The Tempo of Media Evolution—Steve Jobs and Apple Part 2

          This is a response to the many excellent comments on my last blog post—Steve Jobs and Apple: Creative Muse or Destroyer? 

          I particularly address Markus's challenge about whether the way artists adapt to our current software revolution is essentially no different than the way they have responded historically, and whether what I call the bias towards editing is indistinguishable from the traditional way artists appropriate and reorganize material. I will tie responses of this into Cliff's concern that he finds himself listening to music from the perspective of what synth or software version presets the composer is using.

          My primary point in the essay is one of tempo, the current tempo of media evolution. That todays software provides professional art tools to the masses is not an issue, it's a benefit. The problem is that our tools now evolve at the same speed as the content artists create with them. This makes it difficult to work in artistic depth. Take the tool we call the piano, invented in the 17th century and continuing into our 21st century. This tool has undergone many structural changes throughout the centuries and performers have evolved their playing technique considerably. However, those changes have not substantially altered its basic interface and they have occurred at a much slower tempo than that of the changing musical styles. Imagine pianists every two years having to relearn their technique from scratch because of a piano update in which the configuration of black and white keys has substantially changed! Perhaps the new version provides a greater power necessitating an entirely new way to finger scales, almost having to build a technique from scratch. With that fast an evolution, composers and pianists would be spending a significant amount of time just learning again to use their tool. And before they could make the innovations of a Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, or Debussy,  the piano would substantially change yet again. Their original work might not even be relevant to the new interface. Chopin and C.P.E. Bach were separated by a half century, but they were using the same interface and largely the same technique to create their music. And of course the keyboard interface has remained largely unchanged to this day.

          But now think of today's software tools. Photoshop appeared in 1990. Just twenty years later it bears almost no resemblance to its first incarnation and it requires a completely different skill set to use. The same is absolutely true for music software. The music written in 1990s software won't even open correctly if at all in today's current versions. Today it is input and edited entirely differently than it was in its first version. The commands are different, the keystrokes are different, the entire concept of use has undergone radical transformation. This software evolves at the same speed as the content developed by the artists using it. That means we artists create on quicksand. Even if we keep up the steep learning curve to stay current with our tools, the content we make might become obsolete or irrelevant as fast as we make it. But more to the point, we simply don't have the time to exploit and explore all the strengths and weaknesses of a particular software system before it moves on to become something else.

          An article in todays paper makes this point of tempo, announcing the new Apple computer operating system Mountain Lion, now in development, will make many of today's computer's once again obsolete:,0,356802.story

          That means we continue this familiar washing machine process of relearning our tools once again before we can confidently dive in and create. 

          I also want to respond to Markus's description of the complexity of editing. He is absolutely right and I thank him for reminding us that editing is an artistic process, not a simple act of assembly. However—and this seems important—editing is a different process from creation. Isn't it? Or should I say, wasn't it? Because today's software tools make that process identical. I know this is true for music software. We manipulate carefully pre-recorded samples—we can't play the instruments ourselves. We use carefully engineered "patches" in software synths—it's too time consuming and difficult to program our own original patches. We even just paste into our projects entire musical library phrases that have been pre-recorded and licensed.  Yes he is right that most artistic works begin with something already created. But that is just a starting point for the struggle to create content. It isn't editing. For instance, most Medieval and Renaissance music begins with a cantus firmus, a tune already known. But the composers then build original work on top of that music. That is very different from editing. Not so with today's software. Now instead of focusing on creating musical content, we begin and end with the editing process. I think that makes a qualitative difference in what we produce. 

          Doesn't editing traditionally come at the end of a chain of processes? In making art we usually have an initial conception and/or improvisation. We then move to work out the macro structure and micro details to form a complete design. Then we flesh out entire work. Only after those processes does editing traditionally take over. Even with film, there is usually first a script and a production. But that's not how it works today with software.  Today we begin by thinking about editing. Again, it's not that we CAN'T create with today's software, but that the software itself is biased against it. The software wants us or encourages us to focus on editing. The thought we carry at all times is for the final output of a professional commercial quality image, a professional commercial quality sound, a professional commercial quality video. Perhaps that's one reason that so much of what gets created looks and sounds similar. Maybe that's why we always hunger for a surface that's different—what we call fashion—instead of something that is substantially and structurally original. 

          This leads to Cliff's comment about the nearly instant state of becoming obsolete, or as he put it, "sounding soooo 2010!" It takes most artists years to develop an original style—to absorb enough of the world, to gain enough interior control of themselves, and to exert enough control over their tools to have something unique to say. When so much time is spent mastering the software over and over again as it continues morphing, there is a powerful force to create what the software itself does most naturally. This is the case with film composers who write according to the strength of their samples instead of their personal musical desires. Beethoven wrote notes that the pianos of his day couldn't play. No sane composer does that with today's tools because they'll simply be taken to be inadequate or amateur. I see this dilemma also with concert composers who create music that fits the most natural tendencies of the notation software. When the notation software just can't seem to do something unusual, it becomes too difficult at some point to fight it and easier to do what the software itself does best. 

          The accelerated tempo of media evolution means we have less time to bond with our tools and take them to new artistic levels. The bias of the software is to produce a finished product, so it emphasizes the editing process. That philosophy presents a paradigm that constrains the way we artists envision and create our work. We talk incessantly about all the power and freedom these tools offer. And it is great, truly. But we don't remark about the power and freedom that these tools take away. We remain largely unconscious of the way they shape our own intentions. As Cliff remarks, in quick retrospect do we perceive previous work as dated by a particular version of a piece of software. The sound or look of the piece becomes so characterized by the "ambience" of that particular tool and its version, that we have difficulty listening or viewing past it to get to the actual artistic content. That's crazy!  Isn't it?

          While we continue ensnared in this great seduction, it might not hurt to reexamine what worked so well in our prior tool relationship, one slightly more symbiotic and perhaps ultimately of greater durability. I speak of paper and pencil.