This week, I saw a film about a couple working on an island in the Galapagos. The film called What Darwin Never Saw, chronicled the accumulation of their work on said island over a 20 year period or so.  In it, they observed the movement and reactions of Darwin’s finches to their environment, and in doing so, deemed that what Darwin never saw was the minute workings of a microevolution, the changes even in several generations that had noticeable consequences (however small) in a given species that were able to be seen. Now from this, I’m curious as to the potential of another (but similar), less animate working that is maybe just as latent to us, as microevolution was to him.

George Kubler wrote in 1962 that he would love to do away with the categorical timeline with which we partition material culture. To break it into time periods, or “styles” he said, was useful only really for a frame of reference- rather we need to look at all things created by humans and consider them art, before hopefully understanding that from this stepping back and looking holistically upon the history of material culture that we could see the continuously fluid “shape of time” in a way that stylistic partition previously, would not have allowed. Now, similarly, let us assume that objects, (artforms in the Kubler-ian sense of the word) are allowed the maintenance of identities. For the sake of example, in fact let us anthropomorphize them almost entirely and give them an observable personality that is exuded by their aesthetic, their use, their context.

So if a finch on an island the Galapagos for instance, is born with a given set of endowments that make it suitable for survival, the function of its qualities then dictates the condition of its living. If its beak is ill-inherited for the function of eating the only remaining source of food during a drought for example, it will die. Similarly then if we extend this to the realm of objects, why do we never see anymore one riding a penny-farthing to work? The object in question has since undergone an evolution. In this case, probably a schooling in just trying to mount it (much less ride it) necessitated a need for a subsequent generation of object that would ensure that its merits (a human powered, faster transportation) would not be eclipsed by its more unfortunately endowed qualities. Its evolution determined its survival.

Unlike biological selection though, ..the grinding of predatory teeth upon the screaming, living flesh and bones of prey..*” do not work so dramatically, empirically, or efficiently as natural selection does in determining the object’s future. What then pulls the hangman’s lever, or gives the green light on the life of an object? To this, the answer I believe (almost unconditionally in the modern age) lies in the volatile way in which we as members of a culture associate value. I believe that such is found under the auspices of certain acting forces like method of manufacture, intended use, – if not outright cultural shift entirely.

Let’s look at where this fails, however. 50 years ago, the musical culture of the time allowed for the evolution of the turntable as the most adequate means by which to listen to a quality recording. Understanding that the listening masses all owned playback instruments capable of picking up on very high quality audio, recording processes were meticulously poured over to ensure that the production values reflected the sound quality desired by everyone. Additionally, given that individual parts of a record could not be immediately singled out,  the “album” was a crafted piece that was created around certain ideas, one that was about an hour’s worth of music listened to completely from start to finish. The album could have even embodied any sort of values, for instance- a narrative, or had a “concept” behind it, unifying and making that much closer it’s individual parts. The musical state of mind of the composer here could be extensively fleshed out in something that was emotionally investable over a fair amount of listening time and as such became works of art in themselves because of this. (see: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds ,Ray Charles’ The Genius Hits the Road and to some degree the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)

As it compares to these vinyl records I am going to contend that in a distant way, the iPod is a descendant of the turntable in that they both play recorded music for personal listening. This is distant however, because the iPod has encroached upon territory that I believe is maladapted to handle. In fact, my contention lies within its adaptation into a “species” that seeks to do things that before were dedicated to different individual objects. This effectively devalues all of the things that it does claim to do. Example: With the advent of the mp3 generation, this “envelope” (found in the rest of the record it came from) around the individual song disappears almost entirely. When one can go and pick out for purchase just the parts of the song that they were exposed to on the radio, for instance, there is absolutely no incentive to not produce one or two singles and release the remaining part of the record with “filler” for those unfortunate enough to have trusted that the rest of the record was just as good or worth buying. This creates a sea change shift in the music and the viewpoint from which our culture upon it, compared to where we were before.

Digital compression of music ensures that greater quantities of data(read:songs) may be put onto a player. This occurs at an audible loss of audio quality. Raw audio is not conducive to portable space considerations. As such, the earliest thoughts about the construction of the player then are approached under the mentality of quantity over quality. Why is it this way? Because we as consumers have demanded that we care not for how our music sounds, (our ears probably can’t even tell the difference at this point) we just need to be able to fit 10,000 songs in our pocket for our 20 minute commute to work. This has created an object that because of it, allows convenience to be the primary means through which one now plays music. The two of these things together mean that even if one has access to a high quality recording, and plays it through their iPod, all of the beauty and effort inside of it is lost as they for instance, try to crush an entire orchestra’s worth of sound through the earbuds that came packaged with the player.

What impact does this have on our culture? First, by extension an almost universally traceable loss in the audio quality of the modern recording. The production values of today recognize this significant shift in mainstream audio playback and thus cater to the lesser reproductive shortcomings of the mp3 player, the laptop speaker, etc. producing music so that it sounds optimal on smaller, more convenient platforms while anything greater (speakers, etc) is left with music that is produced for the lowest common denominator.

I believe that this form of “Cultural Selection” works on a two way street. The tagline for the 2011 Jeep Cherokee tells us that “the things we make make us.”** Things are not made without demand. If we continue to demand the lowest common denominator, that is exactly what we will become. In concept, in design, in aesthetic, in value. In this way, purpose is then obviously a cultural selector, as is beauty. Where the two come together comprises the entire identity of the object in question and is the origin for the next part of its evolution of that object’s future. Holistically? Pragmatism over thought/concept/beauty = less beautiful culture that only operates inside of the realm of the immediate. This is only true however, if those constraints are true insofar as they are reflected in the values of a culture.

Ultimately then, what we choose to place around us becomes us, and we become them. We are inextricably intertwined with the objects of our era. If they impact a value, or an idea, we and our culture have no choice but to follow. The intertwined relationship remains intact, but is sculpted entirely upon the decisions that we make as rational beings that (ideally)seek to make positive material decisions with all of the incredible power that that holds.

*As found in:

~ by crossmd on October 12, 2010.

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