I'VE ALWAYS BEEN something of a Unabomber sympathizer. Obviously not the mail bombs, but Ted Kaczynski's fears about the unintended dangerous side effects of technology really resonate with me. I'm not an antimodernist; I'm a cautious modernist in a world of people who take to technology like a big German shepherd--happy, hearty, trusting dogs, bounding up to every new invention and licking its face indiscriminately.

I even resisted converting to CDs until 1995. They're not nice to touch, and there's nothing sexy about a jewel case. Vinyl, near extinction, is today's most fetishistic medium, but cassettes felt good to hold. You could brandish a cassette over someone's head, produce it with a flourish; but you could also throw it across the room without fear. It was the best of both worlds: precious and durable.

And I suppose that all the MP3 files you have saved on your hard drive are no less indestructible than cassettes, but they're not objects, are they? That's where my cautious modernism comes in: How easily will you allow your passions to become downloaded ephemera?

Online music distribution, Internet radio, MP3s, etc. are not going to go away. The inclination is to say they're only going to get better. But I'm not sure I believe that entirely. Better than what? And how good is it now?

The fact is that now, today, MP3s basically suck. They're not always going to suck--in two years they probably won't--but for now, they do. They take a long time to download (unless you've got a great hookup), they sound like crap, and you can't find half the songs you want. Home-burned CDs skip. The portable MP3 players only hold half an hour of music at a time, so if you set it up before you leave for work or school for the day, you've got eight or so hours ahead of you with just that same half hour of music; at that point, you might as well be listening to The End. And while it's true that all these problems could be fixed in the time it takes for Hole to put another album together, there'll be no incentive until there's a way to make money off of downloadable music.

Another problem with MP3s is volume. No one wants to wade through the muck and mire of MP3.com or another download site themselves. It's a true needle-in-a-haystack venture: time consuming, and not that rewarding. For every one good song there are five, 10, 15 bad ones. There has to be a filter. There is listen.com, which sorts, categorizes, and reviews all the legal downloads it can. It's a great idea, and probably a viable one, but it's also one step away from the so-called pure democracy of Internet music. So we value an unadulterated, overwhelming onslaught of music because it's somehow better for the lack of governance. But we're also too immersed in auto-leisure to sift for ourselves. We endorse the idea of digital democracy, but not with our own time or, more importantly, our own money.

Einstein was ambivalent about discovering the technology for the atom bomb; and would television ever have been invented if its creators could have known about Baywatch, the WWF, and the O. J. Simpson trial? What's going to be the worst side effect of MP3s? I think it's dilution. By making it so easy to get your music out there, it encourages everyone to produce this art. Well, so what if everyone's making music? Who does it hurt? No one and everyone. The idea that everyone can and should make music is democratic and downright American, right? But MP3s encourage the production of art that's meaningless, which, not to beat a dead Beck, is something that already eats at our culture like the Ebola virus. Meaning comes not just from the lyrics, but from chords and arrangements which elicit emotion, as evidenced by obliquely evocative bands like Kinski and Welcome. But the emotion can be just as simple as feeling happy and carefree, like a song from Radio Nationals or the Now.

The ease of CD self-production means that any band with 72 minutes of music and $1,000 can get their sound out there. Part of me loves the possibilities of this, but part of me wonders if it should be hard to get your music recorded: Then the people who make music would do so because they want it more than everybody else. When it's easy, like it is now--and like it will be even more with MP3s--we are flooded with art that's meaningless. The more we're inundated with emotionally bereft music, the more our society learns to devalue that art. It drags down our already slumping cultural standards, which, looking at pop culture, are depressingly lax. And eventually your precious music, that which you can have and hold, becomes that much more background noise, indistinguishable from street sounds or the vacuum sucking away what little creativity we have left.