Technology is a wonderful topic around which to orient an article, and in fact there are more connections here than fit sensibly into one discussion, so this is first an attempt to summarize those connections between technology as an "actor" and various social theses. As discussed of late, we live in a society which increasingly downplays any significance to religion or art, and increasingly glorifies technological advance. The resulting implication, growing more dominant by the day, is that technology is not simply a neutral development to be injected with value (good or bad) by human deployment, but actually inherently good. Creating new technology has become the most reliable way to bring oneself renown or money. Technology lets people do things, a fact which sounds good, but whether it is ultimately good or bad or indifferent depends on what people actually do. The US conservative rallying cry that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is logical enough in its portrayal of technology as neutral, but nowhere does such an argument logically advance the position that technology is good. The latter is left as an unspoken implication, and is not so unspoken among the modern technophiles who insist on little from their lawmakers other than placing no restrictions on technology. Technology has attained at least the status of idol today, and may be a full-fledged religion in some circles, both the circle in which it is created most aggressively and the circle in which it is consumed most slavishly. To the people who understand it least, it can be like magic, whereas to the people who understand it best, it can be a seductive economic boon.
To many people, this is merely an issue of optimism over pessimism. Sure, technology often creates new problems in the wake of solving old problems, but then it can fix those too. I enjoy feeling optimistic in this way, but one must recognize the entirely unprecedented pace of technological development today. For most of history, new technology appeared much more slowly, and its development occurred under the thumb of other dominant intellectual paradigms. Today, it is the dominant paradigm, and it has nearly complete freedom and resources at its disposal. There is little constraint or evaluation... there is simply a flood of new technology, a flood which only seems to build upon itself. By the time we can begin to grasp the consequences of something, it has already happened. All of this is fine if we believe the credo that technology is inherently good, but if we do not, optimism or no, the situation seems ripe for something to spiral out of hand. What many of the most aggressive developers would have us believe is that the illusory "free market" will define "good" and then the good technology will prosper financially. There are two fundamental flaws with such thinking: First, we know that some producers put themselves into positions where they can manipulate the market for their own profit, and second, the process is too often unidirectional. To have any faith in the "decisions" of the market, it must be as easy to stop using a technology as it is to start using it, but this is usually not the case. Just because more people in the US are fed up with the commuter lifestyle does not mean that deemphasizing the automobile is easy or indeed anything but more complicated than emphasizing it was in the first place. Yet the speed of development means that more than ever, new technology is simply here, before its consequences can be grasped, and even if bothersome, the bridges needed to eliminate it gracefully may already be burned.
Technology drives change, and change usually has both a positive & a negative component. Some people like change for change sake; some people dislike it similarly. Clearly the first group has the upper hand at the moment, given the sheer amount of "fiddling" going on in some very significant areas such as biochemistry and the electronic gadgets which come to dominate everyday life. The technological creators who agonized most over the potential consequences were those of the nuclear bomb. There was a gravity about the entire situation, but of course it was eventually done. Where is the gravity underlying the situation with cloning or virus engineering or self-replicating nanotechnology? There is none... there is no imperative, no fear factor, aside from maybe the fear of losing out on an economic gravy train. There is no real concern for the consequences, and the motives are frequently utterly casual. At its most prototypical, technology is supposed to be a labor saver, but are today's results of even practical value? Life is louder and more harried than ever before, this according to every survey done. It is certainly nice to be able to talk to people across the world via the Internet, but so much of what is done has little practical value. What the technological fiddling does do is follow the irreversible path of convenience, adding entropy, becoming essentially a drug for the masses, and reinventing the concept of "bread & circuses" along the way. It is rarely like the nuclear threat, hanging behind the scenes like a specter; it is right in front us, all the time, dominating the sights & sounds of everyday life. In many ways, the latter means more, because it is inescapable, even in small moments. The path of convenience, especially an ephemeral convenience which does not seem to save anyone any time in the end, rots the mind & soul as surely as any drug.
Some of this discussion curiously mirrors that surrounding historically informed performance. It is a simple notion: Whatever the forces driving the development of modern instruments and the abandonment of early instruments, we find that much of this music responds well to early instruments. In short, in a sense, the early instrument performer is denying the usefulness of technological development in instrument making. It is not even necessarily a case of believing that earlier music is better, but only one of believing that earlier music is as good. Luckily, with music, with some effort, we can have everything, all styles at once. One of the main musical consequences of technology has been that "everything" is now very big indeed. Not only is there music available from many historical periods, but from all over the world as well. Technology is making the world smaller, and this fact is a good example of a change which has both a positive & negative impact. The ability to communicate and exchange ideas around the world is a fabulous one to have, but we also find that local traditions are being exterminated on account of the outside influence. This will be a tangible loss, and it strikes a blow especially against art music, as an eventual sameness has less spark, less impetus toward more creative development. In a sense, we have only one opportunity to seize upon the creative energy released from the elimination of world boundaries. That thought motivates a series of articles beginning with this one. The necessary gravity is present, as the musical ideas of this paragraph are even more closely intertwined than suggested thus far. HIP performances seem only to have intensified the naïve philosophical idea of the "definitive performance" and consequently have at least one strand working toward eliminating the very diversity they originally spurred. All of these changes will occur more quickly, perhaps transfiguring music entirely, as the new technologies of musical media & distribution take a firmer hold. The next segment of this technology series will look specifically at the media, hopefully with a more practical orientation.
Administrivia: It is Spring Break time, which includes a visit from my parents and later my wife & kids' break and vacation. Next column in four weeks.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb