Art in the fast lane: A Critical analysis on art and technology in our fast changing society

Almost every book on audio technology starts off describing the advancements in digital technology and how that has empowered the home studio. “We have come a long way from the days in which audio engineers wore lab coats… since then, we have seen the advert of digital recording… These developments have made music recording increasingly accessible to all.”(Thompson, 2005, p. 118) Everyone is now a potential content creator.  However most audio textbooks and certainly most music creators are not aware that such fast-paced technological revolution needs special analysis, due care must be taken when allowing these “game changing” technological advancements into the artist’s arsenal of expressive tools. This is not only relevant for the music industry; same can be said for the film, game, design, and pretty much every art-form that is subject to technological change, which basically covers every art-form since there is a close relationship between technology and art.

    The opening chapters of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1983), depict the epic moment of mankind when Moon-Watcher, a specimen in the gray area between ape and human, develops the technology of using a bone to slay pray more efficiently and to gain supremacy over rival tribes. The use of tools was the decisive factor that gave an evolutionary advantage to the early ape-man and has continued to evolve along with mankind. This technological advancement answered to the survival principle, however at some point, and likely by accident, primitive humans learned that by hitting something with a bone or rock would produce sound at will, repetition would create patterns and soon the first forms of percussion would appear. There is an ample debate on the origins of music and it is not my intent to illustrate how music may have first occurred; what is relevant to the topic is that art/music appeared when 3 distinct phenomena occurred: technology (that accounts for the technical advancement which could be a bone turned to drumstick or the evolution of the throat to produce primitive forms of singing like Motherese, a form of communication that shares similarities with music as it uses disctint melodic and pattern sequences to strenghen the bond between mother and child.), intentionality (the ability to reflect about the past and the future), and pleasure derived from the action. Simply put, music became music when someone had the technology to produce music, an intention to produce it and experienced some sort of pleasure derived from such activity.

Since then technology has accompanied mankind in the creative process. Author Mark Katz (2010) explores the idea that this relationship has been reciprocal as its not only the way an artist uses technology but how such technology can enable or limit him to create in different ways. An interesting example is that of Igor Stravinsky’s Sérénade en LA pour Piano (1925) that was specifically composed to accommodate the 3 minute limit of a 10 inch 78-rmp record. Another great example is how 1980´s boomboxes fueled the hip-hop revolution by enabling street performance of dance and rap. In each case the technology shaped the creation. Looking at the big picture author Thomas J. Misa puts it this way: “Societies with distinct goals and aspirations have chosen and sustained certain technologies, and these technologies have powerfully molded the economic, social, and cultural capabilities of the societies that have adopted them.”(Misa, 2004, p. 288 p. 288) Under this principle we could review a raving topic in the music industry: analog vs digital. We could argue that what’s being proposed here is not really a matter of a technology versus another technology but about an ethic of one method of music production versus another one. To oversimplify this it could be argued that analog ethics has a stronger emphasis on the actual music performance since multiple takes would cost more, in this case technology shapes the creation by limiting the possibilities; on the other hand, digital ethics place much more detail in the editing process as computing power allows a lot of creative manipulation of recorded sounds, in this case technology enables more possibilities. This is not to say that one is better over the other, they are just different and would serve different purposes. The important thing is the equilibrium between art and technology. The right tool for the right job. This same discussion would apply to darkroom photography versus digital photography, typewriter versus word processor, real-world photography versus Photoshop altered images, splicing film versus digital cinema. Internet forums are plagued with these discussions; more often than not the debate is about the technical advantages and/or disadvantages of one technology versus the other, the debate sways from the ethical question proposed here.

Technology has been in the service of artists for ages, evolving with the creative talents of their generation. Futurist Alvin Toffler warns us in his iconic Future Shock (1970) , that the pace of change is rapidly increasing; major cultural and technological changes that once took centuries, now take much less than a decade to occur. Toffler insists throughout the book that the pace of change can have negative consequences for societies and individuals; those who fail to adapt will suffer from “future shock”.

Another possible problem would arise when the changes in technologies appear faster than the time users take to understand and use such new technologies. A very current problem today in music technology is that users are only starting to grasp version 9.6 of a given software when version 10 is released with significant changes that render all previous knowledge obsolete. We are looking at a time when musicians spend more time learning to use a new instrument than actually using it. We spend more time installing and troubleshooting than actually creating.

Music technology, as any part of general technology, is evolving at a much higher pace, developing new products everyday. However some of these changes are not only fueled by new technologies or knowledge; today’s products are designed to meet a demand. Proof of this are the myriad of products that hold no technological improvement over a previous generation and only improve in “looks” to meet a specific consumer need (for example vintage looking guitars)  or some fancy sensor that was designed more for play value rather than on general music usability. The problem here is that product developers want the artist to desperately need their product with little regard for the music the artist produces. Artists are also consumers, and are also subject to every aspect of consumer culture. This leads to many musicians buying lots of equipment that they don’t really need and lots of equipment that sits on a shelf doing absolutely nothing. In the documentary  I Dream of wires  (Fantinatto, 2011) several modular synth creators discuss how many of the machines they build will be bought only to be left on a corner without use.

Changes affecting music creation are not limited to the technology used to create it but also the technology involved in the distribution of music and more importantly, the way we learn it.  Every day more people are involved in music eLearning, either teaching or studying. Lots of people stray everyday from traditional educational models and rely on the internet as their sole means of information. Forums, tutorials, instruction videos, eBooks, short courses, magazines, etc., everything you need to know is out there on the digital frontier.

 

    Technology is married to art, it allows us to create beautiful masterpieces by acting as extensions of our body. But what if it spirals out of control and the pace of change is faster than our ability to cope with the new models imposed by demand, technical discoveries or new knowledge? The Darwinian theory of beauty as exposed by Dennis Dutton (2010) states that “We find beauty in something done well”. That is the most important task we should accomplish as music creators, to make music and do it well (according to what well means to each of us). Technology accounts only for half of it, the human side is just as important. Music books of the future should hopefully start saying: “We have come a long way from the days in which music was only about the machine used to make it, today we have come to an equilibrium between the drumstick and the man who uses it. We understand that the drumstick changes from time to time, and we are critically evaluating how these changes affect us as artists.”

Bibliography

Clarke, A. C. (1983). 2001 : a space odyssey : a novel. London: Inner Circle.

Dutton, D. (TEDTalks). (2010, Nov. 16, 2010). Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. TED Talks. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PktUzdnBqWI

Fantinatto, R. (Producer). (2011). Trailer: I Dream of Wires. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/97374616

Katz, M. (2010). Capturing sound : how technology has changed music (Rev. Kindle Edition ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Misa, T. J. (2004). Leonardo to the Internet : technology & culture from the Renaissance to the present Johns Hopkins studies in the history of technology (pp. xx, 324 p.).  Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip041/2003006813.html

Stravinsky, I. (1925). Sérénade en LA pour Piano.

Thompson, D. M. (2005). Understanding audio : getting the most out of your project or professional recording studio 

Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock: A Bantam Book / published by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

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