Picture credit: Giuliano Benzin/Getty
Artillery Row

The dangers of digital media

By abandoning physical media, have we exposed ourselves to censorship and corporate control?

Picture the scene — there I am lying in bed, earphones in, ready for a song or two to help me drift off to the land of nod. I open Spotify on my phone and go to a favourite album, The Prodigy Experience. (Odd bedtime listening, I know, but some of us happen to like being jangled to sleep by rave classics.) On opening the album, I notice that something’s not quite right. I can’t work out what’s wrong at first, but then it dawns on me — a track is missing. Yes, a whole track, “Wind it Up”, from this modern masterpiece of an album has vanished into thin air. No trace, no explanation, simply gone.

Feeling mystified, I promptly googled the matter and found a forum which informed me that others had also noticed the missing track; not only on Spotify, but also on iTunes, YouTube Music and Tidal. Clearly, then, this curious phenomenon had taken place across all streaming platforms. What on earth had happened? Was it a glitch in the matrix? 

Presumably, it was something far more mundane concerning a copyright issue or some commercial decision made by the record label. As a Spotify listener of many years, I am not unfamiliar with the strange little quirks that affect the content from day to day. Sometimes, album cover art just changes for no apparent reason. Sometimes, bonus tracks or recordings from live sessions suddenly become available and then just as suddenly go away again. I accept these as trivial matters which have to do with the fluid nature of that mysterious world of rights negotiations and licensing fees. However, I have never experienced anything quite on this scale before. This missing track business is different. It is unnerving. 

When a track is just removed from a classic album like that, without anyone being told, it feels like cultural tampering. It’s not that the track in itself is so very precious; it’s this idea that an album which is a staple of modern music and that is now over thirty years old can in effect be retrospectively censored and edited on the sly by the powers that be. The Prodigy Experience was the group’s first studio album, released back in 1992 to much critical acclaim and is considered pretty seminal by historians of Rave culture. Perhaps you don’t care for such music, but imagine if one day you went to listen to Oasis’ “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” and found that “Wonderwall” was missing from the album. What if you opened “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and found that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had vanished? What if you opened Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and found that the opera’s overture was gone? 

It reminds me of Stalin’s penchant for expunging the records

This feels like the streaming platforms are actually re-writing history. It reminds me of Stalin’s penchant for expunging the records — not content with having his rivals murdered, he had to remove them from history as if they’d never existed in the first place. A dramatic comparison? Of course. Nonetheless, one gets the uneasy feeling of being a small individual at the mercy of big powers. When I had a CD collection, nobody could come into my house and scratch a track off the disc and tip-ex the track listing in the booklet. When you own something, you own it. It’s your property and that’s that. But when you stream, it’s a different story. 

We have all come to see streaming as simply the modern equivalent of ownership, but it’s not the same thing at all. It gives me this disturbing sense that we are all unwittingly relinquishing control, slowly but surely, through apparently convenient and innocuous streaming apps. Streaming rather than owning makes us vulnerable. Our cultural treasures can be meddled with — by massive corporations, governments or whoever — and there is nothing we can do about it because we don’t own anything anymore. It starts with a track on an album and where does it end? 

… any number of changes can be made to the films that are “in your collection” without your awareness

Of course, it’s not just our music that we stream now. Most of us have stopped buying DVDs in favour of streaming services, thinking it’s a kind of step up. But those services are continually making abrupt removals of their content; usually due to the cost of licensing fees. Indeed, this month, the Independent reported that a tranche of classics are being removed from Netflix for UK streamers in 2024, among them Bridget Jones’ Diary, No Country for Old Men and The Truman Show. And while it may cause frustration when a favourite film is withdrawn, the real concern is the thought that a streaming service could just as easily fiddle with the version of the films they offer you and not tell you. It’s not too hard to imagine scenes being cut out that may “cause offence to modern sensibilities”.  These steaming services are huge global businesses, after all. They’re not going to quibble about artistic integrity in the face of cultural correctness, commercial forces or political pressure. Again, as an owner, nobody could come into your sitting room and meddle with your videos or DVDs; but as a streamer, any number of changes can be made to the films that are “in your collection” without your awareness. 

On a Reddit thread from the beginning of last year, one reader claimed that the text from one of their Agatha Christie classics, Death on the Nile, had been changed after an automatic update on their e-reader. They reported spotting two passages that had been altered, with no notification or explanation provided. Surprise, surprise, the passages alleged to have been altered were those deemed too offensive for the modern world — lines having to do with race and reflecting the attitudes typical of Christie’s period.

Now, it must be acknowledged that this is only a Reddit thread. We know that we must take the internet with several pinches of salt. On the other hand, other readers have reported to The Times that Roald Dahl e-books they had purchased have been replaced with sanitised versions. Not editions they were borrowing — editions they had bought.

By depending on digital media, it feels as if we are blithely surrendering control of our culture. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m losing it. Perhaps I’ve swallowed too much Sci-fi and just need to get some air, or relax with some good music. If it still exists.

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