Opinion & Blogs » Back Page

If I Only Had an e-Brain


I did not eat enough dirt as a small child. I admit it. Our family has wonderful film of my big sister feeding mud pies to her friends, but somehow I missed that lottery. By the time I came along, my well-meaning parents had largely perfected keeping their kids cleaner than the average Joe and Joe-ess.

Which probably accounts for why I've had allergies all my life. You know, studies have shown that kids who don't build up their immune systems early tend to develop allergies. But I won't complain: Science has since rebuilt my nose from the inside out.

Which is a curvy way of getting to my point: Technology is a great thing. And it isn't. Take your pick: I do all the time.

For example, swiping your credit card at the store is pretty sleek. Remember the "old days," when you had to stand there for a minute while your credit was approved? Now it usually goes through so fast that you can't believe the machine even had time to size you up.

But in the old days, you knew exactly how to charge your card. The salesperson simply laid the charge-plate down in that cranky hand-press of a thing. Have you noticed now that half the time you slide your card the wrong way in the reader — maybe the wrong way twice? Couldn't the manufacturers of these things get together and sign a treaty to slide all cards the same way?

Worse yet, now we all get to share the same stylus — you know, that penlike instrument for signing on the screen. Consider that for a moment, as you stand in line at the pharmacy, waiting to pick up your antibiotics after the woman ahead of you with whooping cough and the guy with the fungus. Eeek! It's enough to make you use your own pen, reversed — but sometimes the machine won't accept that.

I hear iPods are a beautiful thing. I see all these folks walking around with "sound tracks to their lives," in the meantime not hearing the sound tracks to their lives around them. But as a musician, I certainly appreciate anyone's interest in hearing music.

Strange thing, though. They're all listening to "compressed audio." It lacks the wider frequency response of CDs — even of LPs. But listeners don't care. The quantity of tunes and their physical convenience have far overtaken the audiophile interest that had swooned ever since listeners could almost "watch" sounds zoom from left to right speaker with their "hi-fi stereo" decades ago.

My brother, a professional photographer, has noticed the same thing in his business. Brides and grooms, businesses and others often are content enough with their own digital photos so as not to be interested in the services of a professional who can really take and make images that are breathtakingly more striking. Technology has made the quantity and ease of photos more important than the quality to the typical consumer.

An alumnus recently spoke to my music industry class and offered the same lament regarding his profession of film-scoring. The upside of technology is that just about anyone can create music on a computer. The downside is — the same thing. He counts the many filmmakers who care more about low budgets than higher quality and are content to hire people with less musical craft and lower prices. Sure, it's the free market.

I ran out of some brochures recently, so I went to a big-name copy shop to print more, bringing along my old master sheets. The shop could not duplicate the quality they had provided just two years ago: I had a sample to prove it. We discovered that the "high-tech" copiers now in vogue can't reproduce half-tones off of a hard copy on the glass nearly as well as the machines of old. I had to create a digital file on my computer and alter it this way and that way and this way and ... It took a lot of time — because technology had gotten "better."

Similarly, yesterday the hardware store's aide waved me over to the self-checkout machine, though there was no waiting line at the typical counter. "It's easy!" he said. During the 10 minutes it took me to appease this device so that I could exit, three people checked out of the "we help humans" line. If I had heard that sweet, automated voice politely intone "Unexpected item in checkout area" one more time, I might've taken action I'd have regretted later.

I read in the November issue of Electronic Musician that "a team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is working on an interesting project called XPod. ... It 'learns' the user's preferences, activities and emotions, and selects the most appropriate music to accompany any given situation." This thing monitors "which songs are skipped under what conditions, eventually leading the system to skip songs it believes the user would skip anyway."

Great. Now a machine will pick my music for or against my mood. I think it would be more helpful if I strapped the thing on my forehead with a warning light. Then my friends could tell if they should approach me or run quickly away.

I like technology. I drool over the catalogs and try to hold back. I dream of the day when we'll view movies as 3-D apparitions on our living-room floor and can choose the cast of Cary Grant or Will Smith with Diane Keaton or Lucy Liu. I'm technology chair for a major educational conference, for nano's sake. But a few genies, well, I'd like to put back in the bottle.

And darned if in the year 2015 they won't discover that the great U.S. bird flu epidemic of 2010 was started by an infected person using that damned credit-card stylus at the pharmacy! S

Antonio Garcia (www.garciamusic.com) is director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (www.vcujazz.org).

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Copyright © 2007 by Antonio J. Garcia. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

  • Click here for more Forum

  • Tags

    Add a comment