[23 May 2010]
Several months ago, prior to the launch of PopMatters’ “Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music and Technology” series, I mulled over the prospect that this critical forum, which undoubtedly held promise, might possibly turn into a naïve, one-sided salute to technology that leaned on music to lead the cheer. It is not that I was inherently opposed to hosting a pro-technology “deliberation”, or using music to compose the argument, you see.
After all, if I were to illustrate my own stance on our current high-tech lifestyles, I would perhaps put it this way: I am psychologically dependent on my iPhone, I download more music than I can ever possibly listen to, I have willingly handed the various images, sounds, and details of my life over to Google for “storing” long ago, and I arrogantly scoff at technologically impaired people as if they were medieval imbeciles struggling with the implications of heliocentricity. Oh… and I financially support myself (partially) with a remote, internet-based job, a job that only exists via the liberating hand of technology.
A Luddite, to put it simply, I am not.
Yet, for some reason, once I agreed to take the reigns as editor of the series, I decided to keep it ol’ school, as far as being “objective” and all. Despite my obvious affection toward technology, I succumbed to a nagging, ingrained inclination to approach the “perspectives” that might emerge while working on the series with an open, but critical mind, and to steer those perspectives down a path marked by balance, rather than bias. Once work began, I even went as far as to emphasize this particular editorial stance to the diverse crew of writers who eventually came on board to write for the series. As it turned out, however, this fine bunch of anonymous, but brilliant people that I will never meet needed no urging to write in an unbiased manner, despite the subject being something as emotionally engaging as music.
I did, however, offer up to the ten writers a guideline derived from the tried-and-true argument that—when delivered in a condescending, snobbish accent—goes a little something like this: “Technology is neither good nor evil; it is, rather, an impartial force that has historically bequeathed paradoxical results, depending on mankind’s implementation of it.” An admirable editorial position that no doubt would make both my Ethics and Critical Thinking professors smile proudly like a mother does when her young child says “please” and “thank you” to strangers, before being told to do so.
The first read through of the selected pieces, however, seemed to corroborate my own initially unflinching techno-glee. In fact, a distinct trope quickly emerged where writer after writer patiently acknowledged that, yes, technology can certainly have some strange, unpredicted, and paradoxical effects, especially in the realm of music. But more importantly, technology is not merely an affecting force, but it is an incredibly empowering force. The writers presented example after example of how the explosive synthesis of music and technology was indeed an empowering event. And technology, whether we are talking about bone flutes or printing presses, drum machines or file servers, empowers those that use it, understand it, and have no inborn fear of it. A brief survey of the series demonstrates exactly that.
Jennifer Waits explained in “Technology and the Soul of College Radio” how technological ingenuity was the principle component in the establishment and dissemination of college radio, both at the dawn of terrestrial broadcasting and again in the age of the Internet. David Kammerer pointed out in his piece, “‘Rockit’ Science: ‘80s Instrumental Pop in the Brave New (Digital) World”, how MIDI programming enabled musicians like Herbie Hancock to construct “a new musical chapter in the African-American postcolonial narrative”. Laura Schnitker detailed in “Progressive Sounds: Technology and Innovation in Indie Music” how technological factors stimulated successive indie booms over the past century. And Emily Becker’s investigation, “MP3, the Death of the Record Store, and the Birth of the Closet Hipster”, uncovered how access to MP3s via the Internet has facilitated the cultural fulfillment of people geographically removed from major cultural centers and demographically segregated from underground bohemian populations.
These reoccurring examples of empowerment through musical technology were personally invigorating, and indirectly seemed to reinforce bold, academic prophecies about the future that I had long been seeking to verify.
Jonathan De Souza’s piece, “Bone Flutes, Pianos, and iPods: Notes on Music, Technology, and Embodiment”, for instance, recalls Jacques Attali’s pivotal book Noise: The Political Economy of Music and Attali’s argument that music serves as prophetic entity because its mutations anticipate wider structural transformations in society. The development of recording technology, for instance, gave birth to a society characterized by repetition, which Attali argued saw a “fundamental change in the relation between man and history because [recording] makes the stockpiling of time possible”. De Souza’s analysis essentially refocuses Attali’s, moving from the relationship of music and society, to instrument and body. De Souza contends that new musical instruments, whether they are bone flutes, pianos, or iPods, stimulate wider changes in the performance and consumption of music by transforming the dynamic interaction between body and instrument: “The body, then, shapes the instrument at the same time the instrument shapes the body… the instrument opened itself to the player, while reshaping the player at the same time.” This interaction between instrument and body discussed by De Souza, theoretically, is a microcosm — or perhaps a precursor — of the larger systemic interaction discussed by Attali, where transformations in social organizations are merely “echoes” of sonic prophecy.
Other prophetic concepts were indirectly verified as well, such as Alvin Toffler’s ideas on the “prosumer”from his celebrated book The Third Wave. Karen Snell’s discussion of today’s typical music students in her article “The Ever-Changing ‘Technical Aesthetic’ and Its Influence in the Music Classroom” clearly confirms the concept of a prosumer in her own language. Snell’s argument that young people today possess a radically different “technical aesthetic” that has lead to their “vitally different understandings of what it means to be a performer, composer, arranger” affirms Toffler’s prediction of “a basic shift from passive consumer to active prosumer”, which he indicated would happen when “a progressive blurring of the line that separates producer from consumer” occurred. Snell’s music students and their modern technical aesthetic are essentially Toffler’s prosumers incarnate.
Beyond the scope of the series, conceptual threads about music, technology, and history that I had been clutching at over the years seemed to be, for the first time, converging before my very eyes. Suddenly, parallel ideas were emerging between Attali and Toffler, two thinkers who draw from very different ideological wells. Nevertheless, Attali’s postulation regarding an emerging era of “composition” that he defined as “a truly different system of organization, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relationships can arise”, now seemed not unlike Toffler’s “Third Wave”, which the futurist Toffler described as “the new civilization bursting into being”. Attali’s era of composition was also preceded by two previous eras that are not wholly unlike Toffler’s “First Wave” (“representation” for Attali) and “Second Wave” (“repetition” for Attali). Furthermore, Toffler’s prosumers seemed to have a place within Attali’s era of composition, which is an age where Attali argued the “listener is operator” and where music and technology “calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer”.
Perhaps I was forcing the pieces to fit, but the sudden symmetry that had emerged between these two divergent perspectives was staggering.
These connections, along with many others, that the “Retroactive Listening” writers were stimulating started coming one after another. Taken as a whole, the connections served to bolster, from my perspective at least, the wider “technology = progress” weltanschauung that progressive thinkers ranging from Attali and Toffler, to techno-advocates Kevin Kelly and Ray Kurzweil, had been preaching for years. Although some of the connections might be nothing more than conceptual phantoms looming within my mind, the “Retroactive Listening” writers had, directly and indirectly, provided profound insights into the empowering influence that many forms of technology have had on music, and the wider implications that such empowerment has had on the upward progression of society. Appropriating a quote from Toffler’s The Third Wave, and replacing the word “memories” with “music”, I believe, hits the nail on its head: “Our remarkable ability to file and retrieve shared [music] is the secret of our species evolutionary success.”
Yet, as I inched deeper into the “Retroactive Listening” pieces, I found that another trope gradually emerged. This trope, instead of celebrating the democratic tendencies of technology with Utopian rhetoric, expressed a pronounced sense of existential despair. This despair, which at times morphed into acute anxiety, was hard to pinpoint or define, but definitely inescapable for the majority of the writers. Forced to confront the implications of these sorrowful pieces, I began to feel as if I was inadvertently drifting down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Writer Jay Somerset, in his piece “The Day the (AM) Music Died”, composed a borderline eulogy for a golden era forever gone, an era when music was supposedly purer and not ravaged by the forces of corporate radio, iPods, or MP3 blogs. Joseph P. Fisher’s article, “Loneliness is a Cool iPod… Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover”, for instance, spoke of the artist/fan estrangement that file-sharing enabled, as opposed to obliterated. Eric Casero pointed out in “Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age”, that our interaction with particular music, mediated through modern technology, has shifted to a less meaningful, more transient experience. Most poignantly, however, was Kirby Fields’s piece, “File Sharing from Carter to Obama”, which provided an autobiographical insight into the demise of that once-meaningful experience of music, lamenting that he could not “shake this sense of loss”. Fields’s statement that “there’s a difference between sharing files and sharing music” forced an immediate reappraisal of the assumptions regarding music, technology, and empowerment, as characterized by Toffler’s above quote.
My initial lofty ideas about empowerment were called into question when it became clear that technology was, as several writers specifically focused on, somehow bleeding music of something essential. The writers collectively posed several questions: Is our technologically based musical culture moving in the right direction and is there a damn thing we can do about it if it is not? Is the iPod as liberating as its ad campaigns promised, or is it the quintessential vehicle of alienation, as both Fisher and Fields convincingly argued? Does the proliferation of MP3s, and our culture’s “remarkable ability to file and retrieve” them, indeed add up to “the secret of our species evolutionary success”?
Despite my previously stated and largely unquestioned affection with musical technology, it dawned on me that I, too, was suffering from a similar despair/anxiety, only that I simply lacked the perspective to realize it. I mean, what else can explain why on this past Record Store Day, I huddled out in the rain at 8 a.m. to scramble and claw past record numbers of people for a bunch of lousy—I mean “limited”— 7"s that, after hearing them, obviously weren’t worth the 12"s of wax required for a regular release? (I am looking at you, Sub Pop).
Along with those other Record Store Day suckers, I was obviously clinging to something besides an umbrella that rainy morning.
Perhaps we were seeking to recapture the “aura” of our music or at the very least re-instill it with a ritualistic capacity, something that Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin argued modern technology was responsible for liquidating from all art in his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. If this is a process that began in the age of mechanical reproduction (a designation akin to Toffler’s Second Wave), one could only assume that an acceleration of this liquidation would occur in our age of digital reproduction (Toffler’s Third Wave). Fields’s nostalgic childhood anecdote seems to address the loss of ritual when he reminisces about pulling “all-nighters” where he and a friend would stay up until dawn exploring their tape collections together, as opposed to the unceremonious transfer of a zillion, probably-will-never-listen-to-anyway MP3 files to one another in today’s world.
Or maybe we were seeking to fulfill what Gregg Easterbrook identifies in his book The Progress Paradox as “meaning want”. In trying to figure out why in the West people were discontent despite the enormous advances in living standards that technology has made possible in the past century, Easterbrook claimed that the West no longer suffers from material want, but now suffer from “meaning want”, which the author argues could be “a principle cultural development of our age”. Easterbrook hypothesizes that this phenomenon was brought about in large part by widespread “choice anxiety”, which anyone who (fruitlessly) attempts to keep up with the never-ending slew of new album releases knows all too well. Eric Casero’s “Mental Machine Music” piece reiterates this notion when he discusses the “burden of choice”. Casero claims the proliferation of musical options, or the freedom to listen to so many different selections of music, “may have the unintended consequence of distracting the listener from his or her current listening experience, thereby diluting this experience by diverting the listener’s cognitive focus from the music itself to the musical choices available”.
Regardless of which intellectual concept I turned to, my perspective on the matter of music and technology had turned 180 degrees.
In the introduction to this series I posed what I thought was a rhetorical question regarding our file-sharing culture: “Was our first instinct correct, to wave from the safety of our shore-like P2P networks to the once titanic music industry as it drowned in the technological sea change? Or is the technological revolution proving to be a whirlpool-like force that is somehow slowly sucking music of its most precious, most fleeting value?” I suppose this is what I get for asking a question intended merely to encourage some bi-partisan debate. Little did I know it would flip my whole perspective upside down.
It seems that the “Retroactive Listening” series, in its attempt to be unbiased and critical, instead offered a penetrating peak into the darker side of music’s evolution within the current technological revolution. Incidentally, the series took its place in the front line of an emerging wave of criticism that is beginning to question the unfettered celebration of technology and challenge the “obvious” and oft-cited benefits of technology that have had their day in the sun for some time now.
Returning for a moment to Attali’s proposition that if music is a prophetic force, what does it mean when we acknowledge that music has changed, and that we did indeed lose something when we wholeheartedly embraced the trappings of technology? By draining music of its value, what else in our lives will lose its value? Wait’s aforementioned piece, which, after detailing the benefits of technology to her subject, concludes “when the technology takes control of the microphone or the mixing board, college radio begins to lose a bit of its soul”. Will Wait’s observation about technology’s detrimental effect on something that she personally holds dear extend to things we all hold dear?
Unfortunately, realizing the existence of a question does not mean an answer will be forthcoming. Nonetheless, writers who share a similar sentiment are in fact exploring the implications of these questions pertaining to life and technology, instead of simply music and technology. On the political front, there is the recent Foreign Policy piece “Think Again: The Internet” by Evegeny Morozov, while on the social front, there is “The ‘Quit Facebook’ Meme and More” by PopMatters’ own Rob Horning, just to name a few recent examples. And the “Retroactive Listening” piece by Jay Somerset, “The Day the (AM) Music Died” even points out how an entire wave of lo-fi musicians are using music itself to express a more convoluted, yet similar reaction to technology’s influence in our lives.
While it would be foolish to argue that this sort of sentiment has not been around for some time (many readers of Horning’s “Marginal Utility” blog I am sure have been thinking along these lines for some time), this is instead a simple acknowledgment of a perspective whose time has come, or at least beginning to gain momentum. And I am distinguishing this more critically nuanced view from those who initially resisted the emergence of file-sharing culture because MP3s didn’t “sound as good,” or because they were greedy, reactionary cranks like Lars Ulrich who wanted everyone to continue paying 17 bucks for CDs that weren’t worth the copy control code they came inscribed with. Roots of the former view can be traced as far back, if not farther, to the foreboding predictions that cyber-scholar Lawrence Lessig has been screaming from the mountaintop since the late-1990s.
Nevertheless, while this editorial postscript obviously carries with it a heavy, somewhat cynical tone, I have not forgotten the benefits that technology has enabled in our lives, mine in particular. It’s just that, for me, this series has lifted the silicon veil. It wasn’t until I forced myself to be critical and unbiased about technology’s impact on music that I came to realize the truly paradoxical influence it has had on our music, and by extension our lives. Ironically, this is exactly what should have happened considering the parameters I laid out the series. But this is not the result I anticipated.
Regardless, now that we’ve spent the past few years deserting our conscripted posts as passive consumers in the mainstream to construct alternative communities on the Internet and in the blogosphere, sitting behind our glowing screens, sipping triumphantly on revolutionary juices, crying “Death to the Record Industry” in our best Pancho Villa accents, gleefully having torn down the structures that upheld our musical world, the dust has begun to settle. We are now beginning to glimpse what we are left with. Like many of the writers in this series, I am now anxious, as opposed to eager, to see what comes into view.
In the introduction to the “Retroactive Listening” series, I quoted Nietzsche’s famous dictum from the 19th century, “Without music, life be would a mistake”. In writing the conclusion to this series, I am reminded of another 19th century thinker who, while not specifically concerned with music, did have quite a bit to say about technology’s impact on the world. At the onset of the 20th century, Henry Adams, an aristocratic American historian with unparalleled insight into his own times, wrote about the spiritual gutting of the West brought on by the tumultuous forces of modernism. Adams reported from the famed Paris Exposition of 1900 that while the great mechanical hall of dynamos on display mesmerized him to the point that his “historical neck [was] broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new”, they also scared him right out of his handlebar mustache. So much so, in fact, that his final book, “Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres, was an attempt to create an escape bridge to the medieval past. And while a century or so later, dynamic engineering has given way to desktop computing, we seem to be in the same boat as the aging patrician was at the birth of the 20th century, when he said “The 19th century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin.” I wonder if, like Adams, our initial giddiness will give way to fear, cynicism, and pessimism over man’s ability to harness the technology he unleashes.
This, however, is just my humble perspective, and one that I have only recently acquired. As I sit with it for a while, I will undoubtedly uncover some flawed assumptions and faulty reasoning. Regardless, this is PopMatters’ final word in the “Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music and Technology” series. In closing, I now ask you, dear reader, to sound off and put your two cents in. Log in to your PopMatters account, register if you need to—don’t worry, we won’t stuff your e-mail with too much spam—and use the comments feature below to voice your opinion. Tell me I am wrong. Tell me I am a melodramatic, pessimistic fool succumbing to the same nostalgic, Utopian fantasies about the past that I had been impervious to before. Tell me I have fallen into what Easterbrook calls “abundance denial” and cannot see the reality of things, the empowerment that technology enables, because of the “progress paradox”. Remind me of how cool iPods really are, or what life was like before downloading MP3s was possible, or how excruciating it was to find good music on MTV and the radio before blogs and P2Ps came along. Or just go to town and point out all my flawed assumption and faulty reasoning with some wickedly snarky comments (you know you want to). Just make sure to tell us what you took away from this series—give us your perspective on music and technology.