BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY -- 21 IDEAS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

High-Tech Digitized Music Is Fine, but It Will Never Beat the Real Thing


A few weeks ago, two of my children allowed me to take them to New York's Madison Square Garden for a concert by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Matt, 17, and Alicia, 12, had professed a mild historical interest in these icons of my generation. I quickly bought three tickets.

As we shuffled through the crowd to our seats, and later, as the music echoed around us, I tried to explain why these songs had been so important to me when I was their age. They reciprocated with talk about how they felt about their music (while kindly downplaying the point that Dylan and Simon couldn't quite compare with, say, Metallica or Jewel). It was a wonderful evening.

It was also an old-fashioned, offline, utterly analog experience. It relied solely on mid-20th-century, pre-Internet technology. And that was part of its particular charm.

Madison Square Garden was drafty, the sound was muddied by echoes and background noise, and we had a partly obscured view of the stage. There are many other ways we might have enjoyed the music we heard that night. We could have listened to the pile of Dylan and Simon CDs we have at home, or downloaded MP3 audio files from the Web. Or we might have watched DVDs of the two stars in performance.

Any of those options would have given us far richer technical reproduction of the sound than what we heard at the concert. And even more options might be around the corner. Before too long, the kids and I might be able to watch three-dimensional holographic images of Dylan and Simon performing in our living room. But something about the magic of the evening would have been lost if we hadn't been right there, in the same big room with Simon and Dylan and thousands of buoyant fans.

In the next century, technology will transform our lives, even more than it has in this century. It has already given us many choices, and in the next century it will give us many more. But the new choices will not drive out the old choices. Often, the old choices will still be the best.

Consider the solitary figure in the photograph at the beginning of this essay, sitting alone at the end of a long wooden dock, looking out at the water. Contemplative moods seem to draw us to water, as Herman Melville noted in the opening pages of Moby Dick. ''As everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever,'' he wrote. ''Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries. Stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water.'' Virtual reality, no matter how sophisticated, will not replace a lazy Sunday afternoon at water's edge, with the briny smell of the ocean and the murmuring of the gulls.

Or think of the young piano student who practices day after day for years, or decades, to learn to extract feeling and expressiveness from a series of wooden levers, padded hammers, and tightly strung metal wires. Some years ago, I heard Vladimir Horowitz perform in a rare appearance at Boston's Symphony Hall. An undeniable part of the satisfaction of listening to him play was the understanding that he had devoted uncounted hours to highly disciplined study and practice in order to be able to produce the exquisite music he produced that evening. It was a remarkable human achievement.

CHOICES. Technology, on the other hand, allows performers with minimal training to produce music of professional caliber. It is already possible to capture a great pianist's touch electronically, and to recreate a performance almost indistinguishable from the original. But something is lost. When Horowitz plays, we can identify with the person behind the music; we can share with him the emotions he is expressing. When a machine performs, that human connection is broken. There are no emotions. There is nothing to share.

The same is true of great athletic performances. The next century will bring us a medicine chest full of performance-enhancing drugs. It will also bring bionic implants that will enable athletes to break today's speed and strength records. But if competition is given over entirely to performance-enhanced athletes, sporting events will lose much of their appeal. We want the visceral connection with the athlete struggling to exceed his or her limitations. Drugs and implants break that human connection.

In the next century, we face not one future, but many. Technology will alter almost everything we do. And it will give us the tools to create a bold new world. Let's hope a little of the old world survives.

By Paul Raeburn

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