The Lost Art of the Random Find

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The Internet may make it easier than ever to access music and movies from the comfort of our own homes, but it's also robbing us of an experience familiar to those who used to go to a store to buy things. In other words, the chance to spontaneously discover new, weird stuff is quickly disappearing. 

When was the last time you went to a store and bought an album or a movie because you thought it looked strange, interesting or intriguing on first glance? When was the last time such serendipity led you to discover a book or an album you would have avoided if you'd simply stayed on Amazon?

I'd wager most readers would answer "sometime in 2005" or so, as in the years since then, the fall of brick-and-mortar and big-box video, book and music stores has pushed most of our consumption habits to iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. Sure, that's convenient. But it also limits our curiosity.

Today, Wired's Noah Berlatsky tells the story of how he recently went to a Japanese mall clearance sale in Chicago and bought a CD because it had "a Japanese man with an all-white 70s outfit with shaggy 70s hair, an aggressive 70s mustache, and big-old 70s glasses, sitting surrounded by keyboards," on the cover. For four dollars, I would probably purchase the same thing. But he argues that this experience — going to a real store and buying something because it caught your eye, not because some algorithm told you you'd like it — is slowly disappearing because of the Internet: 

Still… haven’t we lost something when we no longer have the ability to be clueless and feel adventurous? The internet has granted us knowledge, but now that we’ve eaten the apple, the snake hisses in our ear that everybody and their cousin had already discovered that watered-down bluegrass already, so cover your nudity and feel ashamed.

Berlatsky brings up a very good point here: there is nothing left to "discover," because the Internet already knows all. If you "find" a new bad thing, it's likely on a blog that millions of other people read daily. If you "find" a new movie, like the somehow-growing-in-popularity Sharknado, it's because you read one of the millions of blogs that paid far too much attention to a movie that, in the old days, would have gone straight into a straight-to-DVD bargain bin. 

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What would have been a "cult" hit in the old days, chuckled over by the cognescenti, today goes viral and is embraced by millions, whether it's the music of Psy or the book Go the Fuck to Sleep. That democratizes culture, but also makes discovery impossible. 

Berlatsky, too, hates that we're all receiving our media from the same sources:

Sure, the old-style sense of exoticism–feeling like you have special access to another culture because you picked up a bargain CD–is creepy. But the modern sense of media where every culture is spread out in an instantly accessible smorgasbord for consumption has its disturbing aspects as well. The cultural imperialism of appropriating someone else’s cultural realness has transformed into a cultural imperialism where there is no other culture to appropriate — just a single, flat, internet-mediated mono-world.  You don’t need to condescendingly anthropologize Robert Johnson any more; he’s always already been blandly digitized.

Oh, and Berlatsky's random Japanese CD? It ended up sounding like "On the Corner-era Miles, if Miles were afflicted simultaneously with ADD and a bad case of flatulence."

The Internet was always heralded as the great equalizer. But if we all end up liking the same things because we're participating in the same Great Cultural Conversations, even if they're in sort-of nerdy corners of the Internet, then the Internet hasn't benefitted your ability to find and access new anything. Go to the mall more. It builds character. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.