Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Variation on a Joke

Apparently Zadie Smith has pulled a variation on my joke about computer-composed music.  (The software may not improve, but tastes will deteriorate.)  Her review of The Social Network in the latest issue of The New York Review also includes a perceptive examination of You Are Not a Gadget:  A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier.  That portion of her piece has the following to say about MIDI:

MIDI, an inflexible, early-1980s digital music protocol for connecting different musical components, such as a keyboard and a computer, takes no account of, say, the fluid line of a soprano’s coloratura; it is still the basis of most of the tinny music we hear every day—in our phones, in the charts, in elevators—simply because it became, in software terms, too big to fail, too big to change.

She offers this as an example of Lanier’s critique of how we get “locked in” to software that has little real benefit.  However, I am not sure if the question is whether or not MIDI either did or will fail.  To the extent that it has put many flesh-and-blood music performers out of business, it has certainly succeeded.  That success has then numbed our senses, meaning that we neither know how to be more acute listeners nor care very much about lacking that skill.

From this point of view, our senses are just as easily numbed by any recording technology, which is why, when serious listening is at stake, there is no substitute for attending an actual (human) performance.  Unfortunately, the “People 2.0” generation (as Smith calls them) seems perfectly happy with the sad approximation to performance delivered to their ear buds from their MP3 players.  Lanier’s lock-in syndrome is actually a symptom of the disease that really concerns him, which is the extent to which these “technologies of mediocrity” (my phrase, not his) all share the consequence of eroding those qualities we used to associate with our very humanity.  That is why he wants us to get beyond thinking of ourselves as gadgets that respond to stimuli fed to us, and I think Smith may have missed this point.

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