Archive for May, 2007

Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weenie High-Tech Navel-Gazing

As I’ve noted before, I”m neither a Luddite nor a technophile. I just like usable technology that does what I want and makes my personal and professional life easier. Even so, I tend to find myself continually amazed by people’s fascination with what they think is “new” and vital in technology. Several months ago, my cell phone bit the dust, and I had to get a new one. I purchased the simplest version I could find. If I’ve counted correctly, which is difficult to do because this device has so many different screens and sub-screens, depending on how many times and in what order you press what, it has something like twenty different functions, and what seems like that many options, with each option having that many sub-options.

My first thought was: “For what?” My second was: “No wonder the number of automobile accidents caused by cell phones is going up.” My third thought was: “Who has time for all this foolishness?”

A great number of people, apparently, given the turnover in cell phone sales with each new version with even more techno-enhancements. But the proliferation of itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie tech gadgets seems to me more of a reflection of a society of navel-gazers than a society supposedly entering a new era, and on the verge of the “spike” or the “singularity.” College students spend endless hours hooked to their cell phones, talking, texting, and seldom looking at their classmates, or reading real novels, or taking a walk and looking at the scenery. More and more people on the streets of any major city — or in their cars — are less than half-aware of what lies around and before them.

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog on the amazing hexagon at Saturn’s north pole, each side something like seven thousand miles long. There was one short article on AOL and two equally short articles in two different science publications, at least from what I could tell. I got no comments, and I never saw much reaction to this amazing phenomenon.

In the night sky are thousands of stars, and they’re just an infinitesimal fraction of the fifty billion galaxies, or more, in the universe, each with an average of fifty billion stars… and we have trouble finding the willpower and funds to even explore and venture out into our own solar system, with wonders like Saturn and its hexagon and rings so comparatively close.

Yet there are hundreds of articles on cell phones, the new X-box, playstation, or Wii, and the fascination with them seems endless. Over 40 years ago, in The Joy Makers, James Gunn postulated a future where the doctors of the future [hedonists] plugged everyone on earth into synthetic electronic personal futures. He clearly anticipated the virtual world that seems to be the vision of the future for so many today. In fact, we already have real commerce in the virtual world, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.

But there’s a large small problem with all this. Who’s going to fix and maintain the real world while everyone is navel-gazing into their itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie high-tech virtual worlds? For that matter, who’s going to maintain the virtual worlds?

And what ever happened to that sense of wonder about the real world? Or the real world of a future that may never be because no one can look up long enough to find it?

Neither Speed Nor Technology Improves Art

A month ago Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel opened here in Cedar City, produced by the Southern Utah University Opera Theatre and sung by university students. In the article/review that appeared in the University Journal, a math student was quoted as complaining that she’d forgotten that opera was all sung, and that the opening of the production was slow — until the witch appeared. There was no mention of the vocal technique, the live symphonic accompaniment, or the actual singing, much of it by students who had previously won state and regional awards.

The reason why I mention this is that it is an example of the impact of the growing pressure to technologize, speed up action, and quantify both the arts and education dealing with the arts, technophilia, if you will, applied to the arts. Motion pictures and television programs are filled with movement and increasingly quick cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint. Songs tend to be shorter and more repetitive. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein often wrote songs with melodies running 20 bars or more. Today, it’s a rare popular song whose melody line exceeds six bars, even with all the technological aids to composition.

More and more, university professors in the arts are judged on how many compositions, performances, and publications they have completed, and how many student credit hours they have produced — not how good said compositions, performances, or publications might be and not what their students have done after graduation, which is in fact a better indication of the quality of teaching than student “satisfaction” evaluations — but student evaluations can be computerized and analyzed quickly. Students taking music appreciation find it almost impossible to listen to classical music without watching a video.

Close to twenty years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made the observation that the arts were one area where technology could not be effectively applied to reduce costs and shorten the time involved. As he noted then, a Mozart string quartet that took twenty minutes to play in 1790 still takes twenty minutes to play, and the musicians still need years of training to play it properly. Moreover, as any number of musicians and music aficionados have noted publicly in recent years, electronic reproduction or amplification of the music, no matter how good, degrades the listening experience, because electronic systems, regardless of what the techo-geeks claim, does not reproduce the full range of harmonics and overtones.

Great art cannot be painted any faster than in the time of Manet and Monet. Admittedly, technology has resulted in a wider range of generally better pigments, but the actual creation process isn’t any faster. Great sculpture still takes time. Great wines still need to be aged, even if technology has resulted in overall cheaper and better common wines. Great cheeses require technique and aging.

So why do we as a society keep buying into the idea that faster and more technologized is better, especially where art is concerned?

Thoughts on Human Violence

Thirty-three people died at the hands of a young madman at Virginia Tech, an unstable twenty-three year old who could not escape the combination of cruel childhood teasing and his own madness, a madness whose incipient danger was all too evident to those around him, including various authorities… who did nothing, all citing after the fact how their hands were tied.

On average, more than 70 people die in the United States every day from gun-related homicides and suicides, most of them killed by handguns, which have no purpose besides target shooting… and killing people. And… effectively, for all the talk, and all the debate on whether guns kill or people do, no one does very much… and hasn’t for years.

On average, more than 120 people die in the United States every day from automobile accidents, and an ever-growing proportion is caused by people doing things they know they should not — driving after drinking too much, driving while too tired, driving too fast, driving while eating, driving while using a cell-phone. We kill more people on the highway every year than we have in warfare in any single year in the last century and a half, with the exception of something like six years — and no one ever seems to make the comparison.

Over the last century, the world has seen genocide after genocide, the Armenians by the Turks; the Russian kulaks by Stalin, preceded and followed by various other purges; the willful exterminations of the Holocaust by Hitler’s Third Reich; the rape of Nanking by the Japanese and the atrocities which followed throughout WWII; the Russian retaliation against the Germans; the ethnic turmoil following the partition of India and Pakistan that cost close to a million lives, if not more; the triumph of Ho Chi Mihn in North Vietnam that resulted in at least hundreds of thousands of deaths, the death of millions in Cambodia at the hands of Pol Pot; the ethic cleansings in the Balkans, the massive killings in Ruanda; the massacres of the generally Christian population in Darfur; and now the daily sectarian carnage in Iraq.

In the past 107 years, we’ve also seen war after war — the Second Boer War; the Boxer Rebellion; the Philippine Insurrection; the Chinese overthrow of the emperor; WWI; the Irish struggle for independence; the Russian Revolution; the Spanish Civil War; the Fino-Russian War; the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia: WWII; the 1948 Arab-Israeli War [and the subsequent wars in 1956, 1967, 1973-74, and 1982]; the fall of “Nationalist” China; the Korean War; Vietnam; the Chinese invasion of Tibet; the Iran-Iraq War; the Russian invasions of Afghanistan and Chechnya; the Serbian/Bosnian Police Action; Desert Storm; the Iraq War.

One of the explanations for all the war and violence is that they’re all about resources, but why do we have famines when food is actually available in the area or the region where people starve? Why do we engage in conflicts, domestic and international, that actually reduce available resources? Why are some resource-rich nations impoverished, and some with no natural resources to speak of wealthy?

Others claim that it’s about beliefs, yet most major religions claim that they espouse peace.

In almost all the cases, general and individual, the blame always falls on the “other person.” “They” drove drunk or talking on the cell phone; “they” started the war; “they” abused human rights. “We” didn’t do anything wrong.

The only problem with this is that you’re my “they,” and I’m your “they.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, while we as individuals don’t want violence used against us, as societies and/or smaller groups we don’t mind using it against others, and we really don’t want to get involved in preventing its use against others — unless we “have to” because something of ours is threatened or because we want something someone else has. Or could it be that our nature is to ask, and if we don’t get, to take what we want or do as we please?

Or maybe, for all our protests to the contrary, we really do like violence and fighting and other assorted carnage, live and on video. Why else do we refuse to admit the almost unitary link between the amount of violence depicted in the media and the growing incivility and violence in society?

Or it is that most of us don’t dislike violence enough to give up much of anything to stop it?

Can you think of another explanation? One that doesn’t involve blaming someone else?