his week I sampled the latest tool offered by my computer’s free music program. It scans songs I’m playing and suggests others like them (some unimaginatively from the same album). I can listen to 30-second excerpts and consider my next move. Or I can mull the program’s choices for clues about its taste. It’s a benign little feature that superficially reminds me how software can improve on human limitation without embarrassing it.
What the program does is place an impersonal but highly efficient tool at the disposal of curiosity and commerce. It’s a quickie to a sale. Bravo.
Each new software salvo makes me wonder how I behaved before its introduction. In the case of music I bought hundreds of vinyl albums, lifting a quivering stylus cut-to-cut, record-to-record, careful not to scratch grooved surfaces. Cassette tapes later tempted me toward primitive mixes.
By suggesting companions and alternative, the computer music program does away with such lengthy protocols. The human mind can make only so many associations.
So where’s the down side?
Nostalgia for second-hand record stores doesn’t cut it. When MP3s killed off compact discs, in-store consumption of commercial music began a slow fade. Vinyl records, eBay staples, are antiques in the vein of typewriters. Of my 30-year-old treks to lower Manhattan record stores I miss only the album art (King Crimson’s 1969 “In the Court of the Crimson King” is unsurpassed).
No, what bothers me about computer music, and computer help in general, isn’t about tones or tunes per se. Instead, it concerns what might be awkwardly labeled the expectation of facilitation, and its causal corollary, the pre-packaging of resourcefulness.
The first part means making choices on behalf of an audience that passively comes to expect them; the second that compliant recipients think of culture as prearranged. Facilitation comes from facile, which in most Romance languages means easy.
While my new musical tool relieves me of compiling musical soul-mates it also quashes inventiveness. That would be semi-bearable if quashing weren’t something of a sport. Song-lovers still have their instincts, of course. The devoted ones continue to hunt and gather. It’s just that they don’t have to.
As Bill Gates promised in the 1990s, interactive easy street rigs teases from tedium. Facilitation and pre-packaging warp candor and promotion into two sides of the same coin. Few know the difference between a review and a press release. My music program is more eager that I enlarge my tune collection than I learn the Blues. It’s a pitch to amuse and earn.
Let’s be clear: The Internet amply stokes the big three — recreation, entertainment, education — and does so more freely, comprehensively, and for a larger audience (yet another big three) than any previous public medium. Intent and sophistication shape the tool. If Web conjuring turns mischief into abuse, woe to the bewitched. They’re on their own. Users can take or leave what’s offered.
Want succulent Google to translate for you? Be facilitated at your own risk (an Italian-to-English blurb on director John Ford’s “Stagecoach” reads: “With this film Ford launches its association with John Wayne, to be the hero rude, good and lonely even in many of his films thereafter.”) The recipient of such drunkenness must sober it up. If they know to. And that’s the rub. Some just don’t. So they live with it. The new HAL 9000 takes you only half the way down easy street.
Which give my little music program an onerous side.
The long-term consequence of prefabricating preference and facilitating aptitude is to cheapen the acts of seeking, speaking, writing. Preference isn’t smartness. Extrapolation isn’t insight. It’s easy to mistake one for the other when both appear glibly abundant and the passive acquiring of data is made far more satisfying than the burden of good judgment. Drinking from water to which you’re led slakes thirst, not knowledge.
“Enlightenment,” Immanuel Kant wrote 224 years ago, “is man’s emergence from self imposed immaturity.” Identifying immaturity requires skills easily concealed in a free market delivery system that delights in amateurs.
Shortcomings will appear only when the system cracks — which hasn’t happened in any substantive way. When public chat is stalled, and the global Cliff Notes with it; when sharing is blacked out along with email; when instant expertise and borrowed intellect disintegrate because the source has malfunctioned, what then? These questions will be answered over decades, or suddenly if the cyber-world is subverted or attacked.
Computers have never been so personal and personable; they’re reliable and blameless glow-worms. It’s what’s inside their users — the gullible wiring of inner music — that’s up grabs.