Monday, February 11, 2013

Should technology shape art?

Is it coy to title a blog post with the wrong question? Mea culpa.

The question is not whether technology ought to shape art. The fact is that it does, and always has.

  • We read books, not scrolls: the codex was a technological development, first described in writings still known to us about two thousand years ago ... and overcoming an older text-recording technology, the scroll, a few hundred years later.
  • We generally read printed books, not hand-copied books; the printing press as we know the technology here in the west was invented in the fifteenth century.
  • Musical arts? Beyond the human voice, music is produced with mouth harps, violins, oboes, zithers, trumpets, drum kits, synthesizers, and so on -- that is, with technologies at all levels of complexity.
  • The art of cinema? A nineteenth-century technology.

Drawing on cave walls with charred sticks, painting in oils, cast bronze sculpture, splitting dead cows in half and mounting them in tanks of formaldehyde? Okay, maybe never mind that last, no need to get ridiculous. The point is, technology has had a major role in the ways art could be created and experienced for a long time ... arguably for as long as we've had art.

I remember hanging out with my BFF, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early eighties, and rolling my eyes at the bazillions of 'pieces' being produced by John, by his teachers, and by fellow-students that consisted of videotaped 'scenes' in which pretty much nothing happened. I never figured out the attraction myself, but the availability of video cameras that art students could afford must have had something to do with the phenomenon.

Now, of course, we have YouTube. Heck, we have video on YouTube of dead cows split in half and mounted in tanks of formaldehyde:


I have to admit my jaw dropped last month when I read Betsy Morais reporting on last month's Digital Book World. Her 22 January piece on The New Yorker's web site -- The Book of the Future, Sliced and Diced -- was brought to my attention by a FB friend. Here's how it starts:
At the Digital Book World conference, held in New York last week, one could hardly pass muster by holding up a stack of pages bound together. The crowd's sensibility was more conceptual; the word that filled the air was "content." This was a fairground for companies like Innodata, DigiServ, Biztegra, and Datamatics, with booths snaking through the hallways of the Hilton Hotel. They passed out business cards and flowcharts, decked out with spritely taglines: "Unleash your inner book ~ just $99." In a conference room, Linda Holliday, the C.E.O. of a digital publishing company called Semi-Linear, leaned against a presenter’s table, having just wrapped up a panel discussion on "Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable." She spoke in an excited stream. "A book is an amount of knowledge that I feel good about finishing," she told me. "A book is a clump of knowledge that goes together."

"Look at a book as a bag of words," suggested Matt MacInnis, another panelist, who had been working on education projects at Apple before forming an interactive-book company called Inkling. "Bag of words," he pointed out, is a computer-science term: a model by which a machine represents natural language. "Computers are terrible at natural language," he said. "Humans are shitty at multiplication and division." For a reader searching the Internet for information, he explained, "the word rank is going to be terrible for a bag of words of book length." But a book that is broken up into component parts would show up higher in an online search result, because each discrete section coheres around a single idea, which can be tagged, indexed, and referenced by other sites. This is known in the business as "link juice."
"A book is a clump of knowledge that goes together"? Really?

"Look at a book as a bag of words"?

Books as "link juice"?

Not what I signed up for, either as a reader or a writer. Not how I read books now, or write them, or want to read or write in the future. (Cf. Hamlet as a bag of words in the image at left, courtesy of Wordle. Can we agree that's not nearly as interesting as the play Shakespeare wrote and published as a sequential set of lines spoken by characters?)

Now, to be fair, these folks at DBW were focused on non-fiction, says Betty Morais, and I mostly read and write fiction. Different kettles of fish.

Sort of.

"Sort of" because, when you think about it for seven seconds or so, you realize that the depth and breadth of understanding one gains by reading book-length non-fiction -- say C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, to take a random example from my own bookshelves -- is of an entirely different order compared to the several factoids ingested by reading fifty or so words that make up the first paragraph of Wikipedia's article about "the Swiss psychotherapist and psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology." Even if you read those fifty or so words sequentially, I'm saying.

Is it hopelessly old-school to think this way?

Is current technology's influence on art a good thing? A bad thing? Indifferent?

Is its value irrelevant because its influence is inevitable?

Consider Mark Katz on the pervasive influence of recording technology on music, from classical to popular, from his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (2004):
Simply put, phonograph effects are the manifestations of sound recording's influence. Consider a straightforward example. When Igor Stravinsky composed his Serenade for Piano in 1925, he wrote the work so that each of the four movements would fit the roughly three-minute limit of a ten-inch, 78-rpm record side. "In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make records of some of my music," he explained in his autobiography. "This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record. And that his how my Sérénade en A pour Piano came to be written." Stravinsky was not alone. Many composers of classical and especially popular music followed a similar compositional approach. (Today's three-minute pop song is a remnant of this practice.) Stravinsky's decision to tailor his Serenade to the length of the record side is a clear manifestation of recording's influence. It is just one of countless phonograph effects, ranging from the obvious -- jogging while listening to Wagner on  Walkman, a pop star harmonizing with herself on disc -- to the more subtle changes in the way we speak and think about music in an age of recording technology.
On the other hand, here's Camille Paglia in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, published in October of last year:
Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquility.
Me? I'd say Paglia is making an essential point. Here's more from her introduction to Glittering Images:
The creative energy of our era is flowing away from the fine arts and into new technology. Over the past century, industrial design, from streamlined automobiles and sleek home appliances to today's intricately customized personal gadgets, has supplied aesthetic satisfactions once mainly derived from painting and sculpture. In my experience as a teacher, industrial design students have acute powers of social observation and futuristic intuition, as well as independent and speculative minds, rarely found among today's overly ideological intellectuals. The industrial designer recognizes that commerce, for good or ill, has shaped modern culture, whose cardinal feature is not economic inequity but egalitarian mass communication. Indeed, American genius has always excelled in frankly commercial forms like advertising, modern architecture, Hollywood movies, jazz, and rock music.

But mass media are a bewitching wilderness in which it is easy to get lost. My postwar generation could play with pop because we had a solid primary-school education, geared to the fundamentals of history and humanities. The young now deftly negotiate a dense whirl of relativism and synchronicity: self-cannibalizaing pop, with its signature sampling and retro fads, has become a stupendous superabundance, impossible to absorb and often distanced through a protective pose of nervous irony. The rise of social media has blurred the borderline between private and public and filled the air with telegraphic trivialities, crowding out sequential discourse that invites rereading.


In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.

No bag of words those. Thoughts worth mulling-over, I'd say.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Everything relates to everything else
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
N-gram fetishism

Thanks a third time to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.


  1. On a somewhat related topic - Kent & I went yesterday to the Codex Book Fari in Richmond:

    Handmade papers, handsewn bindings, handcarved fonts, lots of craft. I overheard one craftswoman telling an attendee that she herself is not a writer so has to find people who can write to provide words for her projects. Either that or - as many at the fair did - resort to classics like the Bible and Moby Dick.

  2. @Glenn -- I love that there's a Codex Foundation!! I had no idea, though I know a couple of people who are deep into crafting handmade books. Somehow never came up in conversation. Did you offer to provide words for anybody's projects????

  3. I didn't feel up to interrupting the conversation I was overhearing ... but I did offer "Fact" up if I thought there was some likelihood it would be of interest. I traded once, for a letterpress chapbook.

    I went in thinking of the show as a sort of museum, eager to see pretty and impressive stuff. I wasn't disappointed. But none of it was cheap.