Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I just finished listening to the complete symphonies of Franz Josef Hadyn who is widely recognized as “the father of the symphony.” His achievement is incredible if only for its sizeable output—some 107 works in all. The reason I bring it up is not out of any odd feeling of accomplishment though the experience was filled with musical wonders—but because it’s made me think that before digital media came on the scene, it would not have been possible to listen to them all—unless, of course, I was able to sit through the four years of concerts that it took for the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester to record the 37 CD set.

The digital compact disc made available comprehensive box sets of individual artists, composers, and bands in diverse collections that encompass the history of music genres including the arcane as well. It may be kind of daunting to confront an artist’s complete works when they exhibit the scale of a Hadyn, for example. The Internet has also made it possible to expand one’s reach exponentially into the world of the consequential, in addition to burying us in minutiae and trivia. The question becomes—how do we go about discovery and finding meaning in this mirror maze of data?

It’s nothing new to say that we are suffering under the weight of information and the grip of technology. Jaron Lanier’s recent book, You Are Not A Gadget, is as good as any in the list of jeremiads warning us about giving up our souls to silicon based-lifeforms. Personally, I experienced a tipping point this past summer with my inbox groaning for the mercy of the delete button and unsubscribe links which became my truest online friends.

The data available at a mere mouse click through search is imposing as well. Recently, my ten-year-old son expressed an interest in movies about World War II. He came to me frustrated by the wide range of choices offered by Netflix. It became apparent to me that his desire for discovery needed human intercession—and not the kind offered by several engines that pride themselves on non-robotic crawler solutions and even so-called "human search." Collaborative filtering and recommendation engines be damned, what he was asking for was curation.

The future of search is curation. I am convinced it will be at the foundation of many successful business enterprises and for individuals who can provide an editorial perspective on qualifying information. It’s not enough just to make the information available as we have been finding out. Say you were new to rock and roll—or Hadyn, for that matter. Where would you start? Google? Wikipedia? iTunes? And if so, how reliable are these methods? Google’s acquisition of metaweb last July speaks to emergent search methodologies that attempt to provide a layer of contextualization. Wolfram/Alpha is another that steps up the visual component of search.

In a conversation with Frank Zappa, he once pointed out to me that the binary mind behind modern computer technology is more limited than we think, particularly when taking into consideration the nature of time. He saw the conventional perspective of past, present, and future augmented by “never” and “eternity” and offered a vision of time as spherical and non-linear. He suggested that a computer that added these two features to the conventions of "on" and "off" switching would yield results that were more in keeping with the way that we live in time radially with our brains. Before he died in 1993, Frank joked that the Japanese “had probably already been working on it.”

The religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, once pointed out that the end of an era or great age often generates a popular belief that if all information were to be made available, that the Answer will then present itself. Of course, if Google were a religion, this idea would be the central tenet of the digital faith—and any entity whose corporate philosophy is “You can make money without doing evil” might arouse suspicions. Its mega initiatives like Google Earth and Project Gutenberg should raise an eyebrow at least. Who knows, maybe Google has already discovered the Answer to the Answer.

But, on the whole, I prefer to look for the answer in music, say in one of Bach’s inventions or in a John Coltrane solo, than in any old text-based search. It is here that we are presented with the age-old battle of what came first at the Creation—a subject of one of Hadyn’s master works as well—did the universe start with light as in a very special visual effect or was it in born of sound, mantra or "the Word"? I’ll place my bet on the sound of music any day because a Google search I just did yields 146,000,000 results for “Let there be light” versus a search for “The Big Note" which wins with 203,000,000--so it must be true...


Erika said...

Although I agree that the future (and indeed, the present*) is "curation,"it makes me fear a little, for the sake of discovery and diversity of thought. I feel like this curation is what allows us to get siloed - not only musically, but also politically, geographically, etc.

I acquiesce, it's difficult to know who to trust - a computer, or a human. But we've seen where the "curated news" of FOX and MSNBC have taken us... and it's not really a place I want to go. At least the Google Search offers up a (it's all relative) democratic search of what people have found useful before. When humans get involved, that's when I feel you get pushed to one extreme or the other. It's this type of polarization ultimately wipes out the serendipity of the search, and only gives us what others want us to see.

Although I welcome, as you do, the convenience of the human filter, I'm also super wary of it. Who's qualified to curate and how do I know they're not a crazy?!

*see Twitter and for examples of how we're headed in this direction right now!


I truly appreciate your in-depth comment, Erika. It's inspired a future post about the difference between editorial filters and curation.

I guess with regard to the Middle Way, maybe we should engage the Buddha to create a search function in addition to his discovery function.

To be continued...