A recent article in Slate by Jan Swafford got me thinking about one of the major distinctions between information on the Internet and off the Internet. As I’ve been arguing for years, the way we interact with art has fundamentally changed. Swafford looks at this from the perspective of a writer to argue “Why e-books will never replace real books”.
Basically, it comes down to directed or active activity versus non-directed or passive activity. When you turn on the radio, the selection is passive. You can choose the station, but you can’t choose the programming. When you search for music on YouTube, however, the selection is always active.
Both approaches have their merits, but they lead to different kinds of experience. Passive interaction with art, in my experience, is more likely to lead to serendipity: We are more likely to have transcendent “ah-ha!” moments, as if the universe were in tune with our feelings at the moment. That’s why when the perfect song comes on the radio, it’s so great. If you had chosen the song from your iPod, you would not have the same satisfaction.
On the other hand, directed experiences that require a lot of effort also tend to be rewarding. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy composing more than doing the dishes. This is also probably why any artistic or athletic activity is enjoyable.
The Internet gives us an easy directed experience most of the time, and I’m not so sure that’s good for art. Or at least, it might change the kinds of art we use. Back before recorded music, people were much more receptive to any kind of musical sound, because it was relatively hard to hear music—basic economics at work. But people also rarely had a choice of what to listen to, which affected their relationship to the music. Once people have choice, they become more picky.
Having instant access to anything, as we now have de facto, is incredibly powerful. But it also imposes limitations on us. It degrades the quality of our experiences with the things we do choose, because we know there’s so much more available. In order to really enjoy art—which is the point, after all—we occasionally need to purposefully let go of purpose.
For me as an artist, this is tricky. I imagine it’s even harder for people who don’t think about the arts all day long. I hope that as our relationship with “everything all the time” matures, enough people will realize the need for purposelessness to make it easily accessible for everyone.