• Losing the overtones
    July 16,2014
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    As one who grew up in a pre-computer world, I have been struck by the apparent lack of concern about what I see as a major loss — one that seems to be inherent in the current computer-generated electronic environment.

    Basically, we have lost the overtones that can add so much richness to what we do and how we do it. And I fear the loss is not simply aesthetic — we may also be losing an essential element of a diverse cultural landscape.

    Start with the basic notion of a loss of overtones. Michael Graves, a noted architect and emeritus professor at Princeton, argues in a recent New York Times article (“The Lost Art of Drawing”) that the computer, while fine for a final drawing of a finished design, loses an essential element of the creative process: The mind/hand/eye interaction between the physical act of drawing, and the conceptualization of the architect’s vision, is lost. Might there not be a similar loss involved with the apparent disappearance of cursive writing from the school curriculum? Yes, writing on computers can still require complete sentences — but there is a seemingly inescapable mechanical element.

    I would argue that the resulting banalization of expression (OMG!) extends to verbal communication — flat, uninflected nasal timbre, and to the computer generation’s seemingly universal use of stilted, pedantic pronunciation (e.g., student comes out “stew dent”). And loss/unawareness of overtones impoverishes our ability to comprehend and communicate. A particularly egregious example is the replacement of “problem” with “issue,” with a consequent loss of weight and resonance.

    Much has been made of the amazing burst of creativity/innovation the Internet and related electronic developments have enabled/engendered. But this may be a very mixed blessing if, as I suspect, we also have a flatter, less diverse landscape with fewer overtones. And a diverse environment, which produces regular, ongoing interaction among people doing different things in different ways — cities would be an outstanding example — has been widely identified as an especially rich environment for innovation.


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