Wednesday, 18 January 2012

It's all too bloody easy these days ... is that a good thing?

You've undoubtedly seen the big black screen of nothingness on Wikipedia's homepage today.

I completely respect and support their stand. But I also hope that losing Wikipedia for the day is enough of a shock to the system to encourage people to look further afield when doing research. It's a subject that I've blogged about on more than one occasion (see here or here or here for example). Wikipedia is a wonderful tool but the very nature of its open-source, democratic platform means that it can be updated by anyone, not just by subject matter experts. Therefore, as I've found time and time again, the facts aren't always factual. I should point out, before I go any further, that I'm not singling out Wikipedia for a thrashing. I think Wikipedia is a wonderful thing and there are many many other websites that are more inaccurate. However, Wikipedia is the largest such website on the net and the one that most people visit at first choice. 

Just this week I've discovered that two oft-repeated stories are untrue. The first is that Chevrolet made a huge mistake in calling one of their models the Nova because 'no va' means 'won't go' in Spanish. The other story is that Toyota lost millions in sales because their MR2 model, when pronounced in French, is very similar to the word 'merdeux' meaning 'shitty'. The truth is that the Chevrolet Nova did very well in Spanish speaking countries and even exceeded sales predictions in Venezuela. Why would people break 'nova' into 'no va'? By that thinking, we wouldn't buy anything in the UK that includes the word 'notable', especially dining room furniture. And as for the MR2, Toyota anticipated this issue (unsurprisingly) and badged the MR2 as the MR in France and Belgium. Both stories are untrue, yet I've found both on hundreds of websites, including supposedly 'expert' sites on marketing and branding. I was even told by a lady advertiser on Twitter that the Chevrolet example was used on her degree course at university. Ten to 15 minutes of proper research would have shown that both stories are bunkum. 

Wikipedia and its ilk are brilliant starting points for any investigation. However, they should never be the finishing point. Any research should always end as close to the original source of a fact as is possible. Wikipedia etc. should be used like a compass putting you on the right track. You should then find your own way to the correct destination.

Wikipedia makes research easy. And easy can so often slide into lazy. I was pondering upon this yesterday and it set me to thinking about other ways in which technology is making us lazier by making life easier. It's a trend that slightly worries me. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe I'm just a bit of an old dinosaur. But let me explain ...

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I knew all of my friends' telephone numbers and addresses. Of course, there were fewer phones back then and people didn't change numbers quite so often. However, we now rely on our phones to remember them for us and many people don't even know their own phone number. I have a curious sense of disquiet about this. I'm not a control freak by any means and I am happily reliant on technology;  I trust my car and my television to do what they are supposed to do without me understanding how they work and I rely on my computer to store my writing because I simply can't remember a whole book word perfect. But as we become more and more dependent upon the technology, I wonder if we're losing something important. Just as cars have made us flabbier, is technology robbing us of mental exercise? There are many who would say that this is already happening, that society is 'dumbing down'. Despite (or maybe because of) the fact  that more information is available than ever before, people seem to know less. I experienced this first hand over Christmas when playing board games with a group of friends and family. A question came up that involved naming the planets of the solar system. All the people my age (40s-50s) could do so. And most could list them in order of proximity to the Sun as well. Most of the people under 30 could name the planets although some struggled. Only one knew the correct order. And these are all bright people. Now, I realise that having a mental map of our solar system isn't going to have much of an impact on everyday life. There's no shame in not knowing it. But it is indicative of a greater malaise, crystallised clearly when one of the group, a 26 year old said, 'Why do I need to know that? I can just look it up.' By that logic, there's surely no point in learning anything except the stuff we need to get through the day. It means that knowledge no longer has value unless it has a practical application. But if that were the case, how then would we advance? How would we develop new ideas and new science? It's people asking questions about things beyond their every day experience that gave us flight, electricity, electronics, antibiotics. In this new world where 'we don't need to know stuff', were do innovation and expertise fit?

I then found myself thinking about other things that make life 'easy'. And not just the gadgets and gizmos that blend our food, record our TV shows and print our documents. What about the technology that, even now, is starting to have an impact on the arts?

There was a time when a musician learned his/her craft. They learned an instrument and trained their voice. They went out on the road and gigged. They interacted with audiences. They wrote from the heart. Some of those songs have survived six decades of radio airplay. But now, technology is allowing anyone to make music. This isn't a bad thing, it really isn't. It's wonderful. But there's money in popular music and the fecking accountants and money men are now starting to use that technology to force music into generic formats with which to fill the airwaves. They want easy, lazy pop.

There's a recent TV series made by Channel 4 called What makes a Masterpiece? hosted by the channel's culture editor, Matt Cain. In the second episode of the series, he visits a number of tech companies where software is regularly used to analyse what makes a song popular. It then advises the appropriate tweaks to make a recording more profitable. Not better or more beautiful. Just profitable. Cain - who has no musical background or experience at all - uses the software and industry know-how to write a song for the show. The result sounds like much of the music being pumped out of the larger music companies; homogenous and instantly forgettable but good to dance to. It ticks all the boxes. People like it, people buy it. Then they forget it. It's throwaway art, fast-food music, ear candy to be enjoyed in the moment and that's it. Technology has made it easy to write a hit song and it's hugely lucrative.

Well, call me old fashioned but I want music made by musicians, not computer programmers and accountants.

What this new model of music doesn't do is reward the artists. A session singer is brought in for a fixed fee, sings on a song that sells thousands of copies and we often don't know who they are. The current Top 40 features songs with vocals by Sia, Sian Evans, Sirah, Etta Bond, Karen O ... can you picture any of them? Even you youngsters? There are any number of talented young singers queueing up to sing on a hit single and hopefully get a break in the industry. Very few do. Meanwhile, because money is slowly becoming the primary factor in deciding what singles get released, artists who don't fit the demographic are being slowly pushed onto the sidelines.

No amount of algorithms could have predicted that K T Tunstall would be so popular. It was a chance event, a cancellation by a booked artist, that gave K T her chance to appear on Later ... with Jools Holland. And it was her electrifying live performance of a song called Black horse and the Cherry Tree that had people downloading her album in their thousands. the song is nothing like anything else that was in the charts at the time.

Oh, and lest you think this is just me turning into my dad, I will counter it by pointing out that I buy more new music than old. Just recently I've bought new LPs by St Vincent, Three Trapped Tigers, Bjork, Gotye, Battles, Emmy the Great, Jim Moray ... many of whom have had to release their work through crowd-funding sites. Imaginative, well-written and lyrical as their work is, the money hungry big labels won't touch them with a bargepole.

For every great song there are a hundred others in which the quirkiness factor, the originality, the humanity, the soul of the music has been surgically removed solely for the sake of a quick profit. And in these ghastly, money-obsessed times, the investors will always flock in the direction of guaranteed sales. That's bad news because, as has been frequently pointed out, many unique performers like Kate Bush and Pink Floyd would probably not get signed today and, if they did, they'd be consigned to the indie fringe as being too un-commercial. Meanwhile, if a singer-songwriter can't actually make a living from their music then they're simply going to stop making it.

I find the same process going on in publishing. I am hugely saddened by the sheer number of bland, pointless celebrity-based books that dominate the shelves in those bookstores we have left. Just like music, publishers are plumping for the easy dead certs rather than embracing innovative new talent, new and different voices. While Pippa Middleton is offered £400,000 to write a book on posh party planning, Ian Rankin is asking for tax concessions for writers. As reported in The Guardian, Kate Pool of the Society of Authors has confirmed that new writers could expect an average advance of £10,000 around 20 years ago: 'Now they're lucky to get between £1,000 and £3,000' she says. Research by the society shows that 75% of writers earn less than £20,000 a year and 46% less than £5,000. Celebs and their agents demand huge advances and that shrinks the pot for other writers. An author cannot live on that kind of money. And it takes time to research and write a book. I can see many simply giving up. Imagine if people like J K Rowling or Steig Larssen were writing now. Their advances wouldn't have given them the freedom to write the books they are now famous for. And who is going to write the books that become the TV series and films? How many more re-makes and prquels can you stand? Those new authors who do persevere and who are getting no joy from traditional publishers are publishing themselves in the form of e-books. That means trying to make money from a book with no advertising budget, no PR, no promotion. What are the chances of earning a living like that? It's surely not good for the industry either. It certainly must be putting the fear of god into the world of the literary agent.

Then there's art itself. I blogged recently about my disappointment with the Olympics Committee for choosing the same old bunch of highly commercial celeb artists to create the Olympics and Paralympic posters, rather than encouraging and promoting new talent. Guaranteed sales you see. It's the easy option. Maximum profit. That's all that matters.

My brother told me an interesting story the other day. He's a photographer who's gone back to university as a 40-something mature student to do a degree in photography. Almost everyone else on the course is in their late teens or early twenties. In their world, digital photography and Photoshop have always existed. So when their tutor made them use film cameras, they panicked. Suddenly, they had only 12 or 24 shots on their rolls of film to lay with. Suddenly they had to really think about composition and light and focus as there would be no Photoshop to correct it. Their normal approach was to take 50 shots, select the best one (usually obtained by sheer fluke) and then tweak it with software. To a man and women, they all agreed that making photography harder had made them all better photographers.

The universe is a complex and mysterious place. The aim of science is to make sense of it all. Yes, all art can ultimately be reduced to pure mathematical formulae. But is that what we want? Do we want art tailored for maximum profitability and success? Or do we want passion, talent and originality?

I'll stop here. I don't want to look any more curmudgeonly than I already do. That's not my intention at all. I'm just concerned that by making everything too easy, we're losing something that makes us human. It's good to strive. It's character building to fail. It's so rewarding to feel the glow that comes with achievement and discovery. You don't get that passion when the machines do all the work for you.

I have this awful dystopian vision of a future where no one knows anything any more because something is doing all of the remembering for them. It's a world where people's dumb answers on quiz shows get ever dumber. It's a world where the only important aim is the acquisition of wealth; a place where music is designed by software to please the largest demographic of people; a world where the only books published by the larger publishing houses are aimed at the mass market; a world where art is designed to match the interior of people's houses rather than driven by the passions of the artists.

It's a world where the most creative people can no longer earn a living from what they do; where unprofitable 'non-formula' singer-songwriters can't get recording contracts or afford to work as musicians; a world where the most amazing new literature only exists in small vanity imprints that earn their writers a pittance. In short, it's a world where the rich get richer, where innovation is shunned as noncommercial and where originality is another word for 'unsaleable'. That's not the world I want.

I want quirky and inefficient. I want artistry and Bohemian eccentricity. I want experts and smartarses. I'd rather know things than not know things. I want to 'walk the walk' in learning a skill or craft. I want to put in the hours to earn the right to call myself a writer, a musician, an artist. I don't want software to be making artistic decisions for me. I don't want to be so reliant on technology that I no longer bother to learn anything.

I will choose passion over efficiency any day. It's the difference between having a lover and having a hooker. Which, in the end, is the most rewarding and satisfying?

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