How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Technology

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by Ricardo Gutierrez

Every creative field, maybe even every field, has been shaken by technology in recent history. Technology can be cruel. With one hand it gives and with the other it takes. It doesn't do it because it hates you. It just really doesn't care about you. It doesn't even know you exist. You are Molly Ringwald in the first act of every '80s movie she was in and technology is the boy she's crushing on.

I know, I know, it hurts. Take it from me though, that huge wave of technological progress sweeping over [insert your career field here] doesn't have to mean the end. At least, not the end of your career. Your life will definitely change. Your field will too. If you want to survive, I'll help you. Four pronged approach:

First: Stop fighting it. You can't win that war. You can't even win the battle. You can't even send your dad back in time to kill the machine that is bent on killing the unborn you and taking your future job. Or something like that. You hear me movie studios? I'm glad the Old Grey Lady is starting to listen. I hope it's not too late for her. She's always been nice to me.

But seriously, the music industry was the first to get hit in the switch to digital, that I can think of. Everyone at the top resisted. They couldn't see their industry going away, not after windfalls a few years prior. Even the studios couldn't imagine that they wouldn't be needed as much, seeing as it took so much money to record an album. Technology changed that. For over 50 years technology had refined the process, made the music sound better, even more expensive to make. Then, with very little warning, technology changed it all so that the means of production became reachable to a larger percentage of the population. Add to that the huge shift in distribution channels from a tangible physical medium to the portable, invisible, digital realm. Companies thought they could fight the technology and that people would loyally side with them and their methods. That didn't work so well.
Which leads me to, Second: Stay small. Or as small as possible. I like to refer to big, huge companies as dinosaurs. Because they are so big they are targets. When a catastrophe happens they have nowhere to hide and slow to change. They are so top-loaded that their massive size is bad for survival. In order to hide from an incoming comet it takes too many people to make the decision along the way from the teeny brain to the huge feet. Too late, cloud of fire and dust.

If you stay only as large as you need to be, then switching at a moments notice doesn't take as much effort and it doesn't take tons people several years to decide to change. Technology is learning to sprint now and it just bought some brand new running shoes. You gotta be able to keep up and adapt.

And there is Third (which is closely related to the first): Use the technology to play to your strengths. If your arms are too short to box with God, then learn a new style that gives you the advantage. Get in close and scramble with him. Put him on the mat and get him to tap out. Don't try to go for a knock-out, your just going to embarrass yourself. 

Don't jump on every new technology trend and look like the person riding the bandwagon. Try everything out, behind closed doors, but only publicly commit to technology that emphasizes and compliments the things you already do well, while helping you stay in the race. Most people can smell fake moves a mile away. And if anyone asks you why you don't have some new hip and fancy service, find some polite way of telling them they don't know what the fuck they are talking about. Or maybe it's better just to let them know that you've tried it but it doesn't add anything to your brand or services.

Hollywood, let me pull you aside here to let you know something, you can't make every movie in 3D. I mean, you can, that's your choice, but people still just want a good movie.

I saw several recording studios try to offer every service that existed under the sun. They wanted to corner every market, which meant specialized machines for all those different tasks, more workers with special skills and increased overhead. Some of those markets had false-starts or barely exist anymore so that was a loss on investment of time and money. Have any of you purchased a DVD-A or SACD lately? Exactly. Some other markets still exist as a niche but now barely cover the cost of maintenance. Vinyl, I'm looking in your general direction. I love you but we both know it's true. But what these studios weren't doing is making themselves indispensable to the music community in the areas they excelled in.

Playing to your strengths means knowing exactly what those strengths are, which often means knowing what others weaknesses are (notice I didn't call them enemies, you never know when you have to combine your efforts so the both of you win. It's better not to demonize them). You really have to be on some Art of War type of shit. You have to see your path to victory and almost rig the game so you can't loose.

Technology has taken huge jumps forward in my field. A lot of people can do mastering work all within a computer, with plug-ins. I don't knock anyone for the way they do their thing, I just have my own way. I use computers to do some tasks, but the large majority of my work still happens in specialized gear that most people aren't going to have in their homes and small project studios. The way I use my tools influences the way I think about the material I'm working on. The tactile nature of knobs and switches changes my process and, I feel, the results. But when I need to use a plug-in for something, I'm not going to spit in it's face, I'll use it. I've crafted my "sound" around my process and people pay for that and for results. At the same time, I'd be an idiot to be a Luddite about plug-ins, plus a hypocrite since my whole career exists because of technology itself.

You do all of those things so that you get to Fourth: Stick around long enough and the work will be there. These industries aren't totally disappearing, though they may change so much that we barely recognize them. People will still be reading even if we don't print on paper anymore, people will still be watching programming of all types even if it isn't on the television. 

We have to stop thinking of the methods as static and see them as fluid. You have be Neo at the end of the first film. You have see the ones and zeros. You have to see the impermanence of all these edifices we created, but know that we can always create new ones. The old modes will still exist, some people will prefer paper books like some folks prefer music on vinyl, but most movement and commerce will not be happening there.

Same goes for movies, though that one is tricky because a lot of people go for the experience of the picture and sound in the theater. But at the same time, I know people who have built up amazing home theaters in their living rooms because, in the long run, it's cheaper than taking a family of four out to the movies all the time. And as time moves forward, the technology gets cheaper while movie ticket prices continue to go up. Who do you think will win that one?

A side-effect of all this is that you may be making less money than you're used to and you'll probably be working harder for it. This especially goes for freelancers, but it goes for companies as well. This may just be temporary, but who knows. It's hard, I know. I'm still struggling to stay alive, and I may fail someday, but I'm doing what I love to do and I would be miserable doing anything else.

I don't even think it's too late for record labels or recoding studios. I have hope. The market has just changed and they need to figure out how to adapt to it before the next comet strikes. People have been experiencing music since we hollowed out bones for flutes and first made drums from animal skins. It's an integral part of our humanity and people will be making music for a very long time to come. It's just that the way we experience it will continue to change, rapidly. Unfortunately, a lot of the music companies are still trying to plug round plastic pegs into what have become binary holes.

I realize I am oversimplifying matters a bit, in my own long-winded way, so that they work across several fields. Every field doesn't have the same specific worries and troubles. But that doesn't mean one field can't learn from the others example.

Sara's post yesterday, Pleading the Belly, sort of set me off in thinking about this all today. The idea of examining all the tumult of history and seeing that in the end "people go on living". I want us all to be good. I just think that we have to meditate on our particular fields in a way that's deeper than just "I need to be on the new shit". It's more like you have to create the "you" shit. The thing you do, in your way. It can be adapted to, and with, changing technologies, but even technology can't take it away. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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