Despite all of the ways that technology has enhanced our modern lives, there is an unforeseen possibility that creeps closer to reality with each passing day, and it needs to be addressed:
Is technology destroying the arts?
Now, there is a multitude of ways in which technology has been beneficial to artists. For instance, the very existence of the internet allows artists of all disciplines to have the potential for world wide exposure, allowing them to increase their audience in ways that used to be unthinkable. Musicians can purchase an Apple computer and have access to a high end recording studio (which is what GarageBand is, if one knows what to do with it) without having to pay the exorbitant studio costs or purchase additional recording gear, as they come standard in the program. Film makers can access an instant, world wide audience by uploading their movies to YouTube. Photographers have a variety of electronic tools to assist with their craft, as well as the ability to host their gallery online. Even novelists have the option to self publish, which has been made much easier with the advent of the internet age.
When looked at objectively, one can see that there are many examples of how modern technology has been beneficial to artists specifically and the arts in general; however, as with everything, there is another side to the equation. It’s a side that is not generally being considered or engaged as part of the national discussion. What if all of our technological advancements are actually detrimental to the arts in general? What if, in spite of the apparent value, technology is eroding the expertise and discipline required to pursue a career in an artistic discipline? What if, when the day comes that everything is completely digitized, we find ourselves in a world in which what was traditionally considered art no longer exists?
Impossible? Not at all. That day may be closer than we think.
We are now not far removed from a time in which we see the end of the existence of physical media (CD’s, DVD’s, Video Games, et al) in favor of digital downloads and distribution. This process has already begun with music purchases via iTunes and other online stores, and can also be seen in streaming opportunities such as Netflix. It just doesn’t make sense for companies to pay for packaging, shipping, and a cut of the profit to the host store, when they can make available for download or stream the product from their own site. Thus, digital distribution instead of physical distribution is the inevitable future. As consumers, this is a positive development, as the means by which we obtain our product is easier than it ever has been before. Select the product, click to purchase, download, and enjoy your music/movie/book/game. While there are many positives for both the manufacturer of content and the consumer, this new system of distribution has had, what I would presume, an unintended outcome:
It has made content cheaper, which makes it disposable, and ultimately lowers the quality level of the product.
Think about it: in the music industry, when Compact Discs were introduced, they came with a price tag that averaged at around eighteen dollars an album. The only means one had to know what they were getting was via radio airplay, and artists and their labels would always ensure that their strongest material made it to that medium so that people would feel secure in making their purchase. Unless the music was released from a singer/group I trusted to release quality content, I had a “three song rule” in which I had to like three of the singles released to radio from a specific album before I would purchase it, and I wasn’t alone in this practice. Therefore, record labels had to carefully sign their acts, make sure the content was top quality, and develop them over a period of years to get them to the status level in which people would purchase their product on the day of its release, regardless of whether or not they had heard more than one of the songs from the album. This simply isn’t the case any longer. Rarely do we see artists who are coming out today have any sort of longevity in the industry, and it’s because the industry isn’t about the craft; it’s about what’s selling right now, and what’s selling right now is songs that are produced by non-songwriters, music performed by non-musicians, and a product that is best described as entertainment, because it certainly doesn’t resemble what we have long considered to be the art and craft of music. For this, we can blame the advancement in technology.
To play an instrument or sing at the highest level requires years of discipline and practice, as well as a commitment to obtaining mastery in a difficult medium. One does not simply wake up one morning knowing how to play the guitar well enough to get up in front of an audience and perform. But because of the advancements in technology, one does not need to know how to play an instrument in order to produce sound. One just needs to have access to a sound/loop library, purchase said library, and then proceed to drag and drop loops into a recording program on their computer. The only “musical” requirement to do this is an understanding of how songs are constructed, which, because of the proliferation of popular music, we all comprehend to a certain degree. Today, one doesn’t need to be able to sing, either. Just throw on auto tune, and digitize your lack of ability away. Practice is not required, discipline is not required, and musicianship is not required, and it has led to our present situation, whereby musicians have been replaced by entertainers and style trumps substance.
The movie industry is in a similar position. Distribution of a completed film use to require multiple prints, as they had to be sent to each movie house that chose to run it. Because of the exorbitant costs to produce a movie, studios had to carefully choose which movies they would produce, because if the movie bombed, it could be devastating to the future of the producer, director, and studio. Like the music industry, studios were more apt to work with and develop directors who were superior at their craft, as that would ensure a loyal following for all parties involved. They also had to create a product that had compelling stories and interesting characters, as special effects were much more complex to execute and were used sparingly.
But with the advancement in technology, movies have slowly but surely morphed from well designed stories and character studies into exercises in visual gymnastics, which is made possible by the ability to easily create special effects with a computer. Consequently, much of what makes up the top grossing lists is short on plot, dialogue, and character development, and long on chase scenes, explosions, long, drawn out battle scenes, and lowest common denominator plots, all thanks to the advancements in technology.
Technology has made it possible for anyone to make art with programs that replace the act of creation and performance regardless of training or ability. While some would argue this a positive, the end result counteracts such an argument and stands as proof positive that access does not equate ability. Just because our devices allow us to take pictures, capture film, generate musical tones, and make digital art does not make us a photographer, director, musician, or artist. Each of those disciplines require years of practice to achieve mastery. Just because we have programs that allow us to manipulate ones and zeroes into what then appear to be artistic renderings (but are nothing more that digital compositions) does not mean that we get to wear the mantle of artist.
To put it in perspective, we would never grant the title of “Doctor” to someone who happens to have Web M.D. on their device and uses it to diagnose a rash, nor would we grant the title of “Lawyer” to someone because they have the digital version of Black’s Law Dictionary and are able to look up the definition of “in pari delicto”. No, we all are aware that to become a doctor or lawyer requires years of dedication, schooling, training, and practice. Those who fulfill those requirements deserve the title.
In addition, those who put in the years of dedication, schooling, training, and practice in the arts deserve the same recognition and respect. If we ever arrive at that point, we may find ourselves in the position whereby our technology is viewed as a means, and not the end, to our artistic endeavors.
And maybe then, technology will not be destroying the arts, but rather, enhancing them in the hands of people who have the skill and expertise to do so.