Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Hurry up please it's time!"

I found it interesting that yesterday's report of the study of brain regions that are active when actors perform described an experiment based on excerpts from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Having heard the poem read aloud several times (including a recording of Eliot himself), I continue to be haunted by that mundane interjection, "Hurry up please it's time!," in the "A Game of Chess" section. We may puzzle over how many layers of meaning Eliot built up over this trivial phrase; but the nature of time-consciousness remains one of the great challenges in our understanding of what the brain does that endows us with mind.

In many ways the continuing success of the Internet is all about better serving our consciousness of time. Our telephone technology matured to a point where, at least for domestic service, we accepted that a phone call would have the immediacy of a face-to-face conversation. However, when we started communicating through the Internet, we sacrificed that immediacy in a variety of ways. We discovered that the nature of the network itself meant that the instant at which an electronic mail message was sent was not the instant at which it was received at its destination site(s). The first experiments with digital video were frustrating. Not only were the images small, but also their flow of time was not smooth. However, because video on the computer screen was so "cool," we learned to live with these shortcomings, just as we gradually recognized that electronic mail delivery can never be instantaneous. There was even a whole area of research concerned with identifying behavioral practices during video conferencing that would compensate for the temporal weaknesses of the technology.

Today the technology has improved to a level where images not only fill the screen but fill it with high-definition resolution. Nevertheless, time remains a problem. I was first really aware of the problem when I tried to watch the entire Carnegie Hall concert given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra on YouTube itself. This was shortly after the concert took place, and the bottom line was that the technology was not up to the task. As I summarized the experience at the time, YouTube was a fine place to watch short snippets; but it was not up for an uninterrupted delivery of a full movement of a symphony by Johannes Brahms. Those interruptions can destroy the listening experience, and they are beginning to surface with greater frequency. The recent live HD broadcast of Turandot from the Metropolitan Opera had similar problems; and I was surprised that none of my New York Times RSS feeds ran a statement from the Met informing their vastly-expanded audience about the nature of the problem (which apparently involved uploading from their end). However, this is not just a problem of real-time events. Even my beloved archives of the performances available through the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall have suffered. The player for these archives supports three levels of resolution. When it was launched, I quickly discovered that my DSL service at home could not keep up with the data rate for a high-definition signal; but mid-level resolution served my needs quite satisfactorily. Now I am happy if I can get uninterrupted flow at low resolution. None of this should be surprising in light of just how much video is being consumed through the Internet. When once think tanks like the Institute for the Future were asking what we would do with "bandwidth to burn," we now discover that the traffic jam has come to the Internet.

As a result, I found myself more concerned than enthusiastic over the following BBC News report that was released this morning:

Pupils in North Yorkshire have jammed with one of the UK's leading orchestras, thanks to high-speed broadband lines.

The video-linked music workshop over 10Mbps (megabits per second) connections provided sessions with the Southbank Sinfonia.

The project was organised by NYnet, which has set up high-speed broadband in the area.

It demonstrates what could be achieved using video conferencing.

David Cullen, chief executive of NYnet, said: "This level of connectivity enables both unique experiences such as this, and plays an ongoing role in day-to-day learning that can truly enhance the educational offering in the region."

Superfast broadband is transforming public services in other countries, allowing people to work from home and access medical and educational services remotely.

I actually have friends who attempted something like this in the pre-Internet days, trying to set up a performance that involved musicians in California and Massachusetts. I wonder what they would say about how well a 10-megabit connection would manage for the time-sensitive subtleties that arise when a teacher is trying to get a student to phrase a passage properly. I worry even more that, while medicine has clearly benefitted from broadband communication technology, we have not yet recognized that there may be time-critical situations in which relying on the technology may end up doing more harm than good.

Once again we face the problem that mindless evangelizing of a technology impedes our ability to have serious discussions about that technology's limitations. We rush to take advantage of new (or "cool") capabilities, giving little thought to what is actually happening when we do so or what consequences might subsequently arise. Thus, when those consequences do arise, we are caught off guard; and the results can be anywhere from frustrating to catastrophic. When it comes to the matter of how we listen to serious music, this is a case where one of my prize oxen is in danger of being gored!

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