Last week, Slate's Mark Oppenheimer wrote a heartfelt eulogy to a very specific aspect of old media: the way it allowed us to both judge people and flirt with them. Once upon a time, before Kindles replaced bookshelves and iPod libraries supplanted CD collections, we could easily discern people's tastes in music, books, and movies and thereby determine if they were worthy of our affection:
Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands.
Furthermore, Oppenheimer says, now that books are no longer physical objects but collections of megabytes, we can no longer exchange them with our romantic partners as part of the courtship process. What will high-minded young lovers of the future do to signal their commitment when they can't lend each other copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Our Guys, as he and his wife did when they first started dating?
I'll leave it to others to challenge the originality of this point; the bigger question is whether it's accurate, whether the death of old media really means the demise of this cycle of judgment and courtship based on what we read, watch, and listen to.
I'd argue it doesn't. After all, in this era of social media we broadcast our cultural preferences habits more loudly than we ever did before, thanks to status updates on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, Gchat, and so on. In the past week, followers of my Twitter feed learned that I read the New York Times Styles section cover to cover and I enjoy watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off on bus trips. My Gmail contacts were clued into my love of The Arcade Fire and arty photos of Graceland. Likewise, I can see that my friend Matthew is really into Josh Ritter and my old roommate's ex-boyfriend is reading a Bruce Chatwin novel—and I can (and do) judge them for these choices. Rather than thwart our ability to assess people based on their taste in books, songs, and movies, the Internet facilitates it.
Nor has new media really brought about the end of the exchange of treasured reading material with our crushes, lovers, and spouses. Twitter, instant messenger, even good old-fashioned email allow us to send the romantic interests of our past, present and future an article, song, or video clip we think they'd enjoy. In the years since we broke up, my college boyfriend and I have continued to email or Gchat reading or watching suggestions to one another, first as tentative olive branches after a long stretch of angry silence—"Hi, haven't talked in a while, hope you're doing well, did you see Michael Lewis has a new book?"—and now as a way to show we still remember each others' most deeply held cultural preferences.