High tech / low tech

Today I got into an interesting discussion with a friend about research tools. It wasn’t one of those discussions that has a right or wrong answer, more of a mapping out of the space.

We were discussing the dichotomy between high tech tools — very expensive and high maintainance equipment that only a few people can have access to — versus lower-fidelity DIY tools that are widely available to millions of people.

What you can do with lower tech DIY tools — for example, capturing human movement with the Microsoft Kinect, or composing music on a low cost MIDI keyboard, or shooting a movie with your phone’s camera — can be limiting. Results can be noisy and/or inaccurate, the instrument introduces its own artifacts, and your aesthetic ends up being heavily influenced by the limitations of your tools.

On the other hand, whatever interfaces you build become immediately available to millions of other people, so you get the full power of the Crowd. We have seen this phenomenon in full swing in the rise, over the last six years, of YouTube videos. Relatively inexpensive video capture equipment has been used to create all sorts of exciting and innovative work (in addition to a lot of silliness — but there’s nothing wrong with that).

On the other hand, if you capture movement with a high quality motion capture facility, or compose your music on a Steinway Grand, or film with a top of the line digital video recorder, you can work through subtleties of expression that a lower fidelity instrument would not be able to help you with. The down side, of course, is that these tools are expensive, so they are available to only a select few.

Therefore, alas, in any given generation these top of the line tools may never be discovered by very talented potential creators.

Fortunately, this is a case where advancing technology often comes to our rescue. The highly expensive and therefore exclusive creative instruments of today often become the consumer level tools of tomorrow. Which means that new aesthetic revolutions are always just around the corner.

2 thoughts on “High tech / low tech”

  1. I’ve observed in my time in the arts that the level of tools you have access to or are entrusted with is, to a certain extent, your position in the “hierarchy” of that art. People will work very hard just for the opportunity to have access to these higher-end tools, even just for the bragging rights. I’m certainly not immune, my Instagram feed is full of pictures of very expensive audio consoles and sound systems.

  2. At the same time I think it is good to remember not to get so obsessed with high end tools that we forget the power of real creativity and artistic gifts. Think of how many beautiful songs were composed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and an inspiring voice. Where there’s a will and talent there’s a way.

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