Wednesday, September 21, 2011

As Good as It Gets

Working in the area of digital media is both exciting and frustrating when it comes to the machines/devices, software and technology. It can be great when something new comes along and revolutionizes the way we work or the potential for what we can create/do moving ahead. And in today's world those transformations are happening continuously on a regular basis. But there can be a downside to all this progress: modern technology (on the consumer front) has the most incredibly short lifespan that produces obsolete equipment (eWaste) and outdated processes that can no longer function. In fact, I have to assume that there is a certain degree of planned obsolescence due to business strategies and corporate profits.

I was reminded of this contradiction by a quote from Jonathan Ive, Apple's head designer. I fully respect Jony; in fact I have a crush on him as a designer. None the less, he was talking about how he liked the stainless steel used in iPods/iPhones and how it ages nicely, revealing this rich textural/visual quality. The irony is that these devices seem to have a lifespan of about a year (two or three if you're generous) before they're replaced by the next generation. (The iPhone 5 is rumored to be available soon.)

So this brings me to my thesis: are there things, ideas, etc., etc. that have already reached their peak? Are there things that will never get better? Are there things that have already been the best and we're now living on the backside of that mountain peak?

I've thought of a few examples when pondering this idea. One might be the grand piano. From my basic knowledge the grand piano hasn't changed much since the mid to late 1800's. Newer technology hasn't improved much on its design. The gold standard in most concert halls around the world is a Steinway. Steinways are still made by hand and tuned by ear. And just in general, how many new classical instruments are being created these days?

Fashion is a curious subject. It would appear that fashion is always turning back in on itself, recreating the style of previous eras. Right now it appears that we've moved from the bell-bottomed 70's and are in the middle of 80's neon colors. I suppose flannel and the Seattle grange scene will be back soon. So are there only three decades of basic clothing options for mass consumption?

What got me thinking about this has been a series of podcasts that I've been listening to on the history of photography by Jeff Curto. He brings up Chuck Close's Daguerreotypes, utilizing one of the earliest forms of photography to create his contemporary portraits. Basically Close was quoted as saying that photography has never gotten any better, that the Daguerreotype was and still is the best method for creating a photograph. Now certainly that could be heavily debated, but it does cause me to pause and consider what I create as an artist and the methods that I teach in the classroom. You, as students, have been affected by this thesis rolling around my head.

I could go on and on about this issue, but I'd like to hear some of your feedback (if you're still reading at this point). Comment on this thesis and bring to the table something that you may think of as the ultimate expression of a thing, idea, etc., etc. that has already been as good as it will ever get.


PS—Sorry for the Max Mouth ads; it was the only place I could find the SNL Jobs spoof.

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