Saturday, December 12, 2009

Technology and Competence

In Men, Women and Pianos Arthur Loesser's comment that pianos "have always largely been fingered by the musically incompetent" will probably strike most as elitist snobbery. However, it has a ring of truth that probably extends far beyond piano technology. In many ways the piano is the perfect example of a "satisficing" technology. Most of the people who use it may not use it particularly well or up to standards that most would call "musical;" but that does not prevent their using it in a way that gives them some satisfying sense of personal pleasure. It is not that different from the automobile having developed to a level where most people can use it to get from one place to another with little understanding of just how it achieves that goal.

Long before the days of the personal computer, I had a former student who like to go around saying that computer programming was so simple that any idiot could to it … and most of them did. His dystopian vision was expanded with the rise of the personal computer, first through programming in languages like BASIC and later, with the emergence of the Internet, in the rejection of programming in favor of any number of other things one could do with a computer. To say that technologies evolve to appeal to the capabilities of a lowest common denominator is not elitist snobbery. It is a recognition of the need to build up a strong base for marketing. In other words it is a consequence (whether or not intended) of the role that technology must play in a market-based economy.

Jane Austen delighted in reminding us of just how insufferable it could be to attend a social occasion that featured piano performances "fingered by the musically incompetent." Today we have Guitar Hero and similar software products. Have things changed that much since the first repercussions of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century? Is today's "information age" really any different?

No comments: