Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Distant Future

I think computers are very neat. Fascinating. Marvelous. Computers are kind of like indentured servants that do not need food. They work very hard for you even if you do not give two shits about them. Computers are multi-skilled and extremely resourceful, and while they have inherent limitations, don't be fooled; computers can make it happen. You can teach a computer to do almost anything. And once it's taught, it never forgets. If you fancy, it will be consistent in it's process every single time, until you decide to make it change itself. Or, perhaps you'd like your computer to be different every time it does something for you. Well, all you have to do is ask.

Another nice thing about computers is that as mankind thrusts forward in time and space, the components that make up a computer become increasingly cheaper and more available. That means that more of us have computers, and the more computers there are, the more fun/work/assistance/computations computer owners will get out of computing. Overusing the word "computer" is a fun device to emphasize a point: A man with a Swiss Army knife is more useful than a man without, and if you have a computer, you have a spectacularly increased opportunity to fulfill your human potential. This may seem an odd juxtaposition, but a definition of human potential as well as a discussion of the ramifications of that increase may serve to clear the fog.

One of the many cool things that human beings can do is make computers. We thought about them, designed them, drew up plans, built large buildings to manufacture them in and continue to obsess over making them better at what they do than they currently are. Human beings can lay claim to the entire vertical process of computers: from their humble beginnings in the abacus all the way up to chess playing robots that walk the moon and destroy enemy bunkers from 500 miles. Bears cannot lay claim to having had anything to do with computers. Nor can salamanders or owls or donkeys or even dolphins, who are at least smart enough to bone for fun. Humans are the sole proprietors of computers and everything that ever went into them, and this is illustrative of human potential: the ability to do things that bees or trees or ponies could never ever do, and to do these things merely for the sake of doing them, no biological stimulus necessary.

There are myriad human "things" that we could come up with and discuss (because we are humans...) but I'd like to look at two that are particularly prescient to this moment and to the founders of this blog, for whom the chasm between the analog and digital worlds is presenting a problem. The first is something we have already been talking about, computers, more specifically, the types of things computers make possible. The other is one my favorite things in the world, mostly because of the way it sounds, and that is music. And in this case specifically, the making of music.

Birds sing, it's true. There are people in the world who for fun will sit down after a long day with a glass of Pinot Grigio and pop in the latest Humpback whale songs CD. I discount these from our framework because there is a biological stimulus for the sounds these creatures produce: communication, mostly for mating. And surely Isaac Hayes has given the world baby-making music of the most procreative caliber, but whales and birds do not write their music; they cannot reproduce it or record it; there is no hard copy of birdsongs that man had no hand in. That these forms even resemble "music" is actually a human construction. Bird and whale songs are no more music than you and I talking about computers.

In contrast, human music has no place in evolutionary theory. We make music across all cultures and for all of human history simply because we can and we like it. We like it because it can help us to get laid, or worship a god, or commemorate an experience, or satisfy an inner urge, or just to chill the fudge out. But we do not make music because we have to. In the most uninformed terms, this is exactly what qualifies music as art. And art, as we all know, is one avenue the individual can pursue in the quest to reach the fulfillment of their potential as human. It's a bit circular, but to attempt to achieve everything a human being aspires toward, that human must carry the mantle of human endeavor. Making music does not serve us in maintaining existence, but it does allow us to bear that existence with a smile.

And this is where the juxtaposition comes in: how can a machine aid in one's humanity? Am I advocating cyborgism? I think the line of reasoning here is obvious. Computers allow us to make music cheaply, effectively and on a personal scale. Gone are the days of expensive, room-devouring tape machines that require certified engineers to operate and are only available to those who can afford it. The computer has democratized the process of making, recording and sharing music to such a point that record conglomerates and corporate recording studios are obsolete. It is absolutely breathtaking that one need not even have an instrument to make music; if done correctly, the computer already has them built-in. This digital revolution has offered access to humanity from which millions had previously been deprived.

That achievement in new access is overshadowed is overshadowed by the giant steps forward in quality. Where access means more musicians, the democratization of recording means more music. The body of work available for consumption is orders of magnitude larger than before the PC revolution, and the law of averages dictates that a lot of this music has to be good. Computers allow for more efficient practice and writing of music, as well as more opportunity for critique. Decentralization means that the consuming bloc and not the marketing bloc decides the popularity of music. This all culminates in popular music that reflects more writing, practice and production time, that by definition, reflects an agreement between a large community of listeners.

What is important to take from this is that computers make it happen: music; art; community; culture; political jockeying; aggression; war; needless death of the innocents... I think computers are neat because they are tools and nothing more. Call them out for what you will, but remember that it will always be a human typing away at those keys.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your basic premises, that computers have democratized music, if not knowledge in general, and have allowed for increased communication between otherwise seemingly disconnected regions of the planet on a moment by moment basis. This revolution in the music industry that you referred to might have more of an evolutionary roll to play however. If we look at say, the evolution of humans over a huge time scale we have to realize that rituals and most likely music probably served as the means by which we extrapolated on language to the degree that we have. Music therefore might also be seen, as something that embodies the faculties that essential produce what it is to be human, that is the intellect or soul. Could music then serve as a sort of psychological evolutionary programming tool that heps us to spread knowledge about ourselves and the universe, helping us to approach problems differently. The point being, is that I think music is continually evolving, and thus its uses in the future might be far stranger and more in tune with science fiction than we ever thought possible. In that sense I am referring to studies in Cymatics, magnetism, string theory, and High altitude auroral research (HAARP). These studies and theories seem to suggest that music is much more fundamental to the make up of the universe than we ever though, and that maybe the universe is at a very deep level, singing itself into existence