Perhaps I'm a rare breed, although I doubt it from the conversations I've had with others. A typical Saturday night in our house these days consists of me and my wife binge-watching a Netflix or Amazon show, MacBooks on our laps and phones by our side.
We watch the show, surf the web, check social media and even have a chance to talk. Part of that is me jumping on IMDB because we can't recall 'what show we last saw that actor in', this is soon answered and before I know it I'm down a Google rabbit hole digging deeper into back stories about the show and those acting or part of the production team. This is interspersed with alerts from the Guardian or Washinton Post or a meme about a squirrel break dancing on an SSL console.
We've become a human miracle; we can look at three devices with two eyes, while following a complex creative TV narrative and carry on a conversation - Darwin would be proud, it seems we have come so far.
Access to an answer is just a click away, or if you wish you can ask a digital assistant to get you the answer. Although if any of you lose sleep about robots with AI taking over the earth then take a moment to ask Alexa what the weather will be today, she is likely to reply that either Heather isn't in your contacts list or some other random shit. We had Alexa in our house for about two days before both my wife and me gave up with Alexa giving bogus answers or answering questions we hadn't asked in the first place. The most used phrase became "Alexa shut the f*ck up!" Siri is just as bad, so don't panic the humans still have a place in this world... for now.
Someone once said that information is power. I'd contend that having access to unlimited information will render you impotent; it certainly proves that omniscience is overrated.
What do I mean by this? The endless data flow combined with our minds always been on seem to have had a worrying effect on me. I used to consume books and user manuals, but now I'll be surprised if I make it past a couple of paragraphs before I'm distracted like a 2-year-old sitting next to a bubble machine. I recall sitting for hours and reading page after page of user manuals, within a day I knew every part of my new tape machine or effects processor. I don't think I was unique either. I was the same with publications like Sound On Sound or Home Studio Recording, I used to read every page, not just once but many times devouring every piece of information. A couple of weeks ago I downloaded the latest edition of SOS, and I don't think I made it past the index. It has nothing to do with the magazine; it's about my inability to concentrate and take in information.
I asked a few friends about this, and we all agreed I am not the only person affected by this modern condition.
Why does all this matter for those of us working in the audio industry? It matters because simply taking snippets of information to accomplish a task (I do it all the time) is not the same as knowing why you do something and more importantly if you should be doing it in the first place.
I saw someone post on social media the other day "It's not really mixing if you don't use automation." For many new to mixing or even those looking to expand their skill, they may read that and think it's a fact, it's not it’s bollocks. However, without the fundamentals of learning a skill like recording and mixing, understanding not only how things work but why they work in a certain way, such as phase or loudness (no not the kind you get when you compress the shit out of a mix) but loudness specifications, then I think we are in danger of not being genuinely skilled but assembling a patchwork like poorly grounded audio production education. After all even a parrot can repeat short phrases but that doesn’t mean the animal knows what he is talking about.
I think it's the combination of too much gear and not enough time, so we skim the surface of every piece of equipment we have, of course we do. Who can learn 400 plugins like the back of their hand? What doesn't help the task is that so many manuals (if the product creator cares enough even to write one) are so poorly written. It might be good news for blogs like ours and the thousands of others that supply tips, tricks and tutorials but I can't be the only person who gets tired of trying to second guess how something works? This lack of information then leads me to start Googling for the answer and before I know it I'm watching a video of a monkey on a Neve console. It seems we've got ourselves in a catch 22 of ignorance; fewer people read the manuals, so the manufacturers figure it's a waste of time to write them in the first place. So we end up with an audio industry that has the equivalent of Chinese Whispers as educational policy.
I decided a week ago to do something radical, I went out and bought a notebook and a pen, as I realised I had not only lost the art of reading, but I had also lost the craft of writing. I don't think that phones, tablets and computers are a substitute for the primary human function of writing things down. Like every other digital interaction, they so easily seduce and distract, and within moments the thought is gone like smoke in the wind.
Digital has so much to offer to the audio creative, but it also has the power to distract and dumb us down. It has the power to reduce our desire to seek deep knowledge in preference for the temporary quick fix.
In an article on Webwiswording it explores the effect technology can have on our attention span.
Susan Greenfield, British neuroscientist, writer and member of the House of Lords, warns us that screen technology is having a significant impact on our malleable brains. It is causing our brains to change the way they function. She tells us that the human brain has evolved to its profound capacity due to its ability to learn and adapt to environment. She tells us that our brains are malleable and are “substantially shaped by what we do to them and by the experience of daily life.”
A survey conducted in 2012 in the UK indicates that the attention spans of children are getting shorter. The survey polled 410 English teachers and 2000 parents of children aged between two and 11. The survey showed that 91 per cent of teachers believe children’s attention spans are becoming shorter as they opt for screen-based activities over conventional reading. “It’s the first proof of a link between shorter attention spans and technology,” Greenfield says.
The centre of the modern recording studio is a screen, usually augmented by several other displays of varying size, all vying for little moments of our attention, like a digital bubble machine taking us to different places rather than allowing us to go deeper into the task at hand.
I'm troubled by what technology is doing to me and the audio industry, not because I think that AI will put us all out of work. It's something far more insidious, the fact that we splash around in the shallows of trivia and never venture out into the deep water of real exploration. This can only have one effect, and that's to make us all less than we could be.
At best we regurgitate ridiculous fake facts about the skill and craft of recording and mixing, at worst we stop learning for ourselves, we stop checking facts and testing theories. GK Chesterton once wrote, "in the absence of the historical Christian faith people don't believe nothing they believe anything." Even if you don't happen to agree with his theological point of view, I think we can paraphrase that quote to say, "in the absence of real audio knowledge people will believe anything."
There is no easy answer to this challenge we face, but I think it's essential for us to find ways to switch off the technology around us so we can go deeper into both the craft and the art of audio production.
Over the last few months, I've been changing my lifestyle to eat better and exercise more; it means I'm taking care of my physical well-being and it’s paying off. Perhaps too many of us have become content with snacking on tidbits of information and become obese on the educational equivalent of junk food. I like a fast tip and a funny meme as much as the next person but I’m not sure it’s a healthy diet for my mind. I think for the sake of my career and my art it might be time to do the same for my mental well being and growth too, a digital diet that includes reducing the amount of plug-in fat and app carbs combined with the mental exercise of reading something a little more substantial and nutritious might just be the thing I need.