The evolution of mankind is inherently associated with the evolution of its technology. You can’t have one without the other as they are co-dependent. This means that if we want to evolve as a species we have to develop the technology to help us do just that or otherwise we would still be dying in our thirties of a bad flu or a dog bite. Point being: We need technology to evolve. The thing is, not every single outcome of this situation is good. Here’s an example: Have you noticed a certain lack of musical geniuses in the last hundred years? Some people might say “Well, that’s because music geniuses have migrated to other styles, like rock n´roll”. Really? The Beatles are great and all but are they as great as; let’s say, Beethoven or Bach or Mozart or Vivaldi or Debussy or Schubert or Wagner? I know this is getting dangerously subjective but, really? Also, have you noticed how mankind has gotten lazier in the last sixty years? This is even more obvious than the above. People give up on things disturbingly easy these days. Have you noticed that? As much of a great thing technological evolution really is we have to accept it has a few downsides. The following reasons are the main suspects:
1. Industrial Revolution –in some ways- is to blame.
One of the main characteristics of the Industrial Revolution was the birth of sub-specialization. The division of knowledge and human abilities into small cells in order to maximize every single person’s potential for a specific task and fasten up the whole process. Up to that point in history each person had a craft and knew all there was to know about it, from start to finish. A shoemaker knew how to select the raw materials, treat them, cut the pieces, make the strings, holes and soles, how to sew them together and every single aspect of the shoemaking process. When the Industrial Revolution came along the shoemaker’s job was divided into a series of small chores done by a different person at each step of the process in order to make the whole thing faster. Now, instead of one craftsman who knew how to make a really good pair of shoes in one day we had twenty fellows who knew just one step of the process each and could collectively make twenty pairs of shoes in one day. The resulting product wasn’t as good as the one delivered by the shoemaker but it was done faster and therefore, more capable of complying with the growing demand. This method was translated into every single aspect of the human knowledge. Science, arts, and all kinds of crafts were subdivided into small cells of expertise. Musicians started diving into more specific compositional styles and stayed in narrow niches for the rest of their lives becoming masters of their highly specialized –and therefore obscure- trade. The chances of a Leonardo Da Vinci or even a Richard Wagner appearing in our days are extremely unlikely because of this same thing. The figure of a wise fellow who mastered countless trades and combined them all to come up with something new was replaced by group of individuals which are most efficient within their own small areas of expertise.
2. Too many possibilities wear you down and distract from the goal.
The technological evolution of the past two hundred years has broadened the specter of possibilities in every single aspect we can think of. Were we had one tool to perform a certain task now we have twenty to do that same thing with slight differences amongst them. The problem is, possibilities tend to distract one’s attention. When you only have one tool to do a certain thing there ain´t two ways about it, you either get to it or you don’t. Same happened with music. The excess of possibilities distracts the artist. In the times a musician only had a violin or a piano or even his own voice at his disposal there weren’t other elements to distract his attention from the composition itself. Melody, harmony and rhythm –the core of any music piece- played a much more important role than now.
When I was a young kid I used to record my songs in a little tape recorder and only one instrument could be taped at the time. I had to play the recorded tape in the home stereo and dub myself on the little tape device singing or playing on top of the home stereo reproducing the previously recorded tape. The resulting mix was awful as it contained all the overlapped layers of ambient noise including cars honking, phones ringing and such but the truth is, when I had to go to such lengths to record my songs I was much more prolific and enthusiastic than now that I have all the technology and fancy equipment I want. The lack of resources and possibilities made me concentrate in the few tools I had and make the most out of them instead of worrying about my possibilities, as there weren’t any. When you see how primitive the equipment the Beatles used to record their music was compared to all the modern gadgets we have today it makes you realize how much they did with so little. And when you go back even further and you see how Mozart did so much more with so much less, you start to realize that there’s a certain pattern to it: The more, the less. The more stuff you have at your fingertips the less you end up doing, creativity-wise.
From time to time you hear somebody saying “Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart were alive today, the stuff they could do with all the modern technology at their disposal”. I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure Mozart would’ve come up with all that brilliant music if he had had to choose between a thousand musical styles and a million sound textures each time he came up with a tune.
3. Getting lost in the quest: Technique has to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Modernism, post-modernism, serialism, polystylism, minimalism, post-minimalism, post-classic tonality, new simplicity, holy-minimalism, spectralism, new complexity, conceptualism, concrete music, experimental music, and so on, this styles all started as quests for something other than itselves. And it’s always a great thing when you come up with something unexpected and make a whole new style out of it but at some point you should either resume your quest for the original purpose or try to come up with some sort of musical work that gives a real meaning to the new style other than just a few musical compositions whose main goal is quite obviously to showcase the new musical style rather than actually use the new technique to create a relevant and meaningful piece of music.
There’s a reason why there isn’t as much great music composed in the serial technique as in earlier classical tonal one and it’s not just because the latter has been around for a longer time but because the tonal technique has been used as a means to an end rather than an end in itself -as the serial technique has mostly- and that is because when the earlier classical tonal technique was the only way to make music people didn’t have to spend so much time worrying about the different possibilities and means they had in order to make music but just get on to it. The sculpting of the sound in itself through different mechanical processes is a great thing but while this is supposed to be a just a tool to aid the artist it usually ends up being the most relevant aspect in the artwork, which in turn, ends up becoming just some sort of showcase for the newly found sound.
4. The abuse of technology in your daily activities is crippling your abilities.
It is a known fact that doing math exercises helps your mind process information more efficiently, playing chess improves your spatial, numerical and administrative-directional abilities, musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word and countless other activities help us exercise, train and develop our mind for infinite things in ways yet unknown to us.
Over the years, technology has relieved us from many repetitive, mechanical, tiresome and time consuming chores. It does make our life easier. It prevents us from doing the small things in order to concentrate on the Big Stuff. But at the same time, all these little activities are what exercise our minds for the greater things. To put it more boldly: Leaving aside absolutely all of the menial tasks to concentrate in the important stuff is as stupid as a professional marathon runner staying in bed all day in order to save stamina for the big race. By preventing our brain from doing the exercise it needs we are atrophying countless abilities we might not even know we have.
Also, on a more personal note and as a byproduct, all this technology that makes my life easier and avoids me from having to perform all this small tasks has spoiled me rotten. It’s a universal truth that when things get too easy you don’t feel like doing them and I don’t know about you but that’s something that happens a lot to me. When the core of your work has to do with inspiration and coming up with new stuff all the time you really need to stand on your feet and engage in mentally stimulating activities. As Nietzsche said, all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must take a stroll around the block each time you need to do some thinking it means that good ideas usually come up when you are already stimulating the brain.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’m not so sure Leonardo da Vinci would’ve come up with all the brilliant things he did had he lived in this day and age. His mad skills would’ve been seriously crippled by the lack of mental exercise, his decisions would’ve been compromised by the endless possibilities we are presented at each step of our modern life, and he probably would’ve ended as some sort of child prodigy who lost his thunder somewhere in his teens or worse.
There’s a tendency in human nature to underestimate the truly important quantum leaps that take place in our day and age and only deem as valuable the ones that happened in the past. This is because it is impossible for the masses to grasp a concept that is ahead of their time. Simultaneously, as someone said, no one wants to be a part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh so we hurry to praise individuals who aren’t really worthy of such, just in case; and fail to recognize the ones who are really worthy of praise. This exact same thing has been happening over and over again since ever, actually. So, you might say, maybe it is not that there are no more geniuses but we don’t recognize them till fifty years after they are dead. Let me say again: Really? I think we should’ve seen at least ONE Ludwig Van in the last fifty years, don’t you? And, while I´m using musicians as an example because Music is a field I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge about, this also happens in every other field where Creativity has a significant role.