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What Technology Wants: The Evolution of Making Sound

By Marc Weidenbaum

With music, as well as more broadly culture, as the context in which we’re reading Kevin Kelly’s book, the (entirely hypothetical) evolution-like course of the development of musical instruments is something I’ve been especially interested in.

I understand that Kelly defines “technology” as broadly as to include written language (which is something that Julian Dibbell, it’s worth mentioning, also emphasizes in his introduction to this year’s Best Technology Writing collection), and by extension cultural production.

Early on in his What Technology Wants, Kelly discusses two things that play into an understanding of where musical instruments came from, and where they’re headed.

First is an anecdote, in which Kelly talks about the paleontologist Niles Eldredge’s interest in the trumpet. (I read the book via the Kindle software on my iPod Touch, so I can’t give a specific page number for this.)

As a hobby he collects cornets, musical instruments very similar to trumpets. Once Eldredge applied his professional taxonomic methods to his collection of 500 cornets, some dating back to 1825. He selected 17 traits that varied among his instruments–the shape of their horns, the placement of their valves, the length and diameter of their tubes–very similar to the kind of metrics he applies to trilobites.

Second is Kelly’s emphasis on progress as mapped by a move from what might be described as from physical to virtual goods–from an industrial economy to a service economy, and hence in instrument terms from physical instruments to software-based ones. Of course, the virtuality of software-based instruments is a hedge, since they’re predicated on a physical object, namely some sort of computing device, be it a conventional computer or a mobile device like an iPhone.

In the end, I’d love to know what Eldredge–which is to say, by extension, we–thinks about how virtual instruments will affect the projected development of the trumpet.

I also read the new Kelly book in the context of recent perceived about-faces by one-time technology evangelists, like Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed, but that’s a separate line of inquiry.

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