, the longest any one of them lasted was around 5 years, and 3 years has been about the average for the laptops. Towers were easier to upgrade with parts, and also early ones didn't have to communicate over the internet either. So my first ACER tower was the longest lasting of all of them. One real gem of a laptop also lasted about 5 years, it was a Gateway Windows XP.
In this latest upgrade, I decided since I am not moving around so much anymore, going to work every day and toting my laptop along and so forth, I would buy more of a desktop unit with a bigger screen. Instead of a tower unit, I bought a new kind of hybrid, an All-in-One computer, which has all the computational guts of the device housed in the screen casing. This is simlar to laptop construction, and changing out parts on such a device similarly difficult to do, but I haven't done that since the early towers anyhow. Like a tower unit though, it comes with the bigger screen which is very friendly to an old guy's eyes. It's also nice and Clean on the desk, not taking up much real estate there, and no tower on the floor to run wires from. It came in at a price only slightly higher than the last laptop, at $750 or so.
I accessorized it with a cool backlit gaming keyboard from Razer, and the top of the line Logitech "Mighty Mouse", the MX Master. Then I bought a new El Cheapo Lenovo Tablet for $70 to enhance my mobile computing experience as well. All in all, I spent a little over $1000 on this buying binge. It's great, I am real happy with all my new toys.
While shopping however, I noticed something new with the laptops. I wasn't in the market for buying one since I had decided on the desktop unit, but I wanted to see what was available. The interesting development is many if not most of the new ones do not come with an optical drive anymore. AKA CD/DVD reader/writer. They're still coming standard equipment with the desktop units, but in fewer laptops all the time. Why?
Simple. Because CD/DVDs are going obsolete as media for Music, Video and Software. Music and Video have gone to streaming, and for people who keep their own music it's done in digital .mp3 format on small solid state memory chips or in the memory contained in a smartphone. The chips themselves have become incresingly tiny, micro-SD cards are smaller than your fingernail. They are also getting ever cheaper and able to hold far more data than an optical disc. So now, not only can you store music, you can store an entire library of films as well on these things.
Taking the optical drive out of the laptop does a few things. It makes it cheaper for the manufacturer and the laptop can be made thinner, a feature most people like. It doesn't take up so much room in the briefcase. It also makes the unit more reliable with fewer moving parts.
This is all good, but there are downsides to it. The first main one is they're not backward compatible with all the media you already own on optical discs, so you need to start going through your collections of music and video and converting them all to mp3 or mp4 format. With older ones this isn't too hard, but newer ones ofen have digital copyright protection embeded in them and are difficult to copy. It also can make moving the material from one device to another difficult, Apple tries to control that by making you use their Itunes software. One of the main reasons I do not use any Apple products.
For music, over the years of my lifetime we saw 6 major changes to the way music was recorded and sold.
1-The Vinyl Era
This was the longest lasting, going back to well before I was born, but even into the 70s still the only commercially available media. For the sellers of music, this medium was very good, you needed a big manufacturing plant to make the vinyl and press the records, individuals could not record music themselves. There was little to no bootlegging of music during this period.
2- The 8-Track Tape Era
Magnetic Tape for storing music was around for quite a while, but on the early reel-to-reel recorders generally only used by professionls and fanatical amatures. 8-track was much easier to use, you just shoved the book-sized cartidge into the player and out came the music, no muss, no fuss. 8 track had the significant sales advantage that you could play it in a car, which was impossible with vinyl due to the needle bouncing around. 8 track also came mainly as Players-Only, they did not record. So this still kept the distribution of music pretty much one way, although there were recorders around and you could do some bootlegging.
3- The Cassette Era
Cassettes revolutionized bootlegging. Much smaller than 8-track, around the size of a pack of cigarettes or deck of cards. Although the car versions were usually only players, recorders were commonly available for home use. You could record directly off the radio, or on units with two slots, record from one tape to another blank one. You could hook your turntable to the recorder and make a tape of the record you owned, and then have the tape to play in the car. Or sell the tape to a friend for 1/4 the price of the vinyl album you bought. Sell bootlegs to 4 friends, you made back the cost of the album.
The main downside of cassettes was the quality was never as good as a well maintained vinyl album, and in each succession of recording from one tape to another would lose still more quality. Even the advent of the Dolby noise supression system did not make cassette as good sounding as vinyl. So although there was some bootlegging going on mostly between friends, it wasn't really pursued that much as a big time operation. Cassettes did put out of bizness 8-track though, cassette players replaced 8 track in the cars.
4- The CD-ROM Era
As the ROM acronym indicates, at the begining CDs were "read only memory". For music sellers, this brought back the heady days of vinyl when to record the music you needed a very expensive device not commonly available as a consumer electronics item. Your CD was a Player Only device. CDs also vastly improved sound quality and durability, because they are digital the sound virtually never degrades no matter how many times you play it. You also have to try pretty hard to break a CD, or even scratch it so bad it won't play. Vinyl was pretty fragile, particularly the early stuff. My dad had records that went back as far as the 1940s, they were thick and more like stiff plates of ceramic than later forms of vinyl. Drop one of these and it would shatter just like a plate. Later versions were thinner and more flexible and didn't break quite so easily, but they did tend to get scratched up and make pops and skips, and they would develop hiss over time with many plays.
With the switch over to CDs, everybody who had old music on vinyl or cassette they wanted to listen to on the new high quality CDs had to buy it all over again. What a BOON to the music industry that was! Those were likely their most profitable years ever, up until recently. Not only were people buying new music, they were replacing entire collections of old music.
The non-recordability for the individual changed just a few years later, when optical drives for computers became read-write. I had one of the first and they were rather clunky and difficult to use, but they improved quickly. Now you could bootleg a copy of music you bought that was just as good as the original. The real era of bootlegging began in this period. High School students would form clubs, one person would buy a CD and then make copies for everyone else in his class. So a CD costing $10 ended up costing each person $1 or even less, depending on the size of the club. This was of course illegal under copyright law, but extremely hard to prosecute and very small time. In aggregate though, it definitely cut into music industry profits.
5- The Digital Age- The Napster Era
The advent of the internet and development of music files that could be passed back and forth over the net completely changed the music business, and caused the industry fits for several years. What were small local music trading groups in schools exploded over the internet to thousands of people doing it every day, and this SERIOUSLY cut into the music biz profits. They had to go after this vigorously, and they did. First there were high profile cases against individuals who had downloaded music from one of the file sharing services, frightening people from trying this because large fines were levied against them. Then they went after the services themselves, getting them shut down. Bootlegging this way still persists of course, but not nearly to the level it did during the Napster era. The main reason for this is Digital Copyright Protection.
6- The Digital Age- Digital Copyright Protection
Besides the music industry, another important industry was having bootlegging problems at the same time, the Software industry. Like music, software to run your computer in that era came packaged on CDs, and if you went into Best Buy in those years there was a HUGE library of titles on the shelf you could buy. Those libraries have shrunk to practically nothing now, since all software is installed to your computer over the net. I will discuss that issue further down the line here.
Being geeks, the folks having their sofware copied had better ability to prevent this, and developed Digital Copyright Protection (DCP) for their discs which made copying if not impossible, quite difficult. At first it was just passwords (yes, I remember when a program came on a disc and you just plugged it into the computer and loaded it), then registration became necessary and the number of computers you were "licensed" to run the software on was limited, as well as the length of the license. So after a year, the program could shut itself down if you didn't pay another year of licensing fees.
Other forms of DCP have been developed now embedded into the code of music CDs, making them difficult (although again not impossible) to copy. Websites that have a lot of music on them such as YouTube will actually check the code and music signature against their database of copyrighted music, and prevent you from uploading it unless you make some tweaks to it like slightly speeding it up or slowing it down.
As mentioned earlier, Apple makes it more difficult to copy music by forcing you to use their Itunes program for these transfers. They are also a major content provider of music now through their Itunes stores. If you are using an Apple computer or phone, you pretty much have to buy the music from Apple. That's called Vertical Integration of a market.
All of this DCP pretty much killed the overall bootlegging industry, and the big Music companies began to show a profit again.
7- The Streaming Era
This is where we are at now. The internet has become so ubiquitous and so fast that many people don't bother trying to collect their own music library at all. They pay a monthly fee to a provider that has copyright ownership of many titles, and when they feel like listening to some tune they just surf to the website and play the tune straight off the cloud. Between 4G and free Wi-Fi, in most of the industrialized Western countries, there is nowhere you can't get signed on to the internet. Here in Alaska if you drive from the Mat-Su Valley to Fairbanks you'll get some dropouts, and off the main Parks Highway you'll lose coverage pretty quick, but in populated areas this is almost never the case. So for their daily Music Fix, many Junkies now simply fork over the cost for a monthly service, and get music that way. In aggregate, this replaces the revenue the Music Industry once made by selling it on physical media.
The weakness of course for the Music Lover is that if/when the Internet Goes Dark, they won't have any music to listen to at all, even while their computer or smart phone is still working and they still have electricity to charge it up. So if you wanna have some music to enjoy collapse by after TSHTF, it would be a wise idea to store at least a few favorites as your own mp3s on a couple of devices and SD cards.
Video is more or less a mirror of the Music era, with the earliest personal video possible being 8mm cameras. Then you had some clunky B&W Video Recorders, big ass shoulder held Camcorders which reduced in size over time, to today where you have pocket size cams and smart phones that do video. None of those were ever very good for bootlegging Hollywood films though, that only came about with DVD recordability in the last decade or so. In the current digital age, all the same parameters that apply to music apply to video as well, so I won't go over this history in detail
The Software bizness deserves some more depth though, so let's look at how that developed. Much of it was in terms of the progress of storage media for the software that was available, as well as actual computing power and the sheer size of the programs that developed over the years.
1- The Floppy Disk Era
The first "floppies" were truly floppy. They were around 12" in diameter and soft, you could bend them although not a good idea to do that. The magnetic recording disk inside the cardboard enclosure was similar to that used for audio tape recording. A simple program could be stored on such a disc, and if you wanted to use it you would pull it off the shelf, load it to the computer memory and then use the program. You didn't store your programs on the computer itself, because they didn't come with much internal memory. There was also no need to have it "installed" on the computer, it just ran once you loaded it. No passwords, nada. Very EZ to copy.
A few short years later "Floppy" discs got a stiffy. lol. They shrunk in size to a little under 4" as I recall, encased now in hard plastic rather than cardboard. Definitely more durable, but not much increase in memory storage capacity. I got my first Windows OP system, Win 3.1 on Floppies of this type. Around a dozen or so of them packaged with the computer as I recall. So if I needed to do a system restore at some point, I could do it with those floppies. I kept them for several years, I think I restored twice with them.
By the time I got my next computer, CD-ROMs had come out, and the OP systems and programs were packaged with your new computer on them. I got an"OEM" (original equipment manufacture) copy of Win XP this way. I remember reading somewhere that if they had had to package that OP system on floppies, they would have needed 100s of them in your box to load to the computer. CDs were an enormous advance in total storage capacity over Floppies. In the early days though, they weren't recordable, and some files were getting too big to hold on floppies. So we got Zip Drives for a while.
2- The Zip Drive Era
Zip drives were essentially Floppies on Steroids, similar size plastic casing but a bit thicker. They had a capacity around 10-20X the amount of data as a regular floppy as I recall. They were good for storing the early digital pictures on mainly, and for condensing the rack of regular size floppies onto one disc. So if you had 100 normal floppies to find something on, now you could reduce that to 5 or 10. They weren't cheap though, and as a storage medium did not last very long since recordable optical drives came out and rendered them obsolete. Internal hard drive memory on the computers was also increasing rapidly at this time, rendering it unnecessary to have a shelf full of floppies or zips with all your programs and data on them. You could store it all on the computer itself. My first Tower Unit had the magnificent capacity of 500MB of disc storage space. For those of you unaware of what those prefixes mean, there are 1000 Megabytes in a Gigabyte, and 1000 Gigabytes in a Terabyte. You get more storage today than my ACER had on a cheap microSD card costing less than $5, and on your hard drive if you don't have a terabyte of storage it's a loser. lol.
3- The Optical Drive Era
To my mind, this was the heyday of the personal computer, in the 1990s. Great programs were available on CD which you could shop for and buy off the shelf at your local Computer Superstore, as well as in discount stores in the Mall where people would sell old discs for $2 and then you could buy them for $5. A program that might have cost $40 just a year or two earlier, and just as good as new! I had (and actually still have many of them) a huge library of these CDs, and up through about WinXP was able to install them on each new computer I bought, for maybe a decade of time. By the time Win7 came out though, many of them simply would not install on the OP system, and nowadays I would be surprised if ANY of them did on Win10. I don't even try this anymore because it would probably fuck up the whole OP system and crash the computer. So they all just sit in a case waiting for the day some Code Jockey resurrects a WinXP or earlier computer to load them to.
4- The Cloud Era
CD based libraries of software available to buy in stores off the shelf have become almost non-existent, they have gone the way of the Dinosaur. You can still order a CD of a program online rather than downloading it directly from the Cloud, but it's generally not the preferred method, and it doesn't do you much good in terms of trying to load it to multiple computers anyhow. All the DCPs are embedded on the disc, and you're still going to need to pay yearly licensing fees for them whether you download or order the disc.
In many cases now as well, the actual program isn't housed on your computer at all, you're working with client-server architecture and in order to use the program, you MUST be connected to the net. Not only that, the files you create get stored on the cloud, not on your own computer, and again in order to access those files you must be net connected. You are no longer the owner of your own files, whoever you bought a license from to use their software is. The moment you stop paying licensing fees is the moment they can cut you off from all your files, and that could be anything from digital pictures you edited with their software to software you yourself wrote, helped along by cool bells and whistles and shortcuts provided to make such development quicker.
In conclusion here, once again the Conduit Scheme of holding ownership and Property rights by a few large corporations has taken over from the early freedoms we had as computers and the internet developed. As a writer, I am still pretty fortunate in this because all you need to write is a text editor, and that can be as simple as Notepad and is still installed on on computers natively. It would be pretty difficult to have a functional computer you couldn't at least type text into without being connected to the net. However, for Musicians, Artists, Photographers and Software Developers, the control you have over your own material becomes less by the day.
From my POV, in the long run this won't matter all that much since I expect computers and the internet to disappear from our civilization as collapse progresses onward. Not sure of the timeline on this, but not too far down the pike from now. In the meantime, I suggest using all strategies you can think of to avoid using cloud based programs, and to avoid and circumvent Digital Copyright Protection. It's destructive to the advancement and dissemination of Human Knowledge.