Switch ContentsQuestions Concerning Music Technology

by Agostino Di Scipio

11. Two Issues In Computer Music System Design

Some computer scientists have shown a growing, explicit awareness of technological indeterminism. The work of Winograd and Flores [1986] is a case in point. Their approach on technology design overtly leans on a clear recognition of the hermeneutic dimensions of technology. Winograd [1995] - explaining what he defines a paradigm shift from ontic to ontological design - refers directly to Heidegger, though clearly not to his account of technology, but to the philosophical lines of Being and Time. "The challenge in applying Heidegger's philosophy to computation is not just as a way of building more effective computer systems, but in understanding computers as part of the network of equipment within which we encounter our Being" [Winograd, 1995, p.125]. This challenge, as I understand it, represents a thorough-going attempt at understanding how human beings use tools - a subject to which, according to Dreyfus [1979/1992, p.252], Heidegger has devoted a great deal of thought.

There are two issues of computer system design that Winograd seems to trace down to heideggerian thought:
  1. participatory design ("the designer and the user enter into a hermeneutic dialogue, in which they are merging distinct horizons and generating new understanding" [Winograd, 1995, p.117]);

  2. learning ("to break down the understanding of the already existing situation [...] is to make reflection about it possible and hence to create openings for new understanding and alternative design" [ibidem, p.120]) (5).

Surprisingly, designers of music technology have shown suprisingly little awareness of such issues(6). Only few research projects in computer music technology seem to be based on long-term partecipatory design, i.e. on an active presence and a continuing contribution of musicians to the design of (parts of) a system. Perhaps the CSOUND software for music synthesis (a worldwide distributed outgrowth of a family of software systems started in the late 1950s with Max Mathews' MUSIC4) can be seen as an example of partecipatory music software design. It is a non commercial item, maintAined and enlarged by many researchers and musicians all over the world (many WWW sites on the Internet, too). Among commercially distributed systems, the KYMA system seems to be evolving in the direction of partecipatory design. In either cases users and developers interact and confront their opinion on possible alternatives concerning (specific, limited) features of the overall system.

Two annotations concerning learning. On the one hand, for many composers and designers, learning is what students and novices are expected to do, not at all a significant element in the activity of a mature musician. Hearing of the latest digital system launched on the market, many would certainly admit of the necessity to learn the system. But rarely they would look at a new system as an opportunity to learn about music, in general, and about what their music could become, in particular. This is a lost opportunity, I think.

On the other hand, very few computer music systems match the expert's and the novice's expectations equally well. Rarely the system design is such that the user can learn about sound and music, beside learning the system itself. In the designer's mind, the user always knows what it's going to be composed. The process is presumed to be deterministic: The user learns the system and then exploits it in order to give concrete shape to what s/he bears in mind. As I have argued, this is (fortunately!) only presumption - the designers' and the composers'. In contrast, my opinion is that the expert composer is that who knows how to remain a novice all the times.

(5) I shall not try to explain in which sense Winograd links his subject to Heidegger. The reader is referred to [Winograd, 1995], where the author also reviews projects in workplace technology design in which references to Heidegger's thought are overtly made, especially in Scandinavia.
(6) A plea for partIcipatory system design within the computer music community has been made in [Becker & Eckel, at http://www.uiah.fi/bookshop/isea_proc/nextgen/j/23.html].