I LISTEN TO PODCASTS THESE DAYS
When I was working as a sound designer and composer, I hated the fact that I could never listen to podcasts or music while I worked. I was always listening to my work itself. Now that my ears have time to explore — on the subway, in a car on the way to a meeting — I’m doing all the listening I can. It’s a strange freedom to have discovered in the midst of this new career path.
One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible with Roman Mars. Taken from their site: “99% Invisible is a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Perhaps it’s because I am in the midst of creating a new technology that I am so fascinated by the ones that have faded away or have influenced the technologies we have today.
With Mars’ directive playing in my mind, I would argue that in the current technological atmosphere, human ears have become 99% invisible. With the evolution of sound recording equipment, we’ve strayed further and further away from fully utilizing our ears. We don’t capture sound the way we hear it and we don’t experience recorded sound the way we experienced it live. We’ve grown accustomed to experiencing cinema, television, theater, and music in a heightened, saturated state that our ears would never be able to process. We spoon-feed our audiences a bionic, sugary sound that requires no work on the listener’s part to experience.
99% Invisible’s latest episode, “Of Mice and Men,” presents the life and inventions of Doug Engelbart, a computer engineer from Berkeley, California who, in the 1960s, created the infamous computer mouse. Engelbart invented far more than the mouse, however. One of his other inventions was called the Keyset.
“The five-button Keyset could produce all 26 letters by memorizing combinations of these keys used together. Learning to type would take a lot of practice, but Engelbart believed that with lots of repetition, the muscle memory would take over.”
[Courtesy of SRI International and the Doug Engelbart Institute]
“Even Doug Engelbart realized that learning the keyset was difficult. But for Engelbart, ease of use wasn’t the top priority. He wanted the computer inputs to be as powerful as possible, and that required some complexity. He imagined that consumers would learn how to use the mouse and keyset slowly over time, like how one learns to operate a car.”
I’m with Engelbart on this. Certain users have higher keyboard proficiency than others because of practice. We have the ability to excel at certain computer tasks more efficiently than others because we have practice with them.
For some inventions, no amount of practice or muscle memory will improve proficiency. For example, any user from a 1 to 90 years old can pull an iPad out of the box and begin using it. This is and always has been Apple’s (rather anti-Englebartian) intention. When Engerlbart released the mouse, it had three buttons. Apple’s had only one.
Engelbart compared his practice-based credo to tricycles and bicycles: a tricycle requires zero learning to function, but it’s going to be difficult to ride through the mud. With a bicycle, you have to learn how to balance and how to operate the gears, but the work will pay off — mud will not be an issue.
I’m not sure where I stand with the bicycle/tricycle argument when applied to technology as a whole, but with the current state of sound technology, it is very clear to me:
We’ve developed tricycle ears.
We’ve stopped thinking about what we hear. We’ve strayed from practicing with our ears, from tuning them and truly listening to them, not just with them.
Hooke isn’t about heightening or sugar-coating sound, it’s about using our ears the way they were intended to be used.
We can and should be using our ears like bicycles. They have the ability to push us through the sonic mud we’re in.
Plus tricycles are sort of ugly.
From One Ear To Another,