Friday, September 05, 2008

Musician Under the Influence (of Technology)

As it happens, two weeks after concluding a series of articles on the effect technology has on modern music production, I stumbled on Nicholas Carr's article, 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' (July/August), published on The Atlantic website. I found the article via a mention in a US News & World Report essay titled 'A Digital Dumbing Down?' about "The lively debate over the intellectual impact of digital culture", by Jay Tolson (August 28, 2008). Both articles are well worth consideration.

Naturally, after reading both articles, I felt completely 'on zeitgeist'.

Here's a thought provoking excerpt from The Atlantic article that touches on material related to topics discussed earlier this year in the Critical Noise blog:

"Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise...the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper."

Like Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus (Carr notes), bemoaning the development of writing, Carr spends a little too much time lamenting the suspicion that someone or something has been, "remapping the neural circuitry" of our brains, with the result that his own (and possibly everyone's) attention span is noticeably shorter. Others support Carr's argument offering the wholesale abandonment of print as anecdotal evidence to its truth.

Carr does have a point that can be supported by brain science, regardless. Repeated physical activities and mental tasks do influence brain structure –no doubt about it. Musicians for instance, demonstrate greater numbers of nerve cells in certain areas of the brain related to auditory tasks than non musicians.

And yet, I can't relate to Carr on his point because I still retain the capacity to juggle web surfing and a good book. Not to mention that children who should be most susceptible to a diminished capacity for concentration as a result of new technologies are still somehow able to digest a five to eight hundred page tome belonging to the Harry Potter series.

I do relate to Nietzsche’s friend, the composer, however, and I'm aware of the impact new tools have on my craft. Is there reason for concern? In some instances, perhaps. In one respect, technology IS killing musicianship; Guitar Hero is no substitute for actually playing a guitar. But music software and the  novel interfaces being invented to manipulate that software are  changing performance technique, composition and streamlining production in ways I find interesting, even exciting. A life spent building virtual worlds has never stopped computer scientist Jaron Lanier from also becoming a composer, a visual artist and an author.

Kevin Kelly (Wired), responding to Carr on his own blog, The Technium, suggests that perhaps Nietzsche's change in style was not the result of the typewriter interface, but the effects of age and infirmity. Kelly is possibly correct, but is he also such a unique animal in the universe that he alone hasn't recognized how punching keys creates percussive rhythms that may shape verbal and creative expression in a potentially different way than unaccompanied pen or pencil to paper? Kelly may as well argue no difference in musicality between sliding violin samples across a digital interface than actually playing a violin. Nonsense.

Maybe it's my age –younger than Kelly but not so young that I feel compelled to stay connected 24/7 to the digital social ecosystem. And maybe I don't surf as much as Carr, or perhaps I simply have a different relationship with technology from both men. I started programming music on computers, in BASIC, in the early eighties on a Tandy TRS-80, of all things.

Programming definitely influenced the way I filter information, be it incoming sensory data or outgoing communication. After dabbling in FORTRAN, the world has been ever after filtered through a lens some called Karma, others 'Cause and Effect', but which I know as the IF-THEN construct.

In fact, when selecting and connecting melodic information, thinking 'in FORTRAN' probably plays a bigger role in the formation of my aesthetic than I've previously given the construct credit for. And I don't think that's necessarily a negative.

What I do find interesting is not how unlimited information access or ambient awareness might be eroding our mental capacity or distracting our focus, but how emerging similarities between Modern Audio Production and Graphic Design might be due in no small part to the influence of the Graphical User Interface in both industries (Music By Design).

Increasingly, the lens which we interact with the world is a data chocked screen.

And common or shared software protocols make once dissimilar activities available to experts of one art form who may now choose to experiment with another. The result is a kind of hybrid artist who may not be able to function as a musician or designer in the analog world, but is quite capable of producing something worthwhile in both Photoshop and ProTools.

To Carr's point:

If I have any misgiving about the latest technological advances in music production, it's that so much professional equipment of yesteryear has been replaced by disposable TOYS, virtual and otherwise. New England Digital's pre ProTools music production synthesizer (Synclavier) was crafted with the same buttons the military used to build B52 bombers, and it felt like a Steinway/CRAY super computer blend under one's fingers.

In contrast, few contemporary music tools are constructed with more care and craft than Fisher-Price Toy Musical Instruments, except that Fisher-Price products are actually built to last. It seems that new millennium instrument manufacturers are determined to edge their own products into obsolescence, and do exactly this with each new update. Getting customers to trash last year's product on the false premise that the latest technological advance will increase musicianship is central to countless business plans.

But you'll never find a Pianist abandoning his or her piano, or a Violinist his or her violin. How many electronic musicians are using the same tools today that they were using five years ago? Not many, I bet. This strange circumstance appears to have produced a culture of artists who would rather forgo the development of a competent skill set in favor of access to a perpetually novel tool kit. And, no doubt, the music made by perpetual students will bear evidence of this circumstance.

The flip side, of course, is that good music teachers from all over the world have become instantly accessible to the dedicated few at the touch of a mouse. Also, the tools of music production are now relatively affordable, and therefore within the reach of nearly everyone who wants to express themselves with sound –regardless of whether their ambition is to be a professional or simply enjoy music as a hobby. This can only produce a positive effect on a culture where the Arts have practically disappeared from the syllabus (in favor of new laptops for social networking, perhaps?).

Closer to my point, and as others have noted we've entered an Age of Design.

In his organizational paper of the same name, Jeff Conklin writes in Age of Design (Clicking this link initiates a PDF download!):

"...the job of humanity is now shifting from understanding our world to being conscious about creating it —that is, designing it."

Whatever one calls it, this paradigm shift is informing both our aesthetic and our process. Maybe we do read invent less, and read far fewer books, but we're arguably making and creating more using the tools of collage and synthesis.

It's also possible any diminished interest in text is the result our cognitive systems are undergoing a reorientation towards (or evolutionary preference for) pictographic writing systems (SMS shorthand, emoticons, branding, etc...), over traditional communication via the written word.

As with Ancient Egyptians, our preference is to consume and transmit data in packages that resemble a modern equivalent of hieroglyphics. We're all suddenly thinking visually and purposefully –regardless of whether we're artists, musicians, writers, managers or anything else– we've become a culture of designers.

How often now is every thought, every concept, first conceived as an image? It's only after one sees the thing does one then translate it into spoken words, formal or informal text or even shapeless sounds and music.

Google may or may not be making us stupider, but computers and other electronic tools, and GUI ubiquity especially, are certainly changing the way we connect to reality, process information and communicate our thoughts.

Why use the word when a picture –or ideogram– is worth a thousand, and nuance requires negligible energy to bring meaning into focus. Of course, Text works as well as it does because it is both an image and it conjures a sound.

So, perhaps we are thinking less like verbalists, and more like visual artists?

I don't want to believe that we're dumbing down. I'd like to think we're actually 'Designing Up'.

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Online magazine EDGE has posted other responses to Carr's article. Contributors include W. Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff, W. Daniel Hillis and David Brin. Simply click the link to visit: The Reality Club

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To specifically read more about how digital technology is transforming music composition and production from a primarily aural-centric task into a more visual experience than it it ever has been before (the invention of musical notation notwithstanding) click the following links to visit Table-of-Contents pages for two different but related series of articles posted earlier this year on the Critical Noise Aural Intelligence blog.

Critical Noise 2008 Series 1: Evolution of the Music Designer

Critical Noise 2008 Series 2: Computers Have Changed My Brain

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