Have you heard of MP3? Do you have an MP3 program? Do you have an MP3 player? Have you already stopped reading this column and turned the page? The point of it is that it reduces a sound recording to a manageable size so that a song can be downloaded from the internet in "only" ten minutes, or 20 minutes, or an hour. The song then becomes a computer file like any other and can be copied, manipulated, transferred to your MP3 player, which is the size of a cigarette packet, or a matchbox, or is it a thimble? And it's going to destroy the record shop and the record company and return the power to the people.
Apparently, there are lots and lots of MP3 sites featuring songs by rock bands without recording contracts. You can download these for nothing. All you need to do is listen to them all, one by one, until you find something you like. You will have defeated The Suits and asserted your autonomy. You will, it is true, have to devote your entire life to standing over your computer, with pains in your chest as it crashes yet again, while downloading some more unbearable rubbish. But that will be a small price to pay.
Aren't there more convenient ways of accessing music? I used to spend much too much of my time "downloading" music. I'd listen to the radio and, when something sounded interesting, I'd switch the cassette recorder on and download the music on to a cassette tape. The process was relatively quick. A two-minute song would take two minutes to download, or a little longer if I was on the other side of the room when it finished and had to run across to switch the tape off. On the other hand, a three-and-a-half-minute song would necessitate three and a half minutes and would occupy three and a half minutes of space on the 90-minute cassette tape that I used as my storage system. Obviously, this is quite a long time, but it does compare favourably with the eight hours it took a friend of mine to download off the net the one-minute trailer for Star Wars: the phantom menace.
Another form of data transfer I've found is by going into a record shop. The download time in this format can be startlingly quick. On one occasion, 15 hours of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle was transferred into my plastic shopping-bag in under five seconds. Excuse my sledgehammer irony, and I suppose, when any new form of technology is invented, it doesn't work quite as well as what it is going to replace. When motor cars first appeared, how could they compete with the system of horse transportation and its infrastructure of hay suppliers, saddlemakers and blacksmiths? Cars depended too much on tarmac roads, and where would they get petrol from?
But the problem is that so much of this is done, and written about, by people who are interested in the tools, but not in the things the tools are meant to do - as if an astronomer were fascinated by telescopes, but not by stars. Much work is being done at Microsoft and elsewhere to produce a sort of electronic folder into which you can download the contents of as many books as you want. It sounds like the work of people interested in everything about books except what's in them, just as so much of the media industry is controlled by people who don't have the time or interest actually to see movies or watch TV. (The great textual editor, Fredson Bowers, produced an important scholarly edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and it used to be said that he had done everything to Whitman's poem except read it.)
On the whole, the current storage and retrieval systems for books and music seem fairly acceptable. (Although I believe that the Labour government should make it a criminal offence for a record company to issue an opera without a libretto: I sent an e-mail to Phillips complaining about its libretto-free box set of Berlioz operas, but the company didn't reply. Arrogant indifference seems to operate equally in all technologies.)
On the other hand, it seems strange that, if my VCR fails to record an episode of ER (as it bloody did last week), then there's no second chance to "download" it, unless you remember when it's repeated in about three years' time - which you won't.
Not that it matters much to me, one way or the other. Whatever form the information comes in, digital or analogue, paper or on the net, the really hard download is the one into my brain - a storage system that won't store; a retrieval system that won't retrieve.