On the topic of pop music driving anti-intellectualism..

As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.

While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.

I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?

Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:

  • lyrical
  • Strong
  • Fresh
  • New
  • discussing the art of MCing
  • good analogies
  • good wordplay
  • good sentence structure
  • good visuals
  • not about negative things (?)
  • having a message
  • telling a great story
  • grabbing you / pulling you in
  • understanding life
  • witty
  • intellectual
  • smart rhymes
  • clever rhymes

I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.

Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.

The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.

Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.

So what?

I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?


..on treating machines like people

I just saw a blurb on huffington post that had Clifford Nass talking about what he usually talks about; treating machines like people. If you’re not familiar, go check out The Media Equation and his other books. Why an article about him in the mainstream media? I’m guessing it’s because he worked on the google glasses. Sidenote: it kind of sucks that you have to commercialize science to make people care.

Anyway, the article is mostly nothing new. What was new from him, at least for me is his concern with multitasking.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

I have the same concern, and actually wrote a paper about it last semester. By the time the paper was done I had kind of stopped caring about the issue because I’d blown it up into a deep mindmap and kept getting stuck on the issue of efficiency as a sole guiding force to interaction design development. My thought is that we need devices that use less of our attention, but I think the problem is really more human than machine. Given more unused attention, we’d probably still be trying to cram other tasks in there.

I guess I need to revisit this idea. How can we reduce the cognitive overhead of multitasking while still multitasking? A Nass-like solution seems ideal, since we have the ability to deal with multiple other humans. (ex: mother with a minivan full of kids) Surely though there is even a finite number of humans we can deal with at once.

I really don’t have a good answer. I’d love to hear other opinions.

Thoughts about the physicality of communication devices

I saw a website article a few weeks ago displaying new conceptual models of iPods/iPhones. Most were wearable items like a ring or bracelet. After some time, I realized that these concepts were kind of sitting uncomfortably with me. I guess I just have a difficult time believing that the next generation communication technology interface will be something you wear. I’m prone to thinking that we are already at a pretty efficient interface ideal with the iPhone/Android/etc. At least until such devices are more bio-integrated and worn on the inside of our bodies. That is a subject for another time. For now lets focus on the current crop of smart phones.

The brief physical anthropology of communications devices:
I think it’s definitely possible to see an evolution in electronic communication devices. Skipping the obvious face to face methods that have existed for thousands of years, I think the telegraph is a reasonable starting point for a communications technology as the term has come to be generally understood. The interface was stationary and passed information serially using only boolean data. Next came radio transmission, which in retrospect seems like more of an underlying support technology, allowing the telegraph to be mobile. Then the telephone, which began as a stationary unit for parallel audio transmission. Then we slid the radio technology under audio transmission and had what we now know as AM/FM radio, which at the time supported stationary transmitters, movable receivers. The receivers were too large and heavy to be moved regularly. Next the radio technology came to the telephone and we had wireless handsets which were very mobile, but had limited range. Soon the first cellular phones appeared, with gigantic battery packs and resigned largely to emergency use in a car, or for military communication. They slowly shrunk in size, and picked up more casual use and overlapped with the user base of landline phones. Computers also came on the scene, initially adopting a typewriter like interface for input and output. This hasn’t changed much from the keyboard/display setup we are still using with computers today. And lest we forget the fax machine, which I feel was already obsolete shortly after it hit the scene, yet for whatever reasons still has quite a user base.

So at this point, this is probably looking like the so-and-so begat so-and-so bit from the book of genesis in the bible. We’re about caught up to current though. There already seem to be a few instances of convergence when a new technology or social use comes along. So here we are with a rapidly shrinking cell phone, and highly mobile laptop computers with wireless connectivity as well. These user bases overlap, and we start seeing the functionality of computers in phones (instant messaging, email, web browsing) and phone functionality in computers. (VOIP such as Skype, et al) it kind of makes sense to combine the two, and here we are with iPhones, Blackberries and Androids.

The actual interface:
Ok, so we understand a bit of the physical anthropology of the communications device, lets take a closer look at the interface. The profile we’re looking at is an object that can be operated with one hand and stored in a pocket, like a cellular phone, with an approximation of a desktop/laptop computer’s capabilities for high resolution display, data storage, input capability and processing power. Along the way we also convergent-ly picked up the functionality of digital cameras and music players. It’s interesting to me that we seem to have taken more functionality from the computer and shoe-horned it into the small package of the cellular phone. I believe that this illustrates the strongest aspects of each device. It’s also interesting that the camera and music capabilities are easy to tack on since the requisites for computer functionality provide an easy infrastructure to add these other functionalities.

Since the general form is more like a phone than a computer, it’s easy to see that the interface of the phone functions will be similar to that of a standard, non-smart, cell phone. The physical form of the computer on the other hand, was large, and this size was mostly occupied by the I/O elements. A smaller screen, and likely lack of a physical keyboard show the need for a modified interface. It’s very important to note that there is a trade off here. What we have wound up with interface wise is a stripped down version of what MS windows and MacOS have been all along – a list of clickable icons. In absence of a mouse, we are now using touch screens. A keyboard is emulated, but almost all incarnations of this idea pale in comparison to the efficiency of a standard computer keyboard.

What am I getting at:
After all that, I hope you can see my point. We have arrived at the modern smart phone handset through a kind of natural selection, adopting traits of communication devices we find beneficial and leaving others behind in favor of more favorable traits. The beginnings of a move away from a physical keyboard illustrate this idea – the small, portable size of smart phones might be more important than the typing efficiency of the old keyboard. As a result, we also see the social ramifications of this with truncated language (O I C. U R welcome. LOL.) use starting on mobile devices and spreading to more traditional forms of communication. Could we assume that the use of mobile devices for communication is more important than maintaining traditional language norms?

The future:
I personally cannot see any immediate jumps away from the current smart phone hand set. It seems like a very flexible platform that has not been fully tapped for functionality yet. I believe that a more functional voice control, such as the one in the iPhone Google app, and the Android maps feature, will be the next step with this platform, allowing information request and retrieval to take place over a headset with limited physical interaction with the hand set. This would be highly dependent on voice recognition technology, which on the iPhone and even on desktop computers seems to be a ways off. If and when the VR technology catches up, concepts like the iPhone ring or bracelet will make a lot more sense, but until then seem like they would just be a hassle to interact with.

For more realistic future implementations I hope to see gesture control and perhaps more accelerometer control. But who knows what we will see.

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