The Imagination Engine, pt. IV

on the inside

Part I   |   Part II   |   Part III

Acoustics, Pleasure, and Resisting the Sale

In order not to descend into full-Orwellian fatalism, let’s look at one musical instrument and what it says about the world technology would make for us, the world so aggressively sold to us. Not long ago, I came across a video advertising what amounted to a slender silicone pad that you could stick to the front of a guitar and so turn it into some electronic sound-looping synthesizer. Tapping one touch-sensitive region would record bits of your guitar playing while other buttons would add in percussion and other digital sounds, effectively turning the whole rig into some cyborg blend of instrument and remote control. With this pad stuck to the sound board of his guitar (an important detail we’ll circle back to), the musician in the ad built the sound of an entire electronic bad around himself. It was an impressive display of technique that surely required a good deal of coordination. Something as old as music had been revolutionized for the 21st century.

From that shallow angle, both the performance and the machine were marvelous, truly marvels. This is the perspective that dives right for the pleasure centers of the brain and can stir a watching musician to want to be that impresario on the screen, but can also drive others to want to hear more of this new thing. Generating this kind of multi-tiered desire to both do and watch done is a social engineer’s dream. It both sells the product and builds an audience ready to further consume. This closed feedback loop both entices towards and normalizes a deeper technologic dependency[1]. This, though, is only the shallow angle. What is going on deeper down.

How to make a beautiful sound
Here are two things to consider: the quality of the music and the manner in which it’s made. Consider the physics of sound for a moment. Sound is the world brought humming to life with vibration. Anything can make sound because anything can be made to vibrate. The art of music and instruments is the care and study of the best materials and arrangements that vibrate in a manner and pattern that’s beautiful. Music is all about pitch and rhythm, yes, but great music is just as much about resonance and timbre. Great music is made on great instruments. A plucked string comes alive and its energy flows into the air as sound and that sound flows into the guitar, bringing the wood to life in its own inherent resonance. Strings, though, fly out of the factory a mile a minute. A fine instrument is a slow thing made of deliberation and choice. The species of wood. The direction of the grain. The architecture of the internal trusses and braces, like a wooden cathedral built to nurture and enhance the resonating wood. To see a luthier at work is to see the love in this labor. In many ways, a fine acoustic instrument is a beacon at the peak of what engineering can achieve. By engineering, I mean the process by which a long legacy of luthiers gathered and learned the materials available to them in order to craft better and better vessels through which the sounds in a musician’s mind could be brought into the world.

The beauty of this engineering is that it never got out of hand. The best of the tradition passed literally from hand to hand, from maker to musician, always staying connected to an essential humanity by always keeping a person as an essential part of both the making and the using. A body was always necessary and never engineered out.

The fruit of all of this labor, incidentally, needs no social engineer to normalize its place in the world. The glory of a well-made instrument in the hands of one who can draw out its full potential is self-evident. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

This sound was built from the resonance inherent to a thin slice of wood, and this indispensable piece of wood is called the soundboard of the guitar. To slap a big rubberized mat full of buttons atop the thing is practically a slap in the face of the long history of craft and of sound itself. It would be comparable to a singer stepping up to the microphone with a ratty pillow pressed against her face. Suffocating. To compensate, this machine runs the vibration of the strings through a processor to mimic the bodily qualities of the wood and amplify some of the digital mimicry. Only the guitar’s volume is preserved. Its character is lost.

Now, you could argue that the target audience for this gadget may well have sensibilities not swayed by the nuances of fine acoustics, and anyway, electrified music has its own charms. You’d have a fair point about the sensibilities, but I’d still quibble a bit about the charm. Resonance matters, even in electric guitars. If you migrate too far from the sounds innate to the materials in a musician’s hands, you’ll no longer have an instrument but a machine[2]. The sound will only ever be mechanical. Again, though, some people are into that. It’s a sound. All of this about resonance and character is the sound and fury of taste and it may signify nothing to some people. But, before you dismiss it all as the romantic pinings of a doleful aesthete, please consider this.

Minor irregularities further enhance the hand-crafted uniqueness
It is the tendency of technology to excise the human element, approximating what it replaces and telling us that quick, reliable consistency and bells/whistles are just compensation. Craft, though, by some kind of alchemy, makes things imbued with what I can only think of as something like soul. It’s the potential for human error that makes something made well and by hand so beautiful. We all know it could have come out poorly and we are in awe that it didn’t. This miraculous turn calls to us and we see its value immediately.

I’d guess that most people have something they’re passionate about, something in which they can spot the subtle differences between the work of skilled hands and the dispassionate manufacture of a machine (though, in deference to language, I’d rather call it something like mechufacture). I tell you, it’s those passions, the kinds that make us so discerning and concerned, that make us most human. Those passions instill in us the value of something handmade and from that value flows what you’d call a placed premium, the desire for less quantity because we feel more than compensated by the quality.

Technology works against that premium on quality by overwhelming it in a flood of quantity. Those social engineers so motivated will preach about their own quality, of course, but their real work is far more general. It consists of raising the sea level of desire itself, not just for one product but for all products so that we’ll want to pay less and less for anything in order to have more and more of everything. This incubates a culture of mass production that shifts, by technological automation, the work to fewer and fewer people and the profit to fewer still.

Consider, though, what it would look like if we trusted one another’s best human passions for the quality workmanship of real hands. Our stomach for mechanical approximations would sour and our demand would shift to the labor of our neighbors again. This would, of course, require more laborers and more patience for the slower work, but as demand for quality increased, demand for quantity would fall and surely we would settle into a new equilibrium. As for the demand for laborers, it just so happens that the forces of automation have been quite effective at leaving people outside the ‘labor force’. The slowness of human making has the intrinsic blessing of needing lots of human effort. This new equilibrium would also require rebuilding the various cultures of good making, but surely it would be something enjoyable to learn a craft rather than learn to navigate a spreadsheet, a cubicle maze, and a byzantine office politic. And, for those inconsolable spreadsheet lovers, surely there would still be a need for accountants.

The drift towards an ever more technological society isn’t inevitable, all it takes to reverse course is an awakening. As improbable as awakenings may be, this is one that we’ve already begun in our pet passions. We need only consider the pet passions of our neighbors, that they may be as justified as our own. In short, we need only trust that quality matters for deeply human reasons and so reorient our spending to reflect such a premium. The hardest work here is the work of contentment. To be more satisfied with a little good than with an abundance of fair is hard work indeed.

The Art of Lonliness
Before we finally put all this thought to rest, I want to return to this augmented guitar to consider how the music is made. The novelty of this product is that of the one-man band, conjuring images of Dick van Dyke laden with horns and drums, clashing cymbals between his knees. It’s an image as comic as it is impractical. We have to wonder if he’d be better off finding some friends to help him out.

It may be helpful here to mention another product in passing, also served up in a social media feed. A video camera loaded with motors, gyroscopes, and a motion sensor that can track action and film it automatically. Whence came such a lonely machine? In the social media world, the only life is the life displayed. Yet we are more isolated and buffered than ever. So, validation must come through digital notifications: hearts, stars, and thumbs[3]. Unfettered availability to be watched in the cloud—to know we really exist—and this growing lone-ness create a vacuum. We must fill a human absence to stay present in the ether. So was born the selfie. Then came the selfie stick to give our navel gazing the quality framing and dizzying angles that our stubby human arms preclude. This robo camera picks right up where a hand-held stick left off and even removes that last pesky human element. Namely you. It’s the perfect joke of this social era that, having lost the social skills that play well with others (skills like making time, effort, and social grace in our individual lives), we would be allured by ads in our feed for motion-sensitive robots with which we could further distance ourselves from people and still be ‘socially’ active.

This camera and this guitar make it more fun to play with yourself, pushing the individualism that animates so much of the technological revolution to new exponents. And they are both socially engineered in a way only possible in a digital world of ‘personalized’ feeds (made more personal by reducing each person to choices easily mapped by an algorithm). Immersed in technology, more parades past us to reinforce that universe and stir our lust for its potential. What, the advertisers would have us ask, would we have ever done without them? Who would even imagine that world anymore? I guess that means we ought to answer that question, imagine that world.

Without his band in a box, that guitar player would either have to go it alone with less, or call up some friends to add what’s missing. This latter option is what we commonly call ‘forming a band’. Framed in this way, we see that once again technology is proposing to stand in for another person. Isolation standing in for community. For the musician, this can initially present as a liberating bargain. He is allowed to make complex and layered music that he would otherwise be unable to make alone. Is this actually freedom, though? Or does it come with its own set of limits?

This isn’t even a real question; the limits are clear. First, there is a creative limit. An individual is confined to the workings of a solitary mind, with all its habits and ruts. It’s a closed system. A collective, though, is subject to the diverse whims and even mistakes of others. A happy accident, a wrong note on the part of one can send the others into a space they may well have never found alone. A closed system simply isn’t stirred by the creative diversity of an open one.

The second limit is one of complexity. Simply put, no matter the technology available, a single person can only do so much. Here, we can imagine Mozart at a piano. His mind, genius though it may be, still only has 10 fingers attached. But, Mozart with a quill in hand can compose music for an entire orchestra’s worth of hands and minds. The guitarist wielding this beat box is likewise limited to what his own hands can do with the software. All of his ideas must squeeze through a gate the size of his one body.

The third limit is one of pleasure. The musician working alone is limited to his own satisfaction, unless he has an audience, but then his pleasure becomes fraught with fear and maybe even self doubt. Will the audience love him? And will they love him enough? The musician working with the machine is no better off. The computer can’t feel, only do. If we really think about it, this further complicates pleasure with loneliness, playing a duet with a cold automaton. Perhaps this is why individualism is so given to narcissism. If nobody else can be counted on to love you, you have to double down on loving yourself.

Look, though, at people making music together. I would bet that the majority of music made today, ever made at all in fact, is done in garages and living rooms with nobody to hear but the musicians themselves and maybe some folks sitting around socializing or maybe making supper in the next room. Those musicians’ pleasure is multiplied by its very source because making music is fun for everyone (usually). Something happens when people take joy in same doing. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s pretty pure. The pleasure is exponentially greater than that of even a virtuoso playing alone just by the fact that the pleasure is shared.

The general bent of technological progress of all kinds, though, is one of separation. The human element is costly so technology proposes to defray that cost by separating people from work and from one another. This is an unsettling bargain. Not only does it degrade the quality of the thing, it imposes on it a harsh set of limits. Any sort of technological advance, regardless of its complexity, brings to an endeavor only a dumb, rote repetition. It is not creative, it does not collaborate, and in the absence of additional human input (which the individual is eventually too limited to further offer), it will not add any intricacy. Even if some software engineer comes up with a code to better mimic creative interaction, there will always be the ultimate limit of pleasure when a person is swapped out for a machine or even a computer. The pleasure that will always elude technology is the simple act of doing work together instead of alone, which can make even bad work bearable and makes good work something very nearly divine.

 

The social engineers dedicated to the ongoing march of technical innovation make all kinds of promises about the glorious horizons yet to be reached and always just around the next bend. Their road is paved with a kind of progress that is always new only because it is always killing the old. The digital revolution has profoundly increased both the capability and the sheer dazzling wattage of the inventions they boast about. And these inventions abound, praises sung by this chorus. Each new machine raises the stakes of a life that, even before their time, was very fast paced and in which a human presence was an expensive line item to write off as often as possible. Certainly speed is essential to maintaining enough blur to hide the widening cracks in the glittering facade of progress, softening the edges of its own unique tyranny if only by optical illusion. People are indeed expensive, relationally and economically. I do have serious doubts, though, that those costs can ever be written off. Any attempt to do only has temporary success. The human element always comes back as either tragedy or violence[4].

Therefore, must examine the power we grant ourselves with suspicion. I believe we will find that we have always been capable of much more than what we can manage well. We can only hide the costs for so long. We spent the Industrial Revolution trying to exceed our limits by mimicking nature with our own designs, replacing flesh and effort with wit and automated steel. As the Digital Revolution unfolds, we can see signs that the machine, the imagination engine has been left running long enough to bring us back around to our limits, this time dearly missing them and needing their touch on our conscience in order to return to health. This is our opportunity while the age of the screen is still young: to slow down.

With our fist on the throttle and the devil at one ear, we are convinced that a hungry lion is at our heels. Slowing down, then, is an act of resistance. It’s the choice to stop listening to that devil long enough to consider what he’s already said. Yes, there’s a hungry lion at our heels and it will catch us eventually. This is not a surprise. But, you can try to outrun the lion or you can try to out think it. We can continue our knee-jerk flight, and, by wholesale surrender to progress by any means necessary, try to keep everything that resembles concession to our limits, to say nothing of death, at bay. Or we can simply admit that life is limited and therefore precious. Far too precious for the mere cycle of appetite and accumulation, a cycle which technology cranks faster and faster, highly efficient and de-humanized. Imagine, instead, a better engine. Crafting and enjoying better things in human ways with the time we do have.

To savor, not abhor, our limits hinges on a kind of satisfaction that can’t be sold to us, nor even engineered. We are only sold what must be bought again and again. We are sold dissatisfaction. Our resistance to the sale is a Sabbath from demand born at this sight of the absurdity of all demand. Ultimately, slowing down is our defiance of the myth of the best, of having it all, as we allow what is good to be good enough.

*     *     *

[1] Technology has this creepy knack for sculpting around itself the world in which it best fits. It makes the social engineering surrounding it almost too easy. Like convincing people they need air.

[2] Machines are beholden to some power source, which puts their use ever dependent on and therefore to some degree in service to the dirty process of producing fuels and electricity. This puts a limit on the musical machine because its life is not in itself but in the power cord. Cut the cord and the sound takes a serious downturn.

[3] Funnily enough, this list of digital affirmations is already outdated. Social media is always working to make our passage into their alternate universe more seamless, always trying to better ape what nature just does. The palette of emojis expanding well beyond even comprehensibility in trying to match the nuance of real life.

[4] One interesting quirk of the digital revolution is that we are more exposed than ever to the multitudes of tragedies and violences suffered and committed by those written-off human elements we were once ignorant of.

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