New Technology Bites Back

A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times by Kevin Kelly about achieving techno-literacy and lessons he’s passed on to his home-schooled child regarding uses of technology. I want to look at each of these lessons in regards to the use of studio technology and how we can maybe use these lessons to our advantage.

The first lesson is this:

Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

There is a lot of powerful technology used in the modern recording studio, and always has been one of the hallmarks of the recording industry. Back in the bleeding-edge days of studio technology, Les Paul added another record head to his Apex tape machine and gave us sound-on-sound technology. Those were the days when the same people that worked on nuclear weapons also worked on advancements in audio recording (see Tom Dowd’s documentary, The Language of Music).

However, over time, the producers of technological advancements and the users of those advancements began to separate. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because there became many more users of the technology than creators. Maybe it’s because the technology grew to be more complicated than most users could wrap their brain around. Either way we’re at a point now where there seem to be very few creators of technology but many, many users, and most of those users don’t seem to understand what’s going on that actually makes the technology work (which is a strong point of contention for many seasoned veterans out there).

Which brings me to the lesson: Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs. 

The bite comes in many forms: bad music that can be recorded and propagated to the masses, giving a glimmer of hope to an untalented and unmusical by begin able to pitch-correct, time stretch, or otherwise fix bad notes, or relying on that technology in a performance and the technology not coming through for you (see Kanye West’s Saturday Night Live performance form December 2008 – he actually got booed while on stage). 

Now I’m not saying we need to forgo the technology, or shun its use in our studios, but know that technology bites back. Even beyond the musical and creative bites that technology will take, music technology makers have figured out that one way to create a sustainable business is to come out with a product that either breaks after a few years’ usage or needs to be updated (at $75 per .X update) to stay “current”. Reminds me of a great article written by a friend and former co-worker of mine, Tom Day, for TapeOp Magaizne a year or so ago (if you subscribe to TapeOp, look for it and read/re-read it). So, there’s an added bite of continual costs that keep biting us over and over as well.

Does Kanye  abuse Auto-Tune? I don’t know. What I DO know is that I saw his performance from SNL when he sang “Love Lockdown” with no Auto-Tune. He’s a good musician and not an idiot. He should be able to hear that the technology was biting him squarely in the butt by not actually doing what it was supposed to do. He could have fixed it by actually singing the correct notes, but he didn’t.

We now have the power to do more with less in the recording studio than ever before, and that paradigm isn’t going to change anytime soon. What technology we choose to use and how we use that technology is up to us. You know this technology will come back to bite you. You have been warned. Choose and use wisely.

Powerful gifts get abused powerfully, like a super-villain in a comic book. Choose to be a hero and save our music and our future!

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