Wednesday, January 24

Interface Is Destiny

I've been reading Brian Eno's 1995 diary, A Year (With Swollen Appendices), for over a year now. I keep the book on the corner of my desk at work and dip into it from time to time, usually when I'm taking lunch at my desk, or going out to eat alone. The diary format seems to encourage this style of reading, the result being the book has become a sort of long, slow background text to my daily life. I think Eno would be pleased with that; I feel like I've discovered ambient reading.

An entry midway into the diary on June 30th caught my attention the other day. Eno is working on a slide projection project using a Swedish software application named Dataton Trax, which he describes as having "all the worst aspects of computer culture and Swedish-designed rationalism in one small package." He's having some trouble making the software do what he wants, which is to use overlapping cycles of small sets of slides to produce shifting patterns. His main problem is that the software forces everything to be tied to a single clock. He ends up forced to run several instances of the program at once. In a letter to a friend, he goes on to write the following about software design in general:

"As long as the software is nerdified, and major conceptual limitations are built right into the systems at that level, then it cannot get far. This is a philosophical question: when people program--i.e. decide on which set of possible options they should make available--they express a philosophy about what operations are import in the world. If the philosophy they express is anything like the level of breathtaking stupidity that the games they play and the internet conversations they have are, then we are completely sunk. We are victims of their limitations. It's as though we're using a language that has lots of words like 'cool' and 'surf' but not one for 'organism' or 'evolve' or synergy'. I really am heartily sick of the juvenility of it all."
Eno's little rant reminded me of what I call the "Interface Is Destiny" idea. I think I first started thinking about this after reading something Markus Popp (Oval) said about his work. I can't recall his exact words, but he was explaining how he doesn't consider his work "music," but rather--and I'm paraphrasing--"the sound of the software interface." He considered his recorded output to simply be the natural outcome of the software choices he was given.

Is there a way to escape this trap? Is it even important to try? This is really the history of all music making devices from the log to the piano to the laptop, isn't it? Some people blame Bob Moog for killing the true potential of the synthesizer by adding a standard keyboard. Now that we've moved onto the laptop, we're at the mercy of the software designers. Or are we? David Byrne recently used PowerPoint to create art. Perhaps using tools for purposes other than those intended points to a way out. Defy the interface. Break the software.


David said...

I too have a copy of Eno's book, it is a fascinating, captivating read. I think one of the issues with the software we use is choice; we now have too many colours on the pallette. Life was simpler when you only had 4 tracks to use & a limited number of FX. Then again, it has set imaginations free.

Bruce said...


A couple of thoughs:

I don't necessarily think the tools or too many choices are the problems. Artists have always had to grapple with numerous choices (which instrument? which notes? what colors?). But now tools make many choices readily available, and perhaps too many artists are starting from the tools instead of from the work.

The main point I took away from Eno and Popp is that we should be aware that software (any tool, really) is biased. We shouldn't get fooled into thinking that just because we have lots of options and we are choosing between them that we have total freedom. The fact is that some options will be easier to use, or easier to choose, and those will emerge more often in works created with that tool. In my opinion, it's how the artist responds to that bias, just like how they respond to a limitation, that defines that artist's unique style. Without that awareness and intent, it's just the sound of the tools.

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