Technology and Humanity: the Paradox of Choice

In the first installment of my exploration of interactions between humanity and evolving technology, I endorsed an attitude of openness toward new tech toys.  Generally I've found that an open embrace works best for me, but today I want to discuss a few qualifiers that might make for healthier relationships with technology over time.  I think it's valuable to advocate for new tech while taking a deliberate, thoughtful approach.

It isn't new technology we have to worry about--it's about fostering healthy relationships between technology and ourselves, individually and collectively.  And the difficulties in establishing relationships have less to do with the quality of new tech than a larger context of quantity, the sheer volume of choices we're now faced with as new tech is added to old at a seemingly exponential rate.

New technology is generally offered to us because it makes some aspect of our activities easier to achieve, or more efficient.  While this is effective on an item-by-item basis, when we're confronted with a large number of options for accomplishing similar goals, we run the risk of becoming bogged down in the selection process itself and ultimately becoming less efficient--maybe even less happy.  Barry Schwartz details many of the productivity and psychological implications of this issue in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, a great read if you ever feel like you're spending too much time picking out new pants or drink options at your favorite coffee shop, and you want some ideas on how to break those kinds of cycles.

Schwartz's book doesn't address how the Paradox of Choice can impact creative pursuits, and that's what I'd like to address here.  And I'd like to start with personal experience.  As time has passed, i have acquired more music gear, and over the same time I have found myself less prolific, less likely to practice, and for the last couple of years almost creatively incapacitated.  In retrospect, I think I understand how this happened, and I'm gradually digging my way out of a vaguely depressed, creatively stifled hole.

It snuck up on me over time, affecting my creative process before I fully realized what was happening. For a long while, I thought the rigors of adulthood, especially less time to devote specifically to music, was the main cause of my creative slowdown.  But now I think the time factor is relatively minor.  it all goes back to technology--in my case, it's integrating computers into my compositional process.  My downfall has been Reason, a softsynth program that I started using as a songwriting/demo-recording tool.  I could build bass and drum sections and synth parts/pads using Reason, and then move projects over to other recording platforms to add guitars/vocals and other "real" instruments as appropriate.

Reason versus the Paradox of Choice

It's a great program.  Its features offered me the potential to both streamline my workflow and expand my creative possibilities for making recordings.  I like to write extremely dense music, with large arrangements, lots of sounds old and new, and lots of playfully intersecting melodies, a kind of contrapuntal avant-pop.  In terms of technology, I had felt somewhat limited by the recording devices I used before Reason, where 4 tracks on cassette (or a few more via bouncing tracks) or 8 tracks on a Roland digital recorder kept me from hearing how more than 8 parts might be working together.  And it put a huge palette of sounds at my fingertips from within one device: samples of real instruments, wild synth sounds, electronic percussion galore.  It was like having many electronic instruments, each with a wide range of sounds, in one convenient package and all designed to work perfectly together.

That's where the paradox of choice comes in.  As I started to build tracks in Reason to use as the starting point for both demos and further recordings, I found myself getting hung up on the wide array of drum and bass sounds I could use.  And bass sounds in particular led to my demise.  There are hundreds of preset sounds one can try, and all of them can be further modified to change overall tone, overtones, front-end articulation, portamento between notes, octave output, polyphony, effects, and so on.  I found myself looping a measure or two of a bass riff and changing and tweaking sounds for many hours.  Over time, this started to hamper my creative process--my time allotted to composing became time spent making relatively inconsequential tweaks to the sounds used in short passages.  With enough repetitions of this routine, my compositional process itself started to change, and my focus shifted from thinking of pieces as wholes with complex large-scale interrelationships to getting stuck on tiny details.  I wasn't seeing the forest for the trees, to use the old cliche, and I got frustrated with my progress on larger pieces.  The act of writing music seemed less productive, less communicative, less fun.

Once the whole process took on these negative connotations, I simply spent less time doing it.  Eventually it spilled over to other aspects of musical activities, like practicing guitar.  And it became a psychological issue: I questioned whether I had lost my touch, whether I had anything left to say musically.  When I asked myself that question mentally, I felt like I had lots to say and do, but when I sat down to do work, my muse was all but gone.

Fortunately for me, I had lots of other things going on that demanded my attention, and life was generally wonderful, so I'm not wildly upset about the whole thing.  But in essence I feel like I lost roughly two years of my creative life to the paradox of choice, walking a labyrinth of Reason, both the product and the concept.  Ultimately I came to recognize the trap I was in from an angle related to the "path of a guitar tone" in my previous technology/humanity essay: approaching the music from a listener's perspective, who would actually appreciate the subtle differences between bass sounds, especially when the bass parts were themselves rarely the focus of the music?  Something had to be there, certainly, but it became clear that limits to the degree of effort worth investing in such things were indicated.  Now that I'm consciously weighing the relative importance of the steps in my compositional process, I can use the information I find to make better decisions, and hopefully better music.

That's what it comes down to, I think: technology needs to be as carefully explored and integrated into day-to-day activities as any other aspect of a well-considered life.  Returning to Paradox of Choice, Schwartz draws a few conclusions/suggestions that can easily to applied to creative pursuits:

Choose when to choose.  If you find that you're spending an amount of time making a decision within your creative process that just isn't worth it, stop wasting the time, and don't feel bad about it.

Make your decisions nonreversible.  Pick that sound, that font, whatever, and stick with it for now.  Focus on the content instead of getting preoccupied with what it might be wearing.  Remember how much you've already created, and trust the decision you make.

Learn to love constraints.  Don't feel like every aspect of everything you create has to be approached with full force.  You don't need to reinvent your favorite guitar tone for every song.  You already know how to get it, and you already know it will work.  Write that song.

There are times, of course, where you'll still want to take the longer route.  Sometimes it's worth it.  As for "choosing when to choose," for example, I frequently choose to write first drafts of things (including most of the stuff on this blog) by hand.  It takes way longer, but I think better on paper and away from computer screens.  And toward "learning to love constraints," I may spend less time choosing bass tones, but I'm all about using dozens and dozens of tracks to build recordings--that's simply what I like.  The important distinction is simply that I've thought about these exceptions to taking the simplest route, and I'm aware enough of how they might affect me that I can modify those decisions in the future if I feel like I'm becoming some kind of "slave to technology."

Technology isn't "the problem" nearly so often as we like to think--frequently it's simply a catalyst that can expose our weirder human tendencies in new and sometimes unexpected ways.  But we have to be ready to respond to our strange and insatiable new appetites if they're preventing us from doing the things we care about.  Life is short.  Create what you love.

A few updates

Terrible, heartbreaking tragedy in Lincoln music news: Jeffmetal of Wasteoid, Plack Blague, Manslaughterer, etc, has passed away.  Barry of KZUM's Super Happy Doom Time show did a fantastic tribute show to him last night, which you can download here.

Wasteoid is a powerviolence/grind favorite of mine.  Check youtube for lots of live videos, like this one:

Interesting news is developing in the wake of my review of the Source anthology.  It looks to be a lot of work, but something really amazing might come of it.  We'll definitely be talking about it some more.  And anonymous commenter: I noticed your last comment long after you submitted it--it ended up in the spam filter.  Please do get in touch if you'd like.

And a quick mention that Dreamachines are available in a semi-DIY fashion from Important Records right now--for folks in the UK, it looks like you could order them directly from their source at 10111.org as well.  They're modified to work w/45 RPM turntables, instead of the old 78 RPM designs.  It's getting tough to score old turntables that can accommodate 78 RPM!  I've been making and using Dreamachines for years, though mine have always been pretty ugly, ghetto affairs.  I took my time carefully cutting out the pattern on this new design, though, and I love it!  It works wonderfully, and it makes an evocative art piece as well.