Sunday, 5 February 2012

Technology, Beauty and Music

Technology isn't beautiful. It may be exciting, it may sometimes fill us with hope, it may invigorate and shake us out of despair (much needed at the moment)... but it is not beautiful; it is not transcendent; it is not a vessel for the human spirit. It is very much of-the-world, not of-the-spirit. It enframes, enslaves, conditions, forces, sets-upon (I'm thinking of Heidegger who says technology is the "setting-upon that sets upon man"). Seen in this way, the world of technology is ugly.

People, on the other hand, are beautiful. And I think they are more beautiful in their using technology, in their individual struggle between the enframed life of technology and their search for the transcendent and spritual essence of their being. They are beautiful in their struggle against death and against nothingness. They are beautiful in their clutching at tools to cling to life. Seen in this way, the world with technology is beautiful.

I'm thinking about this as I've been playing with the ( library in NodeJS. I've managed to get it do something quite interesting (two web-socket servers talking to each other and triggering real-world events in the process). It's a frustrating and time-consuming process. I'm driven by my desire to realise an idea.. a possibility which I allow myself to believe will be perceived as valuable by others. It's like rehearsing some 'clever performance' which, in my mind - when I show my friends - will make them go "wow! that's clever!".

Is it simply that I want that adulation? Is it simply that I need some recognition that my being, my action is meaningful? It's the meaningfulness which interests me most. I am thinking that my own technological innovations are in fact continual searches for meaning. The (terrible!) lines of code I write are performative acts, intended to evoke communicative responses from those around me. There is nothing intrinsic in the technology itself. The tools, the software, the 'advances' are merely vestiges of the searching of human spirit for meaning.

But there is something unsatisfying about the meaning arising from technology. Its rationality, its enframedness, its ugliness leaves me with the impression that something's missing (and it's not just my rubbish code).

Heidegger, of course, ended up with writing a kind of poetry (and certainly writing about poetry). In poetry he found 'dwelling'. I've been thinking about this as I go back on music I have written in the past. The video below it a piece of music I wrote on an abortive MA in composition at Manchester University. The score is below.

In many ways, the motivation for doing this is the same as writing software (or indeed, writing papers): "how clever! How meaningful your existence is!". But deep down, I believe there is a difference. Music, as all art, strives for beauty. It is of the spirit; it has access to the transcendent; it can address issues of meaning not only from the perspective of the rational, but from the perspective of the irrational.

But music is technological too (no other art is more so!). The pianos, drums and marimba in my piece are technical innovations. At some point someone said "Oh! How clever!" as some innovation of piano engineering that made possible some new performance technique, and no doubt the innovator gained a brief sense of meaningfulness of their endeavour. But ultimately, only in the hands of the skilled artist could something beautiful emerge.

That's what's missing with learning technology. We have no artists to fashion something beautiful from the tools that are available. Worse, technologists and businessmen (they are closely related!) believe the artistry to be irrelevant: the technology alone is sufficient. And so the uglification of education begins. We need to understand this process. We need to understand the existential roots of technical innovation and find ways of realising the meaning that is searched for by technologists in ways which foster the realisation of the deeper meanings that only artists can access.

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