Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moving Forward, for Better or for Whatever

I have thought about it, and I have asked about it, both privately and publicly, and nobody seems to be able to come up with a parallel in the non-musical world to the idea of music (the stuff you listen to) moving from being a service that a person pays for to a good that a person would buy. Perhaps that means that music is making a pioneering move that will only be followed by other services that will become goods.

Our friend Van Dyke Parks told a story about Lillian Gish (when he was a child actor, he had the privilege of working with her) saying that when the idea of sound was introduced to movies, the actors always thought it would be pre-recorded music and not dialogue. Anyone familiar with the film The Artist knows about what happened when actors were required to speak in order to continue working, and anyone not familiar with the film should see it.

Who would have imagined that the post office would be eclipsed by electronic mail, and who would have guessed that most of the calls that come to land-line phones (at least to our land-line phone) are sales calls and scams. Who would have imagined that it would be possible to instantly publish a personal newsletter that can be read by anyone anywhere with an internet connection, that can be instantly translated into hundreds of written languages with the touch of a button.

I wonder if on-the-spot real-time translation (or interpretation) will be the next service to become eclipsed by an automated product. In diplomatic situations and in international corporate conversations it is necessary, or order to really know what someone is saying, to have an interpreter present. If machines take over (and with voice recognition software, they just might) and do a reasonable job, there would be no professional application for people who speak many languages to earn their livelihoods as interpreters. They would need to work as translators who work with written documents, and the product of their work would be a "good": the written translation. Sure, they could interpret for free for their friends and family, and be entertaining at social gatherings. They could enjoy reading literature in the original languages, never need to read subtitles, and they could have nice full lives conversing with people from all over the world, but I imagine that many of the polyglots in our world who are not fortunate enough to land a steady translating job would have to find other things do in order to pay the bills.

Teaching would be an option, but foreign language programs in many of the smaller American universities are shrinking or disappearing, and high schools seem to be having difficulty teaching students to understand and use the grammar of English, the language that the majority of American school-age people speak. I believe a handful of public high schools still teach Latin, but I don't know of any that offer Ancient Greek. Perhaps private schools and charter schools offer these language options, but I imagine that a newly-graduated American polyglot with a Ph.D. would have to wait a long time for a foreign language position to open up in one of those schools. He or she would also be standing at the end of a long line of equally-brilliant and overqualified polyglots. The American polyglot would be forced, out of circumstance, to live elsewhere, either as an expatriate or as an immigrant on a track towards citizenship in a country that values his or her skills.

There is no going backwards. Our technologies are improving much more quickly than our skills, and there is scarcely any time left in the day to work on real-time skills unless we live lives of relative leisure (like me--I have time to practice and write because I am woefully under-employed, and have the great fortune to be married--28 years today--to a wonderful person who can also pay the bills).

We will never go "back" to a time when the only way you could hear music was to be within earshot of it.

We will never go "back" to a time when in order to communicate in writing to someone, you had to do it by making marks on a piece of paper (either by pen, pencil, or printing press) and delivering it to its reader (either within an envelope or within a book cover).

We will never go "back" to a time when ice covered most of the Arctic. And we (whoever "we" is) are physically unable to "freeze" it back up again.

But we do need to move forward and figure out how to make this a better world.

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