The band – once internationally famous, ‘band of the year’ in a leading music weekly, veterans of major US tours but now reduced to playing corn exchanges and small town halls – were four numbers into their set when the PA failed. The audience, £20 a head lighter for being out in the cold winter evening, waited for the damage to be undone, tapping their Zimmer frames impatiently looking uneasily, one to the other, in case it suddenly kicked off and someone threw a bottle of Grecian 2000 at the stage.
The band walked off, the sound man walked on, iPad in hand and began to dab at his screen. All in all it took him half an eternal hour to get the band back on stage – and when he did the sound was, by common consent – total carp.
Apparently, they call this progress, and the culprit was computer-driven automation. The PA in question was American, widely reviewed in glowing terms, but slightly less useful than a crooner’s megaphone once the software decided it didn’t like Wednesday evenings.
Welcome to our future, ladies and jellyfish! Like it or not, the products we make, sell, write about and occasionally use ourselves for music making, are becoming increasingly automated, networked and woven into that buzz phrase beloved of hipsters and bewildered BBC tech writers, ‘the Internet of things’. Many of us will already have experience of the joys of this new wave of technology – the Bluetooth phones in our car that aren’t exactly what the manufacturer’s promised, the new update of Windows 10 or android that ‘bricks’ the device we only bought six months ago, so we might do well to be pretty wary of all this when we are offered it in our own field of what passes for expertise.
I had a particularly nasty taste of it just the other day when my car started flashing an ‘apply handbrake!’ warning at me and tooting the horn in an appropriately Germanic manner. Which would have been fine, had the handbrake (footbrake, actually) not already have been firmly applied. Apparently, I’m not alone in suffering this, and other electronic glitches from this manufacturer.
Worryingly, the very day after this happened, I heard the boss of said car maker advising fellow manufacturers that we need to make the software in the self-driven cars they are about to unleash on us more ‘aggressive’, otherwise vehicles driven by ‘wetware’ (ie you and me) would bully them when they were on the road. Is he even remotely aware of the problems some of his customers already suffer? Is he ready for the lawsuits?
From aeroplanes that cannot remain in the air unless the computer tells them how (the Eurofighter is one such) to cars that make Stephen King’s ‘Christine’ look like a paragon of virtue, to body temperature sensing electric blankets that burn-out every few months (I’m on my second, someone else I know on her third) why are we putting so much trust in things that, to put it bluntly, are often inherently bloody unreliable?
And do our customers want this, anyway? Guitarists, to name just one class of being, are notoriously conservative, as those who invested their money and hopes in auto-tuning guitars have very expensively found out. And if they don’t want guitars that will switch open tunings at the press of a button, do they really want Bluetooth connected amps and effects, as at least one manufacturer is convinced they do? And what about the rumours of hurried software updates even before some of these products hit the stores?
I’m no Luddite and I doubt many of MIN’s readers are, either, but equally, I am not yet ready to surrender control of either my car or my sound system to robots which seem to have more in common with 1960s Japanese horror movies than Robbie from Forbidden Planet. Music is at its best when it is spontaneous and there is as little between the performer and the audience as possible – where you get that mystical ‘communication’ which we cannot measure but most will have experienced. Putting that at the mercy of a few lines of code seems unwise given our inability to make even a reliable electric blanket.
The band, incidentally, struggled on, despite the fact that the sound would probably have been better through a Selmer Treble ‘n Bass 100 and a pair of 4×12 column speakers. That’s another thing you can’t do with software – replace human determination and years of hard won experience.