Jaron Lanier on Technology: Music and MIDI

by Thomas Brett

Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist, musician, and author, is pretty cool in my book.  In his recent manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, he makes a strong case for probing how technology reduces us as the creative humans that we are, muting the “cultural anger” we need to come up with new tools that do justice to what makes us unique.  One of the most compelling discussions of the book concerns MIDI–which stands for musical instrument digital interface, the protocol for syncing together keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers that has been around since the mid-1980s.  Lanier cites the longevity and pervasiveness of MIDI as an example of a kind of technological “lock-in” which makes it quite hard for us to imagine other, better alternatives that may be possible.  Lanier reminds us that once upon a time, before the advent of MIDI, a musical note was a limitless field of possibility; in fact, when a musician plays an instrument or sings, no two notes are ever the same.  But MIDI reduced music and we bowed before this new limitation, using “crappy tools” to make music that in many ways was (and still is) much more limited than old-fashioned acoustic music.  And of course, today, computers have changed how people think about themselves.  For example, there is a generation of kids who know only the privilege of what Lanier calls “entropic access” to all of the world’s music immediately for available for download.  Snap your fingers and the music file is right there.  As easy as making a “friend” on Facebook.  Beautiful, but too easy.

Lanier is geting at some very important ideas here.  Just as people aren’t gadgets, music isn’t data, and he encourages us to think through the implications of our tools.

I highly recommend that you read this book.

If you’re interested, check out this YouTube video of Lanier playing a khaen, a bamboo mouth organ from Laos here: