joining the iPhone revolution (with a tangent on music notation software)

for various reasons that would be highly tangental to this post, the tulane band staff recently got iPhones to use as work mobiles.

a few people who know me pretty well said, “it’s funny to think of you with an iPhone,” and it’s true. i’ve stated a few times on this poor excuse for a blog how i distinguish between technology innovations that i feel are practical or useful or worthy of note versus technology innovations that are fluffy and uninspiring, and in my previous post i went off on how mobile and easy-to-access internet potentially creates a new psychological standard that is hazardous to our mental health. I’d used the iPhone a few times before, borrowing from one of my colleagues, and I was highly undecided about whether i thought the technology was of the practical and awesome category or of the fluffy and uninspiring category. Now that i actually own one, it brings to light how the question of which of the two category it belongs to is the the wrong one to ask; it’s not the iPhone itself that can be practical or awesome or uninspiring or fluffy, it’s how people choose to use it.

This is something i had already grokked when it comes to other uses of technology, most notably when it comes to technology with music. Finale was the pioneer of music notation software in the early 90s and as i started to use it as my main tool for music notation, i discovered how easily Finale could be used as a crutch if used the wrong way. Because of the kind of composer i am, the crutch of Finale for me was initially using it too often as a composition tool as opposed to a notation tool, meaning that I would do my composing directly in Finale and use the playback as a measure to “hear” how the piece was going.

I discovered that while there are times when that’s fine and effective for the kind of composition i do, more often than not it would a) limit my compositional creativity and space, putting that music into a particular kind of box that could fall short of its true potential, and b) potentially lock me into treating the crappy MIDI playback file as “this is how the piece will sound” as opposed to trusting how it would sound in my head. As such, i changed how i used the program, first by conceiving it to be the tail end of the process as opposed to the initial process by sketching my ideas out on paper first to get a big picture and some details of what the piece would turn into and then put the notes into Finale using it to fill in the blanks; secondly, by preferring to hear everything on a piano voice as opposed to their crappy MIDI instrument equivalents so that playback was used only to double-check harmony and pacing and not to represent the actual color, timbre, or overall feel of the piece.

Additionally, the training that i had as an electronic musician from two excellent professors (Larry Nelson and Jeffery Stolet) as well as some strong influence from Robert Maggio in one of my undergraduate compositions originally written for solo mallet player and electronic accompaniment taught me an important lesson about the representation of real instruments using electronic sounds, namely to avoid it as much as possible. Now if i’m going to write an electronic music piece where i want a piano or a flute sound, i prefer to use acoustic samples or live performers rather than try to emulate those sounds electronically; electronic music in that context is better suited to creating sounds not duplicatable by other means. Again, how someone uses the technology being the problem rather than the technology itself.

The iPhone has a large potential for abuse and fluff, and worse, a psychology that can convince people that these potential misuses are a neccessity. The easiest example is email accessability; the ability to check and reply to emails on the go has its uses, but for some it’s become an expectation, and it creates a newer kind of social structure that has staggering implications – and it’s not even necessarily an expectation of the person who receives email on the go, but an expectation of the sender who knows that the recipient has email on the go. They send the email and in knowing that the other person can receive it right away can then make assumptions based on whether they get an immediate reply, such as “oh, he didn’t reply to my email right away. he must be ignoring me.” While the social tension from that may be small in comparison to, say, not inviting your best friend to your birthday party, enough of that can start to create a pollution that is grounded on a particular understanding of email etiquette that could be completely false.

But again, while issues like that may be more easily brought to the surface because of the technology available, assigning the blame to those issues on the technology as opposed to how it’s used is an important distinction. The iPhone itself and what it has to offer is a pretty fantastic piece of technology in many ways both subtle and obvious, and while it has its share of issues, some of those i can temper based on how i incorporate it into my life. In particular, i’m very picky about how i use the internet on my iPhone, restricting myself mainly to email only, and then using the web only occasionally to keep up on livejournal and facebook, with the occasional wikipedia lookup when necessary.

After familiarizing myself with the iPhone and immersing myself more in the iPhone “culture” as it were, i can pick out what i feel is the strongest positive and negative thing about the whole deal. The positive is how the iPhone has helped revitalize the shareware paradigm that died after its prominence in the pre-broadband and pre internet 2.0 era. At first, the idea of applications that were “lite” versus “full versions” bothered me, but the more i thought about it the more i generally appreciated that the $1 and $5 application market exists as an avenue for basic apps and for the independent developers.

(Granted, i don’t know what sort of control Apple exerts over what gets put into the App store or anything else behind the scenes, and there’s the negative side effect of how some of those apps contribute to the overall fluff aspects of the iPhone.)

The strongest negative to me is that although i acknowledge that the iPhone is groundbreaking technology for the mobile phone market, i still feel that there has been too much value placed on the product rather than its innovation, and that has largely to do with Apple successfully marketing the iPhone to all demographics; as a power tool for corporate business folk, and as the new trendy technology fad for teenagers and college folk. As a result, AT&T can jack the price for a data plan and text messaging for the iPhone higher than that of other phones. This may be justified at some level due to the difference in the speed of the 3G network, but the extra price option isn’t sold that way, it’s sold as being “because you’re using an iPhone.” Those subtle forms of focus-shifting to increase the strength of the brand are the sort of thing that i both admire and loathe.

but more importantly, since the iPhone has defined the next generation of mobile phone technology, every other mobile company was forced to create their own copycat version of the iPhone in order to keep up with the trend. The best example of this haphazard copycatting was the LG Voyager. When the Voyager was first launched, it was basically a touch screen version of the LG enV; in other words, a touch screen phone in which the touch screen aspect added nothing to the functionality of the phone because the firmware was identical to the non-touch screen enV. Granted, they put out firmware updates and patches that started to use that, but instead of hammering all of that out and then releasing the product separately, they rushed the Voyager out hastily so they could boast that they had a touch screen too.

And as more of these touchscreen phones and 3g phones come out, i can’t help but feel that what the general consumer is starting to demand from its mobile phone is moving in the wrong direction, that instant connectivity at your fingertips, while having its benefits, will continue to enforce a set of values to this and future generations that i feel needs to be tempered or at least balanced.

as a post-note, i may blog a more technical review of the iPhone in the near future, as there’s a lot milling about in my brain about the effectiveness of the iPhone versus other mobile devices for what it is designed to do.

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any feedback or commentary there.

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