A city covered in coasters

Last week, my former employer decided to include an AOL promotional CD in each copy of the newspaper that was distributed in Manhattan. Now, the thing you have to understand here is that tens of thousands of copies of this newspaper are distributed on the island in a week. And they're free. Piles of free newspapers, sitting in bundles, each containing a worthless CD, and nothing was holding the discs in place within the papers.

So the results were predictable. (And you'll have to forgive the quality of the images, these were shot with my cell phone as I was walking around.) Piles of AOL CDs, covering the sidewalks. And then later in the week, shards of AOL CDs, filling the gutters. It was oddly compelling, and if it hadn't been done on Time Warner's dime, it might even have been considered art.

Maybe back when Steve Case was still around, it could have been a subversive promo. Obey Steve. Steve Case Has A Posse. But alas, Case's coasters are the only legacy of his astonishing ability to destroy a company's valuation.

And though the campaign to flood our mailboxes with "free" hours has gone on for a decade and a half now, progressing from 5.25" floppy to 3.5" floppy to 5" CD, it's never made me feel like it was something I wanted to partake of. I first got an AOL CD back when a CD still seemed like something inherently valuable. Jewel cases alone cost more than blank CDs do now, and the shiny silverness of it inspired much the same reverence in me that the then-current laserdiscs did. This was digital truth.

Now I kick these discs around like there was a hailstorm in hell, like the threat of 1000 HOURS FREE seemed a sufficient substitute for brimstone, and I can't help but think that the people who were on the other end of the modem forgot what the future was supposed to be like. The overwhelming message that's been communicated to me by the sheer unrelentingly perverse ubiquity of this sort of promotion is essentially "Our Service Is Worthless". Maybe it's just my perception of things, but any product you're willing to associate with smashed bits of plastic strewn about the streets of a major metropolis is not exactly nurturing an upscale image. I keep waiting for a murder of end-times crows to swarm and circle, picking up the shiny bits of aluminum that line the curbs.

I'm not inventing anything by noting that AOL CDs suck and are worthless, of course. There's nothing new about them being ugly. I suppose it's a compelling ugliness, at least. We all knew that after the apocalpyse it'd just be cockroaches and televangelists and some militia members camped out in bomb shelters in Montana. But I have yet to see a sci-fi writer who correctly predicted that the twentyfirst century would come along and we'd all be literally walking on discarded piles of digital recordings that promised us the ability to instantly connect with anyone in the world, free of charge. But hey, whadaya know. I've got mail.

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