Screwdriver Mode

Listening to Brian Eno talk about the creation of Another Day on Earth over the past few days. He spends some time meditating on the temptations that technology presents, and the balance he has to strike between using the technology compositionally vs. the danger of becoming seduced by it. Talks about how artists used recording studios in the 50s, before there was so much huge money in the industry and each hour of recording time was money out of musicians’ pockets (still true for independents today, though the equipment has changed). “First take best take” (Trungpa –> Kerouac) was much more common. Now we produce the hell out of everything. Overproduction a side effect of too much technology presenting too many choices.

The central problem of a musical piece may be the lyrics. But that problem is hard, and no one can solve it on the spot. So instead we start tweaking knobs, applying 177 effects to 19 guitar parts across 128 tracks, sidestepping the core weakness of the piece and distracting the listener’s attention from the song.

Comparison made to getting stuck on a piece of writing and starting to tweak the fonts, page layout, etc. rather than the piece. He calls this process “screwdriver mode.” The seductive garden paths of technological possibility.

I watched this happen with myself and the old birdhouse — originally using web technologies to create web art, then slowly finding myself spending more and more time exploring technologies without actually applying them.

We see the same tendency with digital photos and music collections – becoming obsessed with cataloguing, databasing, finding new ways to sift and sort, all taking attention from taking excellent photographs or really listening.

Distractions. Screwdriver mode. All of us susceptible to it, some more than others.

Music: The Fugs :: Nameless Voices Crying for Kindness

5 Replies to “Screwdriver Mode”

  1. The thing is, without some people jumping into screwdriver mode, things would not progress as quickly as they do. It took someone tinkering with a mixing console to figure out how to make it better. It took people mucking under the hood of Unix to make it better.

    Screwdriver mode is not simply a “distraction,” it’s a necessity for the rate of progress we have come to enjoy.

  2. Mnep, absolutely. I don’t think Eno was complaining about screwdriver mode per se’ — he’s certainly no technophobe — he’s just talking about technology’s amazing ability to distract us from working on the problem at hand. In his case, the goal might be to fix the real problems of a composition or song, to perfect its essence, rather than being tempted to mask or distract from the imperfections by adding more effects, etc. In my case, the real goal should be to read more news, read more blogs, try to write about things that matter. Instead I spend a couple of evenings working on a new weblog design. That kind of thing.

    But yes, there’s a time for tweaking and a time for creating.

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