“We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” – Marshall McLuhan
The theme of the Industrial Age was Economies of Scale. How do we do things in volume? The goal of a business was how to make sure that we have total quality control and turn things out in the millions for an undifferentiated consumer mass market.
The scale mindset even went to our forms of entertainment and media where what used to be custom experiences became mass produced – whether with audio recordings or books or movies or TV shows or art. We went from live to reproduced.
Brian Eno, famous as a music producer, worked with the producers of a generative music tool, Koan, to refine their tool set so that he could explore and “compose” in the new medium (for the current version of Koan see Mixtikl). In his book A Year with Swollen Appendices he describes the nature of generative music:
“Ten RCA students over to look at Koan and screensavers. I gave them all a talk about self-generating systems and the end of the era of reproduction – imagining a time in the future when kids say to their grandparents, ‘So you mean you actually listened to exactly the same thing over and over again.’ Interesting loop: from unique live performances (30,000 BC to 1898) to repeatable recordings (1898 – ) and then back to – what? Living media? Live media? Live systems?”
“Some very basic forms of generative music have existed for a long time, but as marginal curiosities. Wind chimes are an example, but the only compositional control you have over the music they produce is in the original choice of notes that the chimes will sound. Recently, however, out of the union of synthesisers and computers, some much finer tools have evolved. Koan Software is probably the best of these systems, allowing a composer to control not one but one hundred and fifty musical and sonic parameters within which the computer then improvises (as wind improvises the wind chimes).
“The works I have made with this system symbolize to me the beginning of a new era of music. Until 100 years ago, every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable and even classical scoring couldn’t guarantee precise duplication. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances and made it possible to hear them identically over and over again.
“But now there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music and generative music. Generative music enjoys some of the benefits of both its ancestors. Like live music it is always different. Like recorded music it is free of time-and-place limitations – you can hear it when and where you want.”
He goes on to talk about composing generative music:
“Of course, the real can of worms opens up with the new stuff I’m doing – the self-generating stuff. What is the status of a piece of its output? Recently I sold a couple of pieces as film-music compositions (a minor triumph, and an indication of how convincing the material is becoming). I just set up some likely rules and let the thing run until it played a bit I thought sounded right! But of course the film-makers could also have done this – they could have bought my little floppy (for thus it will be) containing the ‘seeds’ for those pieces, and grown the plants themselves. Then, what would the relationship be between me and those pieces? There is, as far as I know, no copyright in the ‘rules’ by which something is made – which is what I specify in making these seed programs.”
“For me, this is becoming a stronger body of work every day. Having now had the chance to try out some of the work on lots of different people (even without telling them how it is being made), I am convinced of its musical worth. Then the fact of its infinite self-genesis comes as an incredible bonus. So I will be very happy if, at the end of it all, I get recognition as a pioneer in this area. That in itself (given the way things have worked for me in the past) will also turn out to pay the bills. It’s something to do with what Esther Dyson was saying about servicing an idea: if I let the idea free, then I get paid for servicing it – extending it, updating it, extrapolating from it.
“The end of the era of reproduction.”
Then Brian goes on to tie the many generative systems together:
“A by-the-by: I’ve noticed that all these complex systems generators (such as ‘Life’ and ‘Boids’ (the flocking one) and ‘The Great Learning’) have something in common – just three rules for each. And these three rules seem to share a certain similarity of relationship: one rule generates, another reduces, another maintains (or a tendency to persist). I suppose it’s obvious, really, but perhaps it’s not trivial to wonder if those three conditions are all you need to specify in order to create a complex system generator (and then to wonder how those are actually being expressed in complex systems we see around us).”
It is one thing when we create generative arts, but what happens when things we depend on like Google search become “generative,” that is, what I see when I search is different than what you see.
“The basic code at the heart of the new Internet is pretty simple. The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like—the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like—and tries to extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you’ll do and want next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us—what I’ve come to call a filter bubble—which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.
“Of course, to some extent we’ve always consumed media that appealed to our interests and avocations and ignored much of the rest. But the filter bubble introduces three dynamics we’ve never dealt with before.
“First, you’re alone in it. A cable channel that caters to a narrow interest (say, golf) has other viewers with whom you share a frame of reference. But you’re the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart.
“Second, the filter bubble is invisible. Most viewers of conservative or liberal news sources know that they’re going to a station curated to serve a particular political viewpoint. But Google’s agenda is opaque. Google doesn’t tell you who it thinks you are or why it’s showing you the results you’re seeing. You don’t know if its assumptions about you are right or wrong—and you might not even know it’s making assumptions about you in the first place. My friend who got more investment-oriented information about BP still has no idea why that was the case—she’s not a stockbroker. Because you haven’t chosen the criteria by which sites filter information in and out, it’s easy to imagine that the information that comes through a filter bubble is unbiased, objective, true. But it’s not. In fact, from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.
“Finally, you don’t choose to enter the bubble. When you turn on Fox News or read The Nation, you’re making a decision about what kind of filter to use to make sense of the world. It’s an active process, and like putting on a pair of tinted glasses, you can guess how the editors’ leaning shapes your perception. You don’t make the same kind of choice with personalized filters. They come to you—and because they drive up profits for the Web sites that use them, they’ll become harder and harder to avoid.”
Recently, I am thinking about, researching and designing generative media in the context of the end of the long form book. When you have personalized content tailored to the needs of a specific user and then add user generated content, how do you reproduce it? The experience for each user is different – by design.
The One to One Future described in 1994 by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers is here big time and surrounds all of our actions. Yet, what Peppers and Rogers described was how businesses sell to markets of one. What happens when those markets of one “sell” back?