Monday, February 02, 2009

Man of the Future?

Throughout his professional life Glenn Gould was in touch with the latest developments in technology. It wasn't simply a matter of keeping "up to date" with it but more of being inspired by it. New innovations in recording and broadcast technologies stimulated Gould's creative mind to imagine new artistic possibilities in much the same way as they did for contemporary rock musicians such as The Beatles.

The hackneyed phrase "ahead of his time" never really makes any sense. But it could be said to apply to Gould at least insofar as he had certain ideas which became technically possible only decades after his death. For example, Gould was enthusiastic about the possibility of enabling listeners to become creative partners in the recorded music experience. He recognized the potential for this simply from the fact that listeners at the time could control some very basic sonic parameters, such as frequency equalization, on their stereo systems. But this amount of control is relatively trivial. Gould wanted to go further and he imagined giving listeners kits composed of the individual parts of a piece of music which they could then re-assemble to their preference. At that time it was practically unfeasible to do this. Today however, it's easy. Simply post individual audio tracks for download on the web and then let people reassemble them in GarageBand, ProTools, or the audio application of their choice. And in fact this is now common practice.

Consider the technology available to GG. Look, for example, at the chart at the top of this page. It's a score from Gould's radio documentary The Latecomers. It is drawn on a piece of paper. With a felt-tip marker. Forget ProTools. We're going to go cut up some tape now. Let's refer to the graph.

What's more interesting, however, is that Gould's idea was ahead of its time not just technically but also socially. Even if it were possible in the 1960s and 70s to distribute the kind of musical self-assembly kits Gould envisioned, it is hard to imagine that anyone would have wanted them. This too has something to do with technology. Not the technology of recording but rather that of social networking.

As Lawrence Lessig points out in this lecture, for most of the 20th century we lived in a "read-only" society. That is to say, a culture wherein a small group of people is professionaly responsible for producing cultural goods (i.e. they do the "writing"), which are then broadcast out to a wide audience of "consumers" (who do the "reading.") In such a culture, one's role as a producer or a consumer is clearly defined. This cultural condition was largely a result of the kind of mass media that—ironically—made Gould's carreer possible. Broadcast radio & television, mass-market publishing, and record manufacturing/distribution all have a "one-to-many" profile, like someone with a megaphone addressing a large crowd of people. Again, one person does the talking. Everyone else does the listening.

Sometime around the turn of the milennium, however, that paradigm collapsed as the internet allowed everyone to become a producer and consumer in equal measure—to the point where those terms may soon become culturally meaningless. The internet is the world's first "many-to-many" communication platform. In the space of only a few years our culture has transformed from a monologue into a conversation.

And this is just the social transformation that had to take place for Gould's idea to work. What Gould was really proposing way back in the 70's was open source music. I think Gould probably assumed that most people have a natural creative impulse strong enough to create a demand for open source products. The degree to which people now post, remix, and share their own creative work online suggests that this assumption was correct. But the prevailing 20th century "read-only" culture made this hard to see at the time. In fact, not only did few people have the imagination to conceive of such a culture in the 1970s but, even today, those who have a professional stake in traditional media are seemingly blind to its emergence, even as it springs up all around them.

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