Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Rarified Art of the Individual

Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

-First in a series-

With the deflation of the consumer culture that is happening all over the world today, Americans have a chance at adapting for the resulting environment.

Americans (and certainly other cultures, but certainly Americans) have for years accepted the practice of delaying the construction of a self, by spending their money—and lives—purchasing distractions. Art has been capitalized and made into objects for purchase, created by a small and distinguished tribe of specialists.

With the loss of purchasing power—so people have less ability to purchase distractions—preceded by a surge in the availability of low-cost media production tools (video and audio production, post-production and that folk-art distribution system the web) we have a corresponding surge in art making (with a lower-case “a”).

Younger generations who have grown up with computers create media easily, without a clumsy “always learn before you do” approach that was so helpful to the mechanical universe. Those at ease with computers jump right in and probe, trying one thing, learning its effect, and then trying another, burrowing into the web to find what it has to offer, or the software to find what they can produce. Alan Kay has rightly despaired of the loss of pre-planning, of an architectural approach to problem solving, in this dive-right-in approach. But the computer environment is one that rewards digital spelunking.

Instead of simply watching television for hours at a time like their parents and grandparents, a larger group is able to make their own and share it in online society. The online sites for displaying one’s own videos, or the thousands of sites for distributing one’s own musical tracks—these are the real killers of the music companies and movie theaters. That which had been the creative domain of Artists now have the floodgates open and the artists pouring their creations into them.

It is important to note that once someone has a minimal set of equipment and software, one can create for only the cost of one’s time. While every audio and video professional will argue that the quality that consumer and prosumer products can’t match that of the truly professional (and hugely expensive) equipment and software, it is absolutely the case that with today’s prosumer equipment one can produce media of higher resolution and lower noise levels than could be professionally delivered in the 1960s. Compare a HD video on with a playback of Bonanza on any CRT.

What is more important than the resolution of the new technology is the ability to produce in media iteratively. As a film student in the mid 1970s with a disabled father and a mother who was an art teacher in a public school, I didn’t have money for multiple answer prints. Filmmaking was a process of trying something, then trying something ELSE. Even editing in video, which could be done for free where I was studying, was a long and painful process involving grease pencils, two reel-to-reel decks and multiple reels of video tape that had to be wound and rewound to start points for each edit. I worked in film and video with every moment of my free time (and still do), but today the ability to revise as one goes is incredibly supportive of quick learning and quality improvement, especially when combined with a distribution and social review system that allows the creator to obtain informal and instant feedback on work in progress. And all work is work in progress.

What happened, though, was the domination of the culture of the specialist, the pouring of money into huge Hollywood projects where, by concentrating the work of hundreds of people into the production of stories of individuals, we have a slight-of-hand that further supports the unobtainable hero. Hundreds of minds and specialists are not one mind, and we addict society to watching the magical existence of screen stars to appear to make their own decisions, and overcome their own problems.

It’s not that I don’t like Benjamin Button or even Hollywood films in general. But the illusion that it has always used as its attraction has created the illusory economy and culture that is now, for a moment, shown its real structure. Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

The aging generations who now have time but no money will logically experience mostly their loss. But a child who doesn’t have paints will scribble in the dirt. And before aboriginals were taught to paint on canvas, they painted on sand.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art (small “a”) education.


Alan Kay said...

Hi Robert,

A side thought... it's true that people "are able to jumo right in and do things" with today's computers (that was one of the aims of the GUI), but it's really important to ask "at what levels?".

It's easy to see some of the things that can be done with bricks and mortar, but it took thousands of years for very smart people in antiquity to invent the arch, an incredibly powerful and important architectural (literally!) principle.

What is lacking in the poorly constructed computer environments over the last 15-20 years are both strongly thought out components (better bricks), but most importantly the hints about non-obvious architectures of great power that the computer is capable of.

Instead what we have is something very much like the pop music culture that trades "doing things right away" for any kind of learning about what music has invented over centuries and is capable of.

Because there has been "real guitar" for several centuries, it is easy to spot "air guitar" and "guitar hero" as "not-guitar" (though some seem to be confused about the latter). But "real computer" (though it exists) has never been manifest enough for the incurious, and thus it is all too easy for "air computer" and "computer hero" to completely mislead most.

Given what the computer could mean to the improvement of human thought in the general public, this is a disaster that may eclipse the similar disaster of TV before too long.

Best wishes,

Alan Kay

Robert Edgar said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, yours are important points.

I don’t dismiss the importance of an architectural—or “top down” approach to problem solving, or making things. I’ve worked with programmers who were architects, and the power of their approach is clear and immediate.

However, in our present culture, the native’s creative motivation has been routinely and completely replaced by a reflexive consumerism. Instead of engaging, the native purchases objects that contain sealed, embedded thought, fetishes that delay—continually—the real work of creating the individual. Curiosity, instead of leading to exploration and invention, leads to a quick anesthetic.

Children follow their wonder and humor into their learning. They nurture their own creativity through mark making, sound making, and social engagement, which if encouraged allow the construction of cognitive architectures of duration, time, space, sustainability etc., and the relations of all these to a self.

Instead of further engaging the child, too often what a parent provides is disengagement, items already finished, surfaces to stare at, objects with which to spend time. Parents who themselves have forgotten to engage, or how to engage, fail to support the child’s ability to develop the engaging self into maturity.

I am the last one to write a thread in support of “Guitar Hero” (although I love the work of “The Guitar Zeros” ). But the artists that I knew while growing up were those who spent their spare time immersed in media—not as consumers, but as producers, or more precisely, as manipulators. Not manipulating an audience’s opinions, but manipulating the stuff of the medium. Scratching and painting on 16mm film stock, connecting early Moog synthesizers to the chroma key pots in color video studios, restringing electric guitars with six high “e” strings. Mucking with the stuff of the media to see what happens, and to find new relationships with it. Today they are accepted as our top artists, and could well be said to bring an architectural approach to their media. But importantly, they retained both the knowledge and the motivation to learn on their own.

The problem is not that we have “Artists” with a capital “A”, but that our educational and other practices have callously ignored, and even worked to destroy the role of sensual play in the creation and maintenance of the self. The problem is not to cut down our most successful Artists, but to retain the artist in all developing beings.

I’ve written here about video, audio and music, but not about computers. Digitalization is the most comprehensive of our current technologies, and to the extent that it is used to provide finished objects for consumption instead of sensual and open tools for exploration and creation, the impact will be, as you say, a disaster that may eclipse that of TV. I’ve dedicated much of my time to the subject, and certainly will continue.

The big question, of course, is where and when intervention will be most effective. The parents need to be able to sense the absence of the self, and learn how to engage the world in order to develop one. I believe that the current world crisis may provide some small opportunity for that to occur, with benefits for learners of all ages. I can’t say that I’m optimistic. But I have children, which translated, means “I try”.

And certainly, the growth of a self must include some teleology for that self--some history of the media, of the culture, of the language.

In future entries I’ll attempt to further focus on the loss of the motivation to create, the difficulties our culture has of supporting the extended development of self in our children, and the role of synaesthesia in developing the concept of metaphor.

Alan Kay said...

Hi Robert,

I guess that it is possible that "architecture" has come to mean top down planning, but if so, this is another "too bad" misconception from the last few decades.

I meant it in its original sense of "inventing and making transcendental components and ideas that are analogous to the comparison between arches and bricks".

This is not the same as top down planning, but is a way to move from one kind of discourse to a qualitatively better one.

The lack of this (in fact backsliding to weaker architectures) is responsible for quite a lot of the bad designs and general lack of progress since the commercialization of personal computing since 1980. (A perfect example is the simple fact that I should be able to WYSIWYG edit this text (this was invented more than 40 years ago), but because of the horrendous design of the web browsers and lack of understanding by most web developers, I have to type this in a tiny font in a tiny little window and then I have to use the "Preview" button (read "print out my text") to see what I wrote.

There was never any reason for this. So this counts as a terrible and blind attack on end-users. And it is only one of dozens of examples that have gotten most users to have a completely wrong picture of what computers can do.



Robert Edgar said...

Thanks for clarifying for me your etymology of “architecture”. Much to the point, it takes me back to the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein’s critique of Kuleshov’s description of montage as lining up “brick by brick” to tell a story. For Eisenstein, this was useless. Montage involved juxtaposing dissimilar shots whose collisions gave rise to a concept.

The commercialization of software has contributed inexpensive and uncreative interface libraries that are linked to fat and rushed application code by teams that do not consider usability as part of their problem. It seems to me that the more expensive and enterprise-based the software, the less development work is done on the user interface. They’re just slapped on...yeah, this has to drive you nuts, of all people.

My focus here is on learning how to learn, and how children come into this world knowing how, but so much of enculturization nips the green buds. It doesn’t have to be that way. The culture has to basically value each individual’s creativity, and all members work together to nurture the care and feeding of those selves. The fact that adults are the least likely to have a surviving “self” makes them less than likely candidates for recognizing the need for that support. I think it is mostly the play in the system that allows some to survive.

The interaction I was thinking of that computers allow was more radical than Guitar Hero…and you’re right to call out Guitar Hero as exactly the wrong approach for learning. McLuhan used to call it “matching not making”. But we can see in Ge Wang’s laptop orchestra, or Max/MSP, or a number of open-ended interfaces for crawling inside the musical signals and messing around, better possibilities for computer/human interaction.