#14: On Making It Meaningful

A pilgrimage to heavy metal Mecca


As I flicked through family albums from my teenage years last weekend, it got me thinking about experiences lost and gained, since the advent of the internet.

Here's my tuppence worth.

Reading time: 4 minutes

Life is special because we will die.

Take it from this man, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor.

In Man's Search For Meaning, he said "If we were immortal, we could legitimately postpone every action forever. It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now.”

The same logic applies to the prosaic too:

  • Would Christmas be special if it ran 365 days per year?

  • Would we be as excited to see our favourite band live if they played in our home town every week?

  • Would we waste so much food if it wasn't abundant?

Put simply, when something is scarce, we value it more. When it is abundant, we take it for granted.

Life, like Christmas, is a container, limited by time, place and content.

Heavy Metal Mecca

My most meaningful experiences have been the ones contained by these three variables.

As a teenager, I listened obsessively to music.

Iron Maiden was my go-to band, vinyl, my prefered medium and Dad's Zanussi Hi-Fi system, the platform. 

It was a deeply meaningful experience because it was contained by time, place and content:

  • Time: With equally obsessive siblings, there was constant jostling for access. Furthermore, I could only listen to Maiden in the evenings after school. These temporal limits, were partly what made the restricted listening opportunities so special.

  • Place: There was only one sound system, located permanently in a cosy corner of the house. The three square feet space the headphone chord would stretch to, was my most prized real-estate.

  • Content: Every week I would spend my hard-earned pocket money on secondhand vinyl. My limited record collection was a cherished one. Every song from start to finish mattered. Even the contrasts were important, where a bad song made the following one even better.

The pilgrimage to heavy metal Mecca, was total, mellifluous immersion. 

And it was heaven.

My sister hogging the record player!

To Meaningless Infinity And Beyond

Today, my love for music remains undiminished, but sadly, the experience does not.

I have allowed the allure of digital technology to take it away, by falling for the cult of convenience.

Now, I listen to music on Spotify.

Spotify, like everything else on the internet, is a limitless container. There is no restriction on time, place or content.

I can access whatever I want, whenever and wherever I want it. 

The convenience and choice this technology offers is mind-blowing.

Through Spotify, I love discovering music that I would never otherwise hear. It's also fun to browse its vast catalogue in search of a hidden gem, safe in the knowledge, I can fall back on its reliable recommendations.

But, there’s so much choice, it feels like the musical equivalent of a restaurant serving every dish imaginable.

This creates what artist Jenny Odell calls a "meaningless infinity."

It’s where, through feeling a sense of limitlessness, the content loses much of its value.

The experience becomes disposable and it produces a kind of amnesia.

For example, I rarely know the names of songs or albums I listen to - sometimes not even the artist. When I stream pre-designed playlists, the enjoyment exists purely in the present moment.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the paradox of choice - as someone’s level of choice goes up; their level of engagement and satisfaction goes down. 

I can't help but wonder, is an alternative, more meaningful experience possible?

A Thought Experiment

I want the best of both containers.

I'd like to recreate the “contained" experience of those pre-internet days, within the "limitless container" of Spotify.

To do this, I'm interested in artificially re-introducing limits to the online experience.

Given the opportunity, I would commission artists to release new material on a pre-determined day, but with a few catches:

  1. Time: Their songs would only be available for a limited period.

  2. Place: For this period their music could only be listened to on:

    • a pre-determined (by you) device

    • in a pre-determined (WiFi) location

These temporal, spatial and content limits would help restore that same excitement, anticipation and deeply meaningful experience of listening to music in the pre-internet era.

No doubt, this approach wouldn’t be without it’s critics however.

Computer Says “No!”

  1. I can imagine it pissing off subscribers. People have come to expect everything to be available to them instantly.

  2. The content would, no doubt, be copied and shared relentlessly, potentially rendering such an experiment meaningless.

  3. In a business culture of more growth, more content, and more engagement, anything that promotes moderation is unlikely to appeal.

Limited Limitlessness

In spite of the inevitable criticism, the fact remains, one of the many paradoxes of human creativity, is how much we benefit from constraints. 

We already create seemingly “unnecessary” limits in our lives, with eyes on a greater purpose. Some walk instead of driving to do their bit for the environment. Others practice good sleep hygiene, by leaving their phones outside of their bedrooms.

While it may feel counter-intuitive to move from limitlessness and convenience to limited and inconvenient, it might not be all that strange after all.

At the end of the day, we live in a time of overwhelming demand for our attention. And it’s stressful.

We could temper this clamour by moderating our online experiences through creative constraints. In doing so, we’d create more personal value and meaning.

Mabye then, we can all make that pilgrimage, to heavy metal Mecca!

That’s all for this week!

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Take care,