Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Today this blog is going to be a truly random blog, that is to say, it is a stream of thoughts randomly strung together to make a post, as opposed to a theme-based article-like exposition (the kind I usually want to write).

Apple just came out with the New Ipod nano. I don't know what's different about it though. The new Ipod shuffle is pretty neat too, about as big as a Hershey's mini. I wonder how far Apple will go with the 'make it disappear' design ideology. Even smaller than Apple's products are the 'microSD' cards that, in the dimensions of a thumbnail, can store gigabytes of music (minus the player). I find it freakish that a vanishingly small piece of sophisticated electronic wizardry that can play on for 12 hours, or whatever.

But these ultra-small players still have a problem: the headphones. They're big. They're clunky. I hate those wires (calling them 'lanyards' doesn't help) hanging around my neck. I feel strangulated. I think the headphones are now probably bigger than the players. Maybe next year onwards they will focus on building smaller phones too. The most attractive headphone, for me, would be a tiny in-ear bud that wirelessly receives music and produces good sound. This should be accessible considering how far advanced modern wireless technology is.

However, I'm still a bit disappointed that all this technology has not fundamentally changed the essential experience of listening to music in the (early) 21st century. Music is still essentially an aural signal that needs brain processing to translate into an emotional response. It is a wonderful thing, and it can now be taken along and played on geek toys. But I was hoping for some radically different, truly sci-fi, not-necessary-sensory neural experience. Something that'd really let us 'feel' our music. A music player that produces some weird wave that connects more directly with our neural processes than the auditory canal. It is impossible for me to suggest what this might feel like (for we simply don't know yet!). I imagine that it'd be like 'hearing' a really low-pitched bass line (really low frequencies are as much 'felt' as 'heard') where it feels like your whole body is vibrating along. Except that it'd span the whole frequency spectrum and feel really, really cool.

On a different tack, I was thinking about why art is important. Or why things like music, sculpture, painting, literature, etc. must exist, must be promoted, or - in the case of art that already exists - must be preserved. Or, indeed, why one must endeavor to appreciate art. As an essentially materialistic person who, perhaps, lacks an inherently artistic vein, this is something I need to rationalize.

One answer is that true art contains unbounded and unfettered human expression that, by definition, must defy explanation or categorization. To me this is important. Too often it seems like all the things I see, read or hear follow a pattern, stick to rules or laws, and are almost laid out with ID tags to enable pigeonholing. We react to most of the mass-media we encounter by associating it with a certain category or style, using previously instilled beliefs or prejudices, to come up with a judgment - either emotional or rational - of its quality or utility, and then we move on. Few pieces inspire us to think about the subject matter ab initio, to come up with an entirely new assessment of the human values in question. That is art's place. Most often art accomplishes this objective by a blatant and obvious disregard for norm, disagrees for the sake of disagreement (it would appear), or 'rebels without a cause'. In fact, there is a cause: it is to prompt a rethink in a world dominated by cliche. In the case of art that is politically motivated this can be achieved by irreverence, especially in humor - that makes satire. The classic example from recent times would be the Mohammad cartoons.

Another reason why art is important is that it is one of the most significant and lasting products of civilization. Almost everything we know about the life and times of previous peoples and civilizations is from their art. There are recorded histories, but they may not convey the essence of the era in the way that art does. Indeed, it is this feature of art, the fact that it holds a mirror to history, that makes the art of previous eras meaningful. It is an exercise in futility to try to appreciate art without an understanding of the socio-political conditions of the time. In some cases, one may even need to know the history of art itself. For instance, it is impossible to fathom the accomplishment of Beethoven's Ninth or the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper or Picasso's Cubism without knowing what came before it.

I don't know which aspect of our art truly reflects our culture now, or how history will remember it. But I do know that if all our civilization's output - all art, all literature, all music - is converted to digital form and stored wantonly on this hard disk or that DVD, there will be no trace of it in a hundred years. We are on the threshold of punching out holes in the fabric of history. Electronically.

I say bring on the 80 terabyte clip-on music player. It might play for days but it won't last very long.