Post #991 • April 17, 2007, 6:23 PM • 32 Comments
Brian Curtis, from A Voice Crying in the Wilderness:
...I would like to address the destabilizing, de-civilizing influence of digital technology. The mechanical, impersonal nature of computers makes them the preferred weapon in the dematerializing of the art product and the deskilling of the art producer in what has now been a hundred-year war on traditional taste and media. The current pedagogical emphasis on digital media has been greatly amplified by postmodernism's inherent disdain for anything resembling traditional high art media.
As much as I agree with the overall gist of Curtis's essay, some of what he wrote about technology I think could bear a challenge. Not the above, which is fine. I believe that a curriculum that instructs a student in digital media before he can get a successful outcome out of a pencil is doing him an enormous disservice. But Curtis continues:
Computers are being promoted as being agents of individual empowerment, democracy, decentralization, and egalitarianism. Unfortunately, however, it is governments and large private corporations that are doing the promotion. That ought to tell us something. Did you know that Rupert Murdoch now owns MySpace? According to Neil Postman, a social theorist, the United States is dangerously close to a technopoly. Technopoly is a cultural system in which technology is granted sovereignty over social institutions and national life. It places its faith in mechanical calculation rather than human judgment thereby depriving man of the common source of humanity and leaving him without moral foundation. According to Richard Sclove, rather than decentralizing political power, as promised, computers and the web are encouraging stateless megacorporations by enabling them to leap boundaries, to intimidate labor unions, elude domestic political opposition, threaten meddling government officials with plant closure and capital flight, and sidestep regulatory hurdles. This anti-democratic process has been termed Walmartization and its ultimate goal is a world wide corporately controlled monoculture.
I believe that Curtis is conflating some unrelated complaints here. For one, it's unlikely that my writing would enjoy the audience that it has if not for digital technology. In fact, concerns about corporate monoculture led me deeper into technology. Specifically, I wanted off of what I've started to call the Adobe-Go-Round. Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia a couple of years ago, I felt, was going to lead to the deletion of perfectly good products and the dilution of the remaining ones. John Gruber, in 2005:
But Chizen's rise at Adobe tracks precisely with the company’s drift away from its roots as a great software company. When the company was run by graphics/technology enthusiasts, it was a great graphics/technology company. Now that it’s run by a sales guy, it has turned into a company that seems more interested in the sales and marketing of its products than in the products themselves...
I know dozens of people whose livelihoods are based on creative work produced using Adobe software, and every one of them was at least mildly annoyed by the "CS" marketing nonsense. The entire "CS" campaign has the feel of a company that is marketing down to its customers, rather than treating them respectfully as peers. If it doesn't appeal to their core audience, who is the "CS" brand meant to appeal to?
I suspected even then that Adobe was about to get into the upgrade business, by yoking the entire product line and bumping the version number up a whole integer every year. Sure enough, this year Adobe will roll out CS3. The so-called Master Collection lists for $2500. How much does it cost to build a whole new computer from parts, install Linux, and download open-source design tools? About $1800. Guess what your author did.
Using the Hot Rod guidelines at Ars Technica as a jumping-off point, I came up with a shopping list, and bought it on Newegg. Via Craigslist I found a gamer who helped me pop it together for $50; I got other offers to do it for beer, but decided to go with a semi-pro. Assembly was a hair tricky, but nothing out of control with the help of someone who had done it before. We didn't have to consult any manuals. Open the case, screw down the mobo, drop the CPU on it, pop in the power supply, push in the drives, plug in the cards, connect the cables, and hit the power switch. Ubuntu installed on the first try, and it's a beautiful OS. GIMP and Inkscape are damn fine programs and do everything I need them to do, in some cases better than their proprietary counterparts. For the trouble, which wasn't much, I'm running 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with two DVD-RWs, good graphics and sound cards, a 19" monitor, and a 2.1 sound system that could injure the neighbors. Plus, I had a learning experience. Adobe got nothing.
On the educational level computers reinforce and compound unstructured thought processing and learning styles. Douglas Rushkoff, in his book Playing the Future, inadvertently admits that "screenagers" tend to discard linear logic in favor of a spontaneous outlook that celebrates indeterminacy much the way channel/web surfing does and where "CNN seems less real than Pulp Fiction." In the real word, however, without the ability to manipulate ideas systematically, screenagers, when confronted with difficult challenges, are condemned to a life of rolling their eyes and muttering "Whatever!" Both video and computers expose us to the tyranny of the disjointed moment and bind us to the demons of popular culture and dispirited materialism. Digital technology is a frighteningly efficient delivery mechanism for the various contemporary anarchical trends of contemporary practice I mentioned above. Attitude, anarchy, negation, and alienating technology all morphing into a Hydra of pedagogical disruption.
It's a tool. You can use it to decrease the friction in the conduits that convey idiocy to your brain. You can also give yourself an amazing intellectual experience, one characterized by logic, causation, and order. I feel that exposure to these three qualities has been tonic when it comes to dealing with art and the nonsense perpetrated in its name.
But of course, I'm not using technology as some kind of replacement for drawing, and that's the core issue here. When Gilbert and George talk about the hand in art as if were an embarassing defect, they're spewing the party line about the use of traditional media as a completed enterprise. Even without digital tools they would find some other means of doing so. The problem is not one of technology, but cynicism, even if the former is being made to serve the latter. Cynicism makes it equally possible to subvert a labor standard, insult tradition, sell something that nobody needs, or roll your eyes and say
Whatever! when faced with a challenge. But here's the secret: the discipline of drawing uncovers wonders in the ordinary world, and wonder is the opposite of cynicism. No software will take you to that place of refined and meaningful seeing. That's why a certain class of contemporary educator would like incorporate technology into the foundation curriculum, and why people who care about art will insist that the only digital tools that should be taught at that level are the ones at the end of your arm. But with that accomplished, use any tool that does the job. Just make sure that you're using it, not the other way around.