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Saturday morning quotes 8.17: Future is now

May 29, 2021

Arthur C. Clarke predicted the technology-obsessed present, including the internet, in 1964. But Clarke, like many other old-time futurists, optimistically believed that technology might possibly make the world a better place, and the ubiquitous use of computers could offer greater leisure time to one and all. To those who have been paying attention, it turns out that the futurists’ idealized dream did not transpire. Technology has successfully made the simplest of human interactions complicated and effectively turned each and every human being into a set of data points ripe for manipulation and monetization. But among the more insidious effects of modern technology is the slow seepage of traditional wisdom into the abyss, never to be revived. The tradition of wisdom passed down from sage to neophyte has been supplanted by instructional videos made by would-be viral video stars, a phenomenon that results in 1) the spread of a great deal of faulty or incomplete information, 2) the misconception that information easily translates as skill, and 3) promotion of the idea that professionals are no longer necessary and anyone can become an expert merely by watching videos.

Ease of access to information has led to the phenomenon of the Everyman Expert whose creed is no more waiting to learn by trial and error or develop and refine skills through guided repetition. Now, anyone who needs a [insert profession] goes to Googlytube to learn the ins and outs of every aspect of [insert profession] before getting into a muddle and eventually and reluctantly hiring an actual professional. At that point the Everyman Expert positions him- or herself to watch over the professional’s shoulder, peppering them with laughably rudimentary questions or offering unsolicited, ill-informed, and sometimes dangerously misguided advice at every step of the job.

Peering into the world of early music reveals a microcosm of similar trends. Early music was once the province of the scholar/performer who, proceeding happily unchallenged, convinced the listening audience of the truth in his or her approach and set about teaching the same to eager and willing students. We now have a proliferation of generically-trained musicians whose research has been limited to the plentiful examples of late 20th-century performers and scholars, many of whom simply invented their characteristic but historically indefensible modern approach to interpretation and, through well-funded PR campaigns, proclaimed and sold that approach with supreme confidence.

The lute occupies a narrow and dusty cobwebbed corner in the realm of early music, and historical lute tablatures are now readily accessible via online facsimiles available through academic libraries. There are several industrious souls who have made it their life’s work to copy those tablatures into modern fonts and make them available to the 2000-odd lute players scattered across the globe. While the process of copying tablatures from facsimiles of original sources is time-consuming, it is not an overwhelming challenge. But correcting the many mistakes found in historical printed and manuscript sources is the sort of detail work that demands thorough understanding of music from the original period. It is important to understand that tablatures meant something completely different to denizens of the 16th and 17th centuries than it does to amateur guitarists today. Musicians of the period were not just locating finger positions on the staff, they absolutely considered the tablature characters to represent musical notes. They universally understood that a tablature score was a reservoir of polyphonic music condensed onto a single staff, and they understood how to identify and bring to life those polyphonic lines while following the universal rules of composition and counterpoint. Realizing lute tablature as sound demanded more skill, not less, and that same understanding is required when editing historical tablatures today.

We should celebrate increased access to information but, as demonstrated in recent memory, we must question the accuracy and validity of information at every step. Of course, questioning validity leads to biased fact-checking, which further complicates matters by pitting organizations or individuals against one another in a quest to promote deliberately skewed “facts” that support an ideology or a profit motive. In other words, we’re screwed.

Probably the best solution is to unplug and return to the original model of learning, storing, retrieving and teaching information, for no other reason than it is but a moment’s task for tech giants to erase and/or rewrite history. Besides, they have already accomplished rewiring our brains and training the public to trust the search results the tech giants choose to display. But let’s consider for a moment Link Rot and the durability of information on the internet.

“A 2013 study in BMC Bioinformatics looked at the lifespan of links in the scientific literature — a place where link persistence is crucial to public knowledge. The scholars, Jason Hennessey and Steven Xijin Ge of South Dakota State University, analyzed nearly 15,000 links in abstracts from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science citation index. They found that the median lifespan of Web pages was 9.3 years, and just 62% were archived. Even the websites of major corporations that should know better — including Adobe, IBM, and Intel — can be littered with broken links.”

“A 2014 Harvard Law School study looks at the legal implications of Internet link decay, and finds reasons for alarm. The authors, Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig, determined that approximately 50% of the URLs in U.S. Supreme Court opinions no longer link to the original information. They also found that in a selection of legal journals published between 1999 and 2011, more than 70% of the links no longer functioned as intended.”

Moreover, we have learned that uses of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation, and we are plunging headlong toward a new feudalism. Hope y’all enjoy the ride.

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