Our New and Powerful InstrumentalitiesPosted: September 23, 2011
I’m currently participating in a seminar entitled “Awakening the Digital Imagination.” Developed by Gardner Campbell at Virginia Tech but now a “networked faculty-staff seminar” at institutions across the country, the course concerns today’s new media – its history, theory, practice, and particularly its applications to education. A premise of the course is that understanding new media requires using new media. Hence blogging is one of our main activities, and for the next 8 weeks or so I’ll be using Spooky & the Metronome to post my post-class thoughts.
This does not mean, however, that I’ll stop talking about music. As a blog about music and media, old and new, Spooky & the Metronome is a perfect venue for connecting our seminar discussions to music and musical culture. So let us begin.
This week, we read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945). Writing in the wake of the atomic bomb, Bush turned to the question: to what ends should we apply technology in peacetime? Seeing around him a superabundance of information, Bush identified access as the major roadblock to the advancement of knowledge, and he described a system of information organization and retrieval that pointed the way for the computer, web and hyperlinks. Bush’s essay is thus significant as a landmark in the prehistory of digital media. More generally instructive, however, is Bush’s critical and productive engagement with the question of what to do with our “new and powerful instrumentalities” – the question of “how to use technology intelligently,” as one person put it in class.
Bush wanted to advance knowledge; let’s say we want to widen access to, and deepen appreciation of classical music. How can we use our new and powerful instrumentalities to these ends? Michael Tilson Thomas has shepherded into reality numerous responses to this question, from the YouTube Symphony Orchestra to the New World Center. Others have rejected the question, arguing that the value of classical music lies in the freedom it offers from a digitally enmeshed world. The latter stance worries me, not because I think the anxieties producing it are ill-founded, but because I fear music that doesn’t interface with our dominant communications media will become a tree fallen in the forest – no longer even making a sound. Perhaps we don’t want smart phones in the concert hall; but perhaps we do want concerts on our smart phones. We can only have that discussion, however, if our starting place is not “how do we save classical music from our new technologies?” but rather “how do we apply our new technologies to classical music intelligently?” This is the question I’m asking myself as I teach the “History of the Symphony” this semester and participate in the “Awakening the Digital Imagination” seminar – and which I invite you, gentle reader, to ponder as well.