Make It Sing

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I have a Jeep about half my own age, and despite the creaks in both our joints, we somehow manage to create a semblance of grace now and then. The vibration of the engine, transmitted through my the bones of my foot as it lies on the clutch (lightly enough not to feather it), or the degree and delta of centripetal force (unconsciously, I lean left to align my head with this off-axis down) explain wordlessly to me the limitations of the tires’ grip as I round a frosty curve, the elusive triple point that lies between momentum, throttle, and gearing. And I’m no racing driver — you have this loop, too, whether you drive a manual or automatic, whether you maneuver aggressively or defensively. It’s something that happens when you and the car reach an accord, so to speak.

A few Christmases ago I bought the family a great old axe, but at first its unfamiliarly short and straight haft made me more likely to split my own foot than the morsel of wood awaiting its sentence before me. Over the course of a few dozen swings I found it didn’t want to be wielded like an executioner’s axe, describing as many degrees of a circle as were warranted by the toughness of the wood, but it preferred to be brought down straight, like the guillotine. This necessitated a totally new movement of my hands and body but eventually it struck with greater power and precision than I had been able to muster with its modern, long-necked predecessor.

Between me and my Cherokee, and between my hands and the tool, and between you and many of the things you use every day, there is a complicated but elegant feedback loop, a physical dialogue, the topic of which is harmony of operation. The relationship that you build with a device, whether it’s a car, a hammer, a brush, a cello, or anything else, is a self-optimizing relationship. First you make it speak, then you make it sing.

Why does this matter? Because so few of the devices we are adopting today will ever sing like that.

It’s not just that things are complex. Driving a car is complex; the forces, sounds, visual input, motor coordination and everything else that goes into driving become second nature because we learn to operate the vehicle as an extension of ourselves. And it’s not just that things are virtual. Anyone who has had a complicated workflow and found themselves the master of ten windows spread over three monitors and two operating systems has juggled a dozen tasks and ideas, performing as complex a task as an orchestra conductor or jet pilot.

The problem is that we are introducing process that have maxima we can’t minimize, and minima we can’t maximize, by our own efforts. No axe is so difficult to use that you can’t master it in time. But no matter how good you are at using a smartphone, the elegance and quality of your process is, fundamentally, out of your hands.

With what devices and services today can you achieve the same level of synchrony as that you enjoy with your car as you parallel park, your fork and knife as you herd peas around your plate, your keyboard as you tap out a caustic response to this article at five characters per second?

I see exceptions for coders, who achieve a sort of second sight with the colors and symbology of their language of choice, for gamers whose thumbs make analog sticks and 256-stage buttons dance through a hell of bullets, and for photographers, their fingers blindly yet unfailingly seeking out dials and switches while the brain simultaneously calculates the arc of a ball or the fraction of a second left until the toddler’s smile strikes its apex.

But the most ubiquitous device of the modern digital era, the smartphone, is not susceptible to such talents. It may be always in your hand, but it never acts as an extension of it.

Oh, sure, you can learn the quickest way to get a picture through retouching and into Instagram — the “Save changes,” “Send to…” and “Submit” button positions memorized, the geotag set to automatic, the service sniffer set to repost and promote the latest item at the requisite SoLoMo watering holes. Congratulations, you’ve built a Rube Goldberg machine that mechanically duplicates button pressing. And what a profoundly inelegant series of arbitrarily-placed button presses it is, interrupted by unskippable dialogues, animations, and workarounds it is!

Have you ever remarked on the grace with which an iPhone user closes down unused processes? The casual dignity of a flick to bring down a notifications shade, the inhuman rapidity with which a home button is double-pressed? Of course not. You could practice button-pressing and menu flicking for weeks and your flicks and presses would be little or no more effective than anyone else’s.

Wearables? True, gestural tech and limb tracking like that of the Kinect or Myo adds an interesting new way to interact, but these things are meant to capture gross, simple, or repetitive movements; even if the nearly imperceptible twist of the wrist employed by a painter to add an ironic curl to the lips could be detected, would it matter? The threshold for whatever gesture he has indicated was reached long before such subtleties were taken into account. You think a photo will show more detail because you pinch-zoomed exactly along the 45-degree line? You think a page will load faster because you clicked at the exact center of the link?

As one last example: even in photography is the satisfaction of successful operation being eroded. Many lenses and systems do not actually connect the focus ring to the focal gearing, but instead read the position of the ring digitally, pass that information to the CPU, where its scale, jitter, and acceleration are weighed; this data is returned to the chip in the lens, which adjusts the focus approximately the amount it thinks you would have wanted it to move, had it been mechanical to begin with. Naturally this takes time and is rarely satisfying or accurate. But even if it were advanced to the degree it were imperceptible, it would still be inferior to the mechanical process because it is a simulation of it; if it advanced beyond this, and predicted your focal point (let us, against all odds, assume this works flawlessly), it is no longer you operating the mechanism or the simulation of a mechanism, but rather using a ring-shaped menu to select from a list of subjects. Just try to make that sing.

There’s no room for finesse or subtlety in these things because we are not the ones performing the work, or rather, we perform only a small part of it and set into motion a series of events over which we have little or no control. The digitizer, the processor, the transceiver, the microwave repeater, and the server do their work following, but independent of, our input. And before we could even do our part, the developer of the app, the developer of the firmware, the developer of the OS had to do theirs. Layer upon layer of things that you are not doing, that you can never effect, only activate.

I don’t pretend this is the end of doing things well, of course, or any other such absurd extrapolation. But I myself, and I suspect this is true of many others, get no little satisfaction from the process of doing things well, though, and here before us is a generation of tools which can only be instructed to carry out tasks, something you and I will never do better or worse than one another. Egalitarian? Democratic? That’s a charitable interpretation, if you ask me. Eliminating the necessity of doing something well could be a positive change. Eliminating the possibility of doing something well is a negative one.

Still, it’s not so dire as I make it sound. The consequence of all this is that there is more room to excel on a different stage, a higher one. If everyone has access to the same resources, it is the one who makes the best of them who takes the prize. Given the finest ingredients and top-notch facilities, no two chefs will produce the same meal. With the same light and the same camera, two photographers capture images that are worlds apart. So this embarrassment of riches comprising (among a hundred other things) the Internet, the social media landscape, and our fantastically powerful mobile devices is nevertheless empowering — but it is no longer the tools with which we interact with that we must make to sing, but what we are making with them.

No one can use the Facebook app better than another — but one may use the network to greater effect. No one can apply a filter with more finesse than another — but one may assemble a superior portfolio. No one can make an API return different data than another — but one may put that data to better use. No one can propagate an email through the network faster — but one may be more persuasive. The axe swings itself — but you can still build a better fire.