Lessons From A Sick Computer

by Thomas Brett

We are limited.  We need something more, we need that added extra in life.  Technology provides all we need.  Technology dominates a large part of our unique relationship with the exterior world.  I have never wanted to hide behind technology.  I have always wanted to use it, to control it, to display it.  It has always puzzled me why one would want to hide one’s hearing aid away from the world.  Why do that?  Do you understand?  It is an extension.  That’s all.  Part of us . . .”
- Lee Rourke, The Canal, p.66.

Bringing my sick laptop computer into the repair shop, I look around and see people sitting quietly with their beloved Apple machines, looking either bored or slightly on edge.  It feels like a hospital waiting room.  Geeky-cool technicians behind the desk ask serious questions in an upbeat tone: “So, did you get a file folder icon with a question mark?” she asks me brightly.  “Yeah I did” I reply gravely.  “Have you backed up your critical documents?” she asks.  Well, I’m thinking, all my documents are critical, but yes, I say calmly, “I think I backed them up, yeah.”

The technician run diagnostic tests and then there’s that inevitable moment of reckoning: she looks up and informs me that my computer’s drive is corrupt, broken, damaged, done, and in need of replacement.  “We’ll have to install a new one” she says.  I freeze for a moment.  Looking for a silver lining in this grim news, an opportunity for renewal, I inquire as to whether or not I can get an even bigger drive than last time.  (Bigger is always better, right?  A 750 Gigabyte drive perhaps?  Or 1 Terabyte?  I’m getting excited!)  But no, no.  The technician doesn’t recommend it: “the larger drives are unstable.” Okay, that’s fine.  Sigh.

So I settle for a new drive just like the last one installed a mere two years ago and start reflecting on the transient nature of my computer gear–gear that feels so critical to my day-to-day activities that I’m hamstrung when it falters.  I expect almost perfection from it: quicksilver reactions to my commands and seamless extension of my senses.  I read, write and compose on my computing machine, I gather and juxtapose huge swaths of information on it, and it shapes how I interact with the world.  My computer is a critical tool.  Or at least, that’s how I’ve come to view it.

With the death of a computer drive comes the disappearance of several music software applications, and thousands of sounds marking a territory I had barely begun to explore.  All gone.  The software can be reinstalled, of course, but lost are all those little custom presets (e.g. Brett Pad 1) and homemade sound banks assembled one sound at a time in the belief that I was creating a unique virtual workshop for sound.  All gone.  Oh well.

And this gets me thinking: Maybe it’s not good to get too attached to one’s gear.  Maybe the path of least loss in the event of a computer meltdown is to work with a bare bones, generic system that is easily replaceable.  Because like it or not, your digital tools are mortal and one day they will die, leaving your senses temporarily at a loss.

Acoustic instrumentalists know a lot about having a relationship with their tools. But even though they do become attached to their instruments–and who can blame them: a Stradivarius violin is, after all, one of a kind–their musicianship is also to a great degree independent of a particular instrument.  In the event of a breakdown, the musician can always go get another drumset or piano and be back in business in no time.

The electronic musician can learn a lesson from this independence.  Don’t fetishize the particular or the esoteric sounds, because if you do you run the risk of losing them.  Instead, work with a widely available tool and embrace its constraints as say, a pianist embraces any reasonably tuned and playable 88-note keyboard.  Not only will this serve you well in times of crisis, but the self-imposed limits might well focus your work too.

* Postscript: I am happy to report that my laptop had a new brain installed and is now a fitter, quicker and happier machine.  Thank you Tekserve.