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Unbundling the World

New technologies almost always seem to have less soul than whatever they replace. Music streamed via Spotify or Pandora lacks the texture and context that accompanies pulling a record off the shelf and giving it a spin; even the most thoughtful emails feel prosaic compared to written letters. McLuhan said that every technology was an amputation of some human faculty, so perhaps this effect is no accident: Our tools harbor the ghosts of skills we’ve lost. The newer the tool, the less familiar the ghost. The haunting can be alienating for a while but we usually get used to it.

Too easily, we blame our negative attitudes toward new technology on nostalgia or failure to embrace change. We’re likely not reacting to the innovation or even to the broader change that has occurred, though—we’re reacting to the process of unbundling that this form of progress represents.

Unbundling, like disruption, is a favorite tech industry buzzword (both terms often apply to the same phenomena, in fact) but the former turns out to be quite useful. Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, preparing for the company’s IPO, said that bundling and unbundling were the only two ways to make money in software. Unbundling, in particular, is the hallmark of the currently dominant mobile app economy, in which a singular app breaks off a popular feature formerly embedded in a less focused platform or pre-digital service, isolating and intensifying that activity—messaging, photo sharing, search, food ordering, taxi requesting are prime recent examples (for a deeper introduction to the concept, see Marc Andreessen’s tweetstorms on unbundling and rebundling and Benedict Evans’ written and podcasted musings).

McLuhan saw us amputating ourselves but now, having amputated as much as possible, we’re doing the same to our tools: amputating the amputations. Industrialization is basically unbundling writ large: the separation and intensification of human effort in the name of greater efficiency. The reason that the concept of “unbundling” only emerged recently is that its opposite state, “bundled,” is the default state of the world. To paraphrase Rousseau, life begins bundled but is everywhere unbundled.

Countless beloved pillars of traditional and even modern civilization are bundles: family, cities, and novels, to name a few examples. Unbundling, in this context, is a kind of destruction. Maybe we overestimate our ability to judge which aspects of a complex thing deserve to be unbundled and separated from their milieu, and lose something valuable in the process of isolating what we think is most important.

Or perhaps unbundling is an expression of dislike, a revolt against what we think we hate. By unbundling the flawed we hope to perfect it through that Sisyphean work, and when we go too far we rebundle the same, powering our entire economy through opposing phase changes that add up to nothing much better or worse.


  The city unbundled (source)

If unbundling is one manifestation of our hubris in technology, then the distance between a bundled entity and its unbundled components is the distance between what we really want and what we think we want. When technology vanishes, it’s typically this process at work: unbundling without rebundling. Spotify is one example: music’s pure content separated from its context, such as album liner notes, the record store shopping experience, and music criticism as a way to preview before purchase. That all made up the halo of social ritual around the music itself, but few would seek out the rest on its own, much less pay for it, so once unbundled, it started disappearing, leaving us to be nostalgic for it.

Spotify, ideally, distills and focuses the part of music listening that we actually want, removing the red tape that doesn’t serve that singular objective. It accomplishes this with astounding effectiveness, but perhaps we sometimes cut too deep in the frenzy to optimize every technology we don’t fully understand. Ironically, Steve Jobs made the famous pronouncement that we don’t know what we want until it’s shown to us. In the same way, we also don’t know what we like about what we already have. When we take it apart, we sometimes find we can’t put it together as well again (and Steve Jobs gave us the most powerful tool for such disassembly).

Adrian Shaughnessy explored the impact of Spotify in Design Observer, lamenting the “contextual thinness of streaming services“ and the loss of the “metadata” that surrounds the music and provides its true cultural significance. In this sense, we can read Spotify and its ilk as high modernist efforts to replace illegible environments with legible, enervated ones. The notion that unbundling a service like music distills it to a more purely usable form is also disingenuous, because nothing is ever just unbundled, and on the internet, unbundled services are typically rebundled with, you guessed it, advertising.

Shaughnessy finally concludes, “Streaming sites have resulted in the suburbanization of music.” The city, after all, is the ultimate bundle, and the evolution of the suburb is the unbundling of the city in almost every sense. Thinner in context, poorer in information, the suburb reflects what its builders think people want more than what they really do want or need, and does away with the rest. The world supposedly contains far more information than it did at any previous point in history, but when we unbundle that world so aggressively, information—the unquantified kind—is exactly what we lose.

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