Does Lock-In Place Creativity on Lockdown?

Jaron Lanier describes in his work You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto the concept of “lock-in,” the idea that a technology becomes entrenched into a system past the point of becoming obsolete because as the system evolves more and more pieces become dependent on that technology. The consequences he describes as coming from this are many and dire, mainly that lock-in in the world of computing causes us to lower our expectations of ourselves and the things in our world so that we and they are capable of being represented in the digital world. Lock-in, however, is so difficult to avoid because construction of anything by nature requires using tools and materials that already exist.
Imagine creating a website without the use of anything that has become locked into our world. You wouldn’t be able to use standard internet protocols for sending or receiving data for coding the page. In fact, using a computer at all would be out of the question, as the computer has become fairly locked in. You would have to create your own alternative to the computer, but of course you would first have to create your own models of how electricity along with other physical phenomena works. And while you are discovering these things, you won’t be able to use English to report your findings, but if you try to create your own language you better not use your own brain, because evolution is probably the ultimate example of lock-in at work. Now this may be an obvious exaggeration, but it is valid in pointing out that lock-in is important to consider because it is impossible to avoid.
Lanier uses the extended example of MIDI, a standardized protocol for communication of a digital interpretation of music between devices, as a negative occurrence of lock-in. At this point MIDI has become like the human brain, imperfect but impossible to completely change. But an imperfect brain is better than none at all, and just as we work with the limitations of our mind, it is possible to work with limitations of the obsolete artifacts of technology’s evolution. Take, for example, the program Finale developed by MakeMusic, scorewriting software which allows the user to create and playback complex compositions. Much of its functionality both relies on and exceeds the standard of MIDI. Another example is the WordPress platform, itself an example of lock-in which lets users that without much knowledge of web development create and share blogs. Both are powerful tools which work by simplifying a complicated process through the mechanism of lock-in.
WordPress seems to pride itself in its simplicity as well as the quality that can be created by anyone with such easiness. Repeated textual elements seem to assume something about the user, asking if they are “nervous” and “technically challenged,” or a “zero” in need of WordPress’ service. This isn’t a problem, however, because according to the site, “In seconds, you’ll have a blog with amazing free features…” The site then goes on to list several features of the platform. It is interesting to note, however, that these features are not the first thing listed. It seems as if in order to sell its simplicity, WordPress first needs to convince you that you are simple. The “10-Step Walkthrough Guide” also promotes the idea of ease, as if the user’s hand is being held. All this, however, is not the main attraction of the WordPress homepage. The first thing that is brought to the attention of the eye is the “Freshly Pressed” section. The tiled previews of different blogs, with text and image combined, both spark the interest of the user and also seem to say “This is what would be possible if you use our service.” Another feature is the statistics, constantly updated via the power of the internet, which shows the ever growing world of WordPress, yet another temptation for the user.
By limiting ourselves to a certain template such as that demanded by WordPress, we are effectively reducing the ways in which we can express ourselves. It may be that with the WordPress platform, the possibilities are endless. In fact, just browsing through some of the blogs which are so easily accessible from the main page does show some of the great variety between different users. And of course, the content from blog to blog will be completely different, as every user has their own story to share. Yet there is something that is inevitably lost when such a template is used. While all the pages are different, there are some elements which are similar to every layout. A banner lies on top, with a navigation bar under it, mostly likely a search bar, and then most likely the most recent post or article. Taking a look at one particular blog, ImaginingTheInternet shows this particular layout at work. The problem is that any tool brings with it restrictions. WordPress provides a bias towards the way in which content should be shared, namely the blog, and then also provides a definition of what a blog should be with its template. Examining the way in which content is created with WordPress as opposed to a tool used in more traditional web development, such as Notepad, makes clear this restriction. With WordPress, much is already determined. The post has certain characteristics such as title and body text which are given priorities based on how they arranged on the page, the size in which shown, the initial starting point of the cursor, and so on. The ways you can increase your creativity are few: several buttons line the screen with which you can make alterations to your text such as bolding or add images, videos, or links. The alternative Notepad, however, makes no assumptions about what you are trying to create or share. It is in the most literal sense a digital blank slate which can spawn anything. While all the content from WordPress has potential to be a fine blog, there is no room for anything revolutionary. It is impossible to transcend expectations of what can be created if limited by the boundaries of a previously made tool.
As opposed to the user’s interaction with WordPress, where it appears as if the website is speaking directly to the user, the use of Finale does not involve any manipulation. This reflects one of the largest differences between the forms that the different tools are presented. Finale is a piece of software that the user works with offline. This means that the developer assumes that when the user runs the program, they have already purchased it and they are there simply to use the tool. WordPress, however, is a free platform that resides on the web, which is why it is forever speaking with the user. The homepage of WordPress is a salesman, convincing you why you need its product. This degradation, however, is exactly the problem with lock-in as Lanier described it, saying that people tend to “blam[e] themselves when a digital gadget or online service is hard to use” (p. 68). WordPress, then, seems to be accelerating what Lanier suggests people are already doing themselves, devaluing their own importance and becoming dependent on this tool.
The same problems of limitation and degradation, however, lie just as much with Finale as they do with WordPress. The software changes the way in which music is written. In writing a composition by hand, the artist can put pen to paper and create any sort of mark. All possibilities are open at this point. No template limits the composer, except for the rules of Western composition, but these are not physically restricting in any way. Nothing stops the artist from bending these rules or ignoring and altering standard notation. The history of Western music is a story of perpetual evolution of notation, style, orchestration, and almost every other element that occurred because someone changed the rules. One of the most recognizable names in the world of art music, Beethoven, was himself seen as a radical that completely redefined the way in which the world thought of music and contributed greatly to the shift from the Classical to Romantic style. Finale as a musical tool cements in these rules thereby eliminating the possibility for such a progression. The software does not let the user make any mark they want, rather the interface provides several buttons which the user must navigate around in order to put musical notation down on the staff. Because each of these buttons has to of course be programmed in advance, there are a limited number of them. That means that the user has the option to put down a quarter note or a dotted half note, can place a tie or an accidental on a note, and change the time and key signature of a measure, but not with the same freedom that the pen gives. For example, to place an accidental in front of a note, say to write a C sharp (C#), the user has to first click on the button the corresponds to the note length they want (half, quarter, eighth, etc.), then click on the desired accidental, place the note on the staff, and then finally click on the accidental again to deactivate it for the next note, all in contrast to 6 strokes from a pen that would make the same notation. Certainly there is a complication of the process when software is used, as well as a limitation. The composer cannot freely establish their own notation or otherwise deviate from the structure that is laid out in front of them. Just as the WordPress user is told what tools they can use (bold, italicize, embed a link etc.), the Finale user is granted on the screen a blank staff and the restrictions of how it can be manipulated. The software makes certain judgments such as what a score should look like. These are judgments that certain composers may disagree with.
Ultimately, there is a lot more that can be done musically that can be represented by any software. For all its complexity, Finale still cannot represent everything that a composer may want to put on a piece of paper. Lanier states that “People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.” (p. 62) He warns that if software can’t do what we want, we change our definition if what we want so that it does fit with software limitations. Creativity is sacrificed when we must compromise our visions to fit with the digital program as opposed to having software which can perfectly represent our complete and real ideas, something which appears to be impossible. Lanier seems to be claiming that we are almost rationalizing by “lowering our standards” (p. 62); if we are stuck with this locked-in software, we pretend that it meets our needs well in a sort of defense mechanism.
While these tools seem to limit overall the ways in which their users can create content, this sacrifice is not a complete loss. While WordPress may limit some creative potential, it compensates for this by opening the door to so many individuals which would otherwise be unable to create or share anything. Imagine ImaginingTheInternet without WordPress; it probably wouldn’t exist. Many users do not have the technical ability for full-on web development, but this does not mean that they do not have the creative capacity to share something revolutionary. A similar virtue lies with Finale. The reality is that the software’s restrictions are fairly minor and it can represent the vast majority of compositions accurately. Even the problem of computerized playback is addressed. Lanier says that digital forms underrepresent reality, and it may seem intuitive to say that a computer could never simulate all the nuances and minor details of a human player.
http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair1.mid
Listening to this MIDI representation of Debussy’s Claire de Lune may show this. Now compare that a recording of the piece being performed by human players.

Technology seems far inferior here, but now listen to this third recording which uses the software’s advanced instrumentation system and human playback simulation to create a sound which is almost indistinguishable from the human players.
http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair3.mp3http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair3.mp3>
And with just a few modifications, the instrumentation has changed and the composition is played with a harp.

This simple example shows the great creative power that actually arises by setting standards which simplify the process. To switch the instrumentation here requires about as many clicks as placing a single note. Contrast this to having to give the sheet music to a new player who must then practice and master it over time. Without software, experimenting with different potential instrumentations for a piece with such ease was not possible for a composer. Because of a digital limitation that has been made by standardizing sound, another limitation has been lifted. And this exemplifies the dichotomy of lock-in, that it both reduces and augments the creative process. Clearly there is a balance, a sacrifice that is made between convenience and creativity. But convenience itself can lead to new creativity. The problem with lock-in then, is that we have to be willing to adapt to the limitations that have been set for us, just as the innovative software engineers at MakeMusic did to navigate around the problem of MIDI playback. Of course to ensure that this innovation doesn’t disappear, we must also be willing to every once in a while take a few step backs from software and take note of its flaws and limitation, and decide which ones should be taken on next as a challenge for our technological evolution.

Jaron Lanier describes in his work You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto the concept of “lock-in,” the idea that a technology becomes entrenched into a system past the point of becoming obsolete because as the system evolves more and more pieces become dependent on that technology. The consequences he describes as coming from this are many and dire, mainly that lock-in in the world of computing causes us to lower our expectations of ourselves and the things in our world so that we and they are capable of being represented in the digital world. Lock-in, however, is so difficult to avoid because construction of anything by nature requires using tools and materials that already exist.

Imagine creating a website without the use of anything that has become locked into our world. You wouldn’t be able to use standard internet protocols for sending or receiving data or coding the page. In fact, using a computer at all would be out of the question, as the computer has become fairly locked in. You would have to create your own alternative to the computer, but of course you would first have to create your own models of how electricity along with other physical phenomena works. And while you discovering these things, you won’t be able to use English to report your findings, but if you try to create your own language you better not use your own brain, because evolution is probably the ultimate example of lock-in at work. Now this may be an obvious exaggeration, but the point is that lock-in is so important to consider because it is impossible to avoid. Lanier uses the extended example of MIDI, a standardized protocol for communication of a digital interpretation of music between devices, as a negative occurrence of lock-in. At this point, MIDI has become like the human brain, imperfect but impossible to change. But an imperfect brain is better than none at all, and just as we work with the limitations of our mind, it is possible to work with limitations of the obsolete artifacts of technology’s evolution. Take, for example, the program Finale developed by MakeMusic, scorewriting software which allows the user to create and playback complex compositions. Much of its functionality both relies on and exceeds the standard of MIDI. Another example is the WordPress platform, itself an example of lock-in which lets users that without much knowledge of web development create and share blogs. Both are powerful tools which exist because they simplify a complicated process through the mechanism of lock-in.

WordPress seems to pride itself in its simplicity as well as the quality that can be created by anyone with such easiness. Repeated textual elements seem to assume something about the user, asking if they are “nervous” and “technically challenged,” or a “zero” in need of WordPress’ service. This isn’t a problem, however, because according to the site, “In seconds, you’ll have a blog with amazing free features…” The site then goes on to list several features of the platform. It is interesting to note, however, that these features are not the first thing listed. It seems as if in order to sell its simplicity, WordPress first needs to convince you that you are simple. The “10-Step Walkthrough Guide” also promotes the idea of ease, as if the user’s hand is being held. All this, however, is not the main attraction of the WordPress homepage. The first thing that is brought to the attention of the eye is the “Freshly Pressed” section. The tiled previews of different blogs, with text and image combined, both spark the interest of the user and also seem to say “This is what would be possible if you use our service.” Another feature is the statistics, constantly updated via the power of the internet, which shows the ever growing world of WordPress, yet another temptation for the user.

As opposed to the user’s interaction with WordPress, where it appears as if the website is speaking directly to the user, the use of Finale does not involve any manipulation. This reflects one of the largest differences between the forms that the different tools are presented. Finale is a piece of software which is used offline. This means that when the user run the program, it is assumed that they have already purchased it and they are there simply to use the tool. WordPress, however, is a platform that resides on the web and is free, which is why it is forever speaking with the user. The homepage of WordPress is a salesman, convincing you why you need its product. This degradation, however, is exactly the problem with lock-in as Lanier described it.

By limiting ourselves to a certain template, such as WordPress, we are effectively reducing the ways in which we can do what the slogan of the site tells us we should do, express ourselves. It may be that with the WordPress platform, the possibilities are endless. In fact, just browsing through some of the blogs which are so easily accessible from the main page does show some of the great variety between different users. And of course, the content from blog to blog will be completely different, as every user has their own story to share. Yet there is something that is inevitably lost when such a template is used. While all the pages are different, there are some elements which are similar to every layout. A banner lies on top, with a navigation bar under it, mostly likely a search bar, and then most likely the most recent post or article. Taking a look at one particular blog, ImaginingTheInternet shows this particular layout at work. The problem is that any tool brings with it restrictions. WordPress provides a bias towards the way in which content should be shared, the blog and then also provides a definition of what a blog should be. Sure it is a loose definition, but it is restricted nonetheless. Examining the way in which content is created with WordPress as opposed to a tool used in more traditional web development, such as Notepad, shows this restriction. With WordPress, so much is already determined. The post has certain characteristics such as title and body text which are given priorities based on how they arranged on the page, the size in which shown, the initial starting point of the cursor, and so on. The ways you can increase your creativity are few, several buttons line the screen with which you can make alterations to your text such as bolding or add images, videos, or links. The alternative Notepad, however, makes no assumptions about what you are trying to create or share. It is in the most literal digital sense, a blank slate which can spawn anything. While all the content from WordPress has potential to be a fine blog, there is no room for anything revolutionary. It is impossible to transcend expectations of what can be created if limited by the boundaries of a previously made tool.

The same limitations lie with finale. The software makes certain judgments such as what a score is supposed to look like. These are judgments that certain composers may disagree with. Ultimately, there is a lot more that can be done musically that can be represented by any software. For all its complexity, Finale still cannot represent everything that a composer may want to put on a piece of paper, which as Lanier warns, can result in people changing what it is that they want so that it does fit with software limitations. Creativity is sacrificed when we must compromise our visions to fit with the digital program as opposed to having software which can perfectly represent our complete and real ideas, something which appears to be impossible.

There is, however, something to be said for the creative power of these tools. While WordPress may limit some creative potential, it compensates for this by opening the door to so many individuals which would otherwise be unable to create or share anything. Imagine ImaginingTheInternet without WordPress; it probably wouldn’t exist. A similar virtue lies with Finale, whose restrictions are fairly minor and which can represent the vast majority of compositions accurately. Even the problem of computerized playback is addressed. Lanier says that digital forms underrepresent reality, and it may seem intuitive to say that a computer could never simulate all the nuances and minor details of a human player.

http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair1.mid

Listening to this MIDI representation of Debussy’s Claire de Lune may show this. Now compare that a recording of the piece being performed by human players.

http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair2.mp3

Technology seems far inferior here, but now listen to this third recording which uses the software’s advanced instrumentation system and human playback simulation to create a sound which is almost indistinguishable from the human players.

http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair3.mp3http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair3.mp3>

And with just a few modifications, the instrumentation has changed and the composition is played with a harp.

http://hosthosthost.webs.com/Clair4.mp3

This simple example shows the great creative power that actually arises by setting standards which simplify the process. Clearly there is a balance, a sacrifice that is made between convenience and creativity. But convenience itself can lead to new creativity. The problem with lock-in then, is that we have to be willing to adapt to the limitations that have been set for us, something humans have been doing for as long as they have been evolving.

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