The Short-Circuited Digital Mind Presented at CCRMA Colloquium, Stanford University, CA, 2007

In 1995 Nicholas Negroponte wrote the seminal text Being Digital. A sub-heading in the book is entitled ‘Don’t Dissect a Frog, Build One’. As Negroponte discusses, the digital age is all about doing. In this text he also considers the computer as a machine in constant flux and development that signals the advent of a world where there are never ending upgrades. Nothing is ever finished. Furthermore, the ‘virtualness’ offered by computers has enabled us to experience ‘more’. We can try things without the fear of making mistakes. There is always the ‘undo’ key, step backwards, and the opportunity to make amends of our unwanted errors. Virtuality has been used as a way in to exploring the physical. Arguably the defence industry has pushed such technologies due to offering simulations of real life and death situations for military training. For example, we can pre-empt and have a virtual experience of how something might be without being killed. Consequently, the digital and virtualness have had a major impact on how we interface with the physical world.

What is perhaps the most significant contribution of computer music and computer interactivity, is how such technology has made us re-evaluate our relationship with the physical and the body. Programs such as Max/MSP and PD have enabled musicians to create and design systems using object orientated modular environments. On the surface, Max/MSP is modelled on the physical. But such a programming environment enables some kind of reverse engineering – moving from the software realm to prototypes of the physical. Musicians are again patching ‘things’ together using hardware in, broadly speaking, experimental ways. To refer back to Negroponte, the digital has enabled us to ‘do’. Conferences such as NIME and the debate of the human body in relation to the ‘machine’ have become even more topical. Such terms as post-digital have crept into the vocabulary of musicians, and DIY electronics and hardware seem to be back in vogue. Is this simply a question of nostalgia, or has the digital mind been short-circuited?