Hegemony on a Hard Drive

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Apple Logo

Apple Logo

The big sucking sound I had just heard was my Canon i9900 printer swallowing a 19×13 inch piece of photo paper. It then proceeded to dedicate its eight ink cartridges to printing only half of the image down the right hand side of the sheet. Damn, damn, damn! Apple + . Apple + . Cancel, Cancel! Abort! Abort! Aoougah! Aoougah! Dive, dive, dive!

I hate it when that happens.

I had printed images this size at the office, no problem. Well, OK, slight problem. The printer wouldn’t accept a “print landscape” orientation, so you had to get Photoshop to rotate the image 90 degrees and print in portrait aspect. Other than that – piece of cake. So I glared balefully at the printer, blinking and burping away there on the side table in my home workspace. I began to run through the variables that might be dorking around with my image. One of these solved the problem: moving the image from a remote hard drive to the laptop hard drive and printing from there, or switching the printer from the USB port to the Firewire port that was now free since I didn’t need the remote hard drive, or using a standard paper size setting instead of a custom size. I don’t know which did the job because I did them all simultaneously and the image printed. Maybe I needed all three.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought. “Art and my computer should be better friends.” And it’s not just visual material; life doesn’t get any easier when we consider audio. Singing, poetry, anything better heard than read; they are all part of that “digital trunk in the attic” I wrote about. Trying to create those messages in the digital environment runs us into more tool concerns:

I have a pretty small, pretty awful, USB microphone. I play no instrument – assuming we do not count the kazoo. Garageband sits gathering nanodust on my hard drive. Yes, I have a friend who is an excellent keyboardist and vocalist who has offered to share her skills, her keyboard, and her high end USB microphone if I teach her how to use Garageband. But I don’t know how to use Garageband, yet. And my office tech guru tells me that “If spend another 80 bucks in software, and get a mumbo-jumbo yadda yadda 100 dollar interface, you will have really excellent sound. Plus processor speed isn’t an issue because the CPU will either choke or it won’t. Probably won’t. And the interface is clean – just like Garageband!” Whew, I feel a lot better now!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

But there is a bigger issue than my personal frustration. Before the expressive digital genie has even wriggled her way out of the bottle, we are lopping off appendages, willy-nilly. The intricacies of hardware and software are selectively marginalizing various communicative modalities, and particular voices. In my classes, I call it communicative hegemony. We tend to think of hegemonic inclinations as advantaging a specific worldview. I’d take that particular paranoia a step further. The communicative technologies that come to dominate any point in history advantage some modes of expression over others, and those advantaged expressive modes are uniquely inclined to favor a construction of reality that carries embedded assertions about the nature of existence and expression.

There are two primary areas of ware dominance – the communicative hegemony made possible a convergence of software and hardware – that concern me. The concern can be framed thusly: What expressive ware enables and advantages particular constructions of messages, particular groups of message makers, and hence specific perceptions of reality/truth/value?

Garage Band

Garage Band

The tradition in expressive message software – visual processing packages such as Photoshop and Illustrator and audio packages like ProTools and Cakewalk Sonar – is to create powerful, full-featured applications for “media” professionals. I have two significant objections to that tradition. First, it unduly influences the whole area of what is the “allowable” structure of an expression. And second, it nudges the creative impulse toward the slippery slope of commodification.

Let’s address the “allowable structure” notion first. I have two friends who are “real artists.” He is primarily a sculptor, she a painter. Both refuse to use Photoshop any longer. They quit early in the version 2.0 years. She originally used it to do a variety of “color treatments,” experimenting with various color schemes on a preliminary sketch without using reams of paper or pots of paint. She quit because the software became too complex; it got in the way of her painting. He used it for similar reasons, to look at various glaze ranges and do some manipulation of digital images of “pieces in progress.” But he stopped using it for a very different reason. A computer-science professor in his previous professional life, he walked away because Photoshop got “Way too cool. I was afraid I’d never go back to the studio.” Those are two sides of the same coin – the software began to assert its own agenda into the creative process. By foregrounding certain processes – sometimes literally in the tools palette, sometimes figuratively as in the abundance of filters and effects available in drop down menus – the software advocates certain expressions more than others.

The software designers would be quick to point out that they use “feedback from their customers” to decide which tools to foreground and which features to provide. Which takes us directly to the issue of commodification. Expressive software packages – graphics, music, sound – that sell for $500.00 to $10,000.00 are not designed for the personal expression budget. They are designed for professionals. Folks who do work for profit or for hire. And those are the customers the software designers ask what features to foreground or include. Hence, the software packages advantage techniques and tools designed for commercial products, and in doing so, further establish the artistic language of the commercial artist as the accepted language for any artist wishing to employ that particular medium. And, if that weren’t enough, the software advantages output in forms that are particularly salient to the marketplace. Jpegs for websites and online stores, “save as html” to provide the “copy,” .ram files for your PC Real One Player – click here to upgrade! “It’s easier to build an online business than you ever thought!” Again, product for profit, not process for expression.

Now, my friends over at IT tell me that there are plenty of freeware, shareware, cheapware, options I can use. A few even work on my Mac, a few I can get up and running in less than 12 or 15 hours, and some will actually output sound or video or images to a format I can print, play or display. Some I might be able to figure out myself. That is significant progress. I can still remember when they didn’t want to talk to me if I wasn’t using a UNIX box and couldn’t program is C++. Still –

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Apple is making an honest effort – I think. Their iLife suite tries to walk the thin line between commerce and creativity. But it is a very difficult razor on which to balance. Look at GarageBand, for example, which I have played with more since starting this essay. Version 1.0 leaves you at the mercy of your own skills with an instrument or the loops and samples provided with the software. Version 2.0 – just out – seems to move further along the road toward enabling the consumer; but the price is a significant leap in the complexity of the software. And it still exports to iTunes, which shows an uncomfortable inclination to shuffle me off to the iTunes Store.

Jef Raskin, who died about a month ago, was largely responsible for the original Macintosh user-friendly interface/mouse tandem. He wouldn’t like that. He always asserted that computers should serve people – not the other way around. He ALWAYS thought it shouldn’t be this hard.

And it is our fault. When I say “our,” I mean those of us in universities. Our love affair with technology has led to tools of awesome power, wonderful capabilities. Our research, our fascination with what might be possible, has created the electronic phantasm that is the 21st century. But in acquiescing to the “off the shelf” ware solutions provided by our graduates in the industry, we have unwittingly added a new deep trench to the digital divide. We have allowed our genie to build walls instead of bridges between the creative impulse and the digital environment. The tool now dominates both the process and the nature of the product. It is time to wrap our academic robes more firmly around us and figure out how to reverse that paradigm, because — all together now – It shouldn’t be this hard!

Image Credits:
1. Apple Logo
2. Garage Band


Please feel free to comment.


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  • I always loved artists who used an instrument in a wayunimagined by its creator (playing a guitar w/ a powerdrill, hooking a radio up to distortion pedal, etc).Anyone could stumble across some new combination ofexisting modes or methods and take the medium in a newdirection. It would be a real shame if we began usingcreative tools that couldn’t mutate along w/ ourevolving creative wills. There’s something appealing(perhaps necessary) about having the actual code ofthe creative program retain mutability. I thinkthere’s room for these new tools to be even moreflexible than the old ones, but only if we don’t letothers set the rules of use in stone.

    Whether we like it or not, computers already permeatefilm and music creation, yet these two groups ofpeople, computer programmers and musicians/filmmakers,get totally separate educations. If the academy cares about keeping creative possibilities open for futuregenerations of artists, it needs to recognize theclose relationship between these two groups that hasevolved. It needs to treat programming as a creativeactivity, not just a technical one.

  • Bryan Canatella

    Apple rules

    i am an apple fan and give props to them for aiding me in my growth as a musician/filmmaker. Garageband is, unlike the author notes, very easy to use. It’s no longer computer jargin, but it is a visually accessable program. The layout is made so that a computer illiterate person can have fun making music. I’ve made so many songs with it, nothing special, but i just like the fact that if i want to make a rap about my fat roomate, i can. Also, i use final cut pro a bunch for videos i make. That is a tough program but ive gotten to be very creative with it. I agree that if someone wants to be a musician or filmmaker, he has to be either a genius, or a master of technology to survive in this day and age.

  • The strange bedfellows of computers and art

    Having spent most of my twenties and all of my late teens as an electronic musician, I can understand the strange addictive connection and distrust in computer based software that Robert Schrag writes about. I spent years learning the ins and outs of Digidesign’s ProTools, Opcode’s Studio Vision, Turbosynth, Acid, Metasynth, Cloud Generator (way over my head!!), and the list goes on and on into cracked software oblivion.

    I could have spent all of my entire early music career focusing on learning the ins and outs of these software programs (not to mention the other non-computer based analog equipment which was complex enough). I knew many computer based musicians who did nothing but that. And I could have skipped sleeping trying to acquire new versions of all the software programs I had crammed on to my Power Mac 7500/100 at the time. But at one point, unlike the artists that Schrag mentions in his article, I put my foot down and decided to spend the majority of my time doing what it was that I had originally wanted to do with this amazing software: write music USING this technology, in the service of creativity. See, I didn’t walk away from the software, deciding that computers sucked and I was going to pick up an acoustic guitar and join Lilith Fair. Nor did I ever really bother to read a bible-sized software manual again (unless I had technical problems!). I instead decided to stick with the software versions that I had, avoided purchasing new upgrades, and learned the basic principles to create and create and create some more innovative music.

    Before launching into a counter argument for the melding of computer technology and art, I think that it bears mentioning the economic necessity of complicated software. Software companies rely on revamping and creating new versions of their softwares to stay in business. They need to constantly be creating bells and whistles that weren’t in the previous versions. Sometimes I think they invent “bugs” in order to make another version to offer for a small sum that “fixes” the bug. Why so many versions if one works well enough? Because ultimately, some hacker kid is going to figure out how to break into a version of software and put it out in the world for other poor nerds like me to use illegally. If software companies keep one step ahead of the hackers by constantly shifting the nature of the programs they sell, they can stay in the market place.

    That being said, I partially understand the problems that software addiction and use can cause for the artist. It is easy to become interested in the new bells and whistles and to experiment with previously unknown plug-ins or effects. But I also think that once an artist gets the basic gist of how the program works, I feel that incredible things are possible with it. I don’t believe that great music (or art) has to come with a complete understanding of how each software version works. One of my favorite Autechre albums “amber” was made before the two musicians had mastered some crazy software programming and sound design chops. I listen to this beautiful simple album all the time, and tend to shun the albums where they express their sound manipulation savvy.

    Another computer-based musician, Squarepusher, began his career with the most simplified sequencers and drum machines. He had not the money to continue to upgrade equipment or buy new gear. But because he had to focus all of his time and energy with the small amount of equipment he had, he learned to stretch and push the boundaries of this equipment to create something completely fresh and off-the-wall.

    The basic fact is that, the computer-based artist CAN manipulate his or her computer to various levels of complexity to see results. Despite how complex ProTools has become, it can still input any recorded sound into an essentially blank canvas where the artist can do anything he or she wants it to: give it a more traditional treatment à la musique concrete, or run a spoken word track through 5000 different types of reverberation. My point is, the artist is still in control, the software has not taken over the art work and developed its own agenda.

    One thing that is easy to forget is that art and science have always been bed fellows. Oil painting seems a bit traditional to most of us. Something our grannies can do in their retirement. But I also know that this mode of art has undergone a number of technological innovations and experimentations in color, in chemicals and how they effect the medium and their longevity. I can guarantee you that oil painting has challenged many an artist in the past, unfamiliar with how to handle brushes of various sizes, or how to blend certain primary colors to achieve the desired color. In this light, computers will continue to work their way into the fabric of creativity, shaping it, driving it, influencing it. I believe that as people, especially children, become more computer literate and savvy, more and more people will find ways to make powerful art without having to become software experts in certain programs. It’s being done now and will continue to be done. Art is always hungry for change and alterations of creation methods. Computers will be part of this process for years to come.

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