Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Doing Things The Hard Way

Randomly pulled from a Facebook post quoting a comment on a picture on a website somewhere:

"The idea that vinyl djs are better is a bunch of bull****. Why, because it requires more physical labor to switch to the next song than on a computer? Because you have to know where a song starts and ends by heart since you don't have a program telling you when it will end? Because you have to beat match in your head?"

The subject, if you can't tell by context, was whether DJ'ing manually--that is, doing it with vinyl and manually switching the made you a better DJ.  So today's post is about doing things the hard way, and how that relates to technology.

Technology is making it possible to automate things we used to do manually.  Technology means we can get dangerous tasks done without risking ourselves.  A machine's capacity for precision and rapidity over long periods of time lets it do the tedious faster and better than a human can (or wants to).  And with technology we can do things that are otherwise impossible, based on the limits of our body and mind.

There are several benefits to not using technology to do work for you.  My stance in most cases is that even if--at the highest level--you do use technology to amplify performance, you should learn how to do things without it.

First, and most obvious, sometimes technology fails you.  Maybe the tool you are using breaks.  Maybe it just doesn't work in this specific, weird scenario.  Maybe you leave it at home.  Whatever.  If you rely on technology to do things for you, and your technology doesn't work, then nothing gets done.  Since most people value the technology for its ability to produce results, this ought to be a valuable enough reason in its own right.  If it's really important that something get done, then someone out there needs to know how to do it manually.

Second, understanding how a skill works only improves your ability to utilize technology.  You will get more mileage out of digital editing tools if you are already a strong artist.  You will be more efficient with a calculator if you can skip over lots of little steps by relying on your own math, and using it for the parts that are beyond your human capabilities or would require lots of double checking.

Third, there's an element to technological assistance that is simultaneously a strength and weakness; it eliminates choices.  That can be really great for a beginner, because too many choices overwhelm us.  When you're a beginner at something and have no idea what kinds of choices you want to make, the best option for getting results is choice restriction.  Options and choices are for people who know what they are doing to begin with.

Sometimes technology is designed to make things easier for people who aren't ordinarily skilled.  The only way to keep the beginners from making some of those bad choices is by not permitting them to begin with!  But, like I said at the beginning of the article, many things don't boil down to "good" or "bad," or "better" and "worse;" things are relative.  The right answer is almost always "well, it depends."  Part of being skilled is knowing when to break rules.  If you want to learning as much nuance as you can, it typically means doing things on your own and making mistakes.

The thing to remember about difficulty and learning is that results are for the audience, and process is for the creator.  If all you care about is having cool music at your fingertips, there's no requirement that you make it yourself.  Becoming a musician isn't about the desire to have music, it's about making it.  And that isn't always about "having made music," but about going through the part where you explore your chords and melody and counterpoint.  Having something make it for you destroys that part of the endeavor.  Going back to comment that sparked this post, using technology without learning the manual aspect first is a shortcut to quick results.  If you want people to think you are a good DJ without having to learn the ins and outs of being one, then you're not a DJ, you're a tool.  If you just want a neat mix for a party, then heck, why not?  If you want to make something that genuinely surprises people and makes them sit up, then you would want real understanding, which is usually obtained by doing things the hard way first.

Perhaps you've heard the common joke about a dad forcing his kid to mow the lawn or do tedious chores, and when asked why--"why should I make my bed when I'm going to make it messy again?"--the answer is "because it builds character."  It's a terrible way to explain it (and media often makes the dad look like a jerk), but it's accurate.  Learning to concentrate and focus through tedium is a skill.  Learning to perform and succeed even when bored or uncomfortable is a skill.  Learning to do things slowly and agonizingly without technology is a skill.  Even if the only thing you learn is to be appreciative of the technology you have, then that's a valuable way to spend your time.  Doing things the hard way and the tedious way does build character.

Here's something else to consider: the main reason that sports, games, and art excite us is because humans are involved.  We want to see what others are capable of.  We want to test what we are capable of.  Technology is only useful in this regard as long as we continue to be involved.  If technology lets us expand and capitalize on our own creativity and skill, then we remain interested.  Once the technology eliminates us from the equation, self-centered as we are, we tend to lose that interest.  From a purely practical standpoint--useful but uninteresting or dangerous tasks--this isn't really a big deal.  In the case of art and competition, it's everything.

Thanks for reading.

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