11 October 2008

Like a Scab

Remember going to the beach as a kid, building a totally awesome sand castle, then irreparably maiming it by nitpicking about the finer details? It was probably good enough, but you had to make the left side of it perfect; then you accidentally took too much off and have fix the right side to make it symmetrical; pretty soon, after playing this game for about half an hour, you finally manage to take out a particularly important component of the support apparatus, and half of it crumbles to the ground, leaving behind a sort of "sand ruins" monstrosity.

When is revision necessary? When is it destructive? Where are our first intuitive impulses inherently correct, the result of inspiration that comes around only so often and cannot be meaningfully recaptured for any subsequent process of revision? Where are they inherently flawed, the result of judgment clouded by the emotional high of said inspiration, which artificially inflated our opinion of what we had just done?

The social networking site Facebook is an excellent example of a quality product being maimed at the hands of its own creators. Embarrassed as I am to admit that I've had a Facebook page since before it was even open to everyone, I'm not ashamed to admit (since I've heard the same thing from virtually everyone I've talked to about it) that I think it was better back then, and that opening it to everyone was the first step in a downward spiral: news feeds, bad layouts, and basically trying to make it just like all of the other social networking sites that already exist. Did they make these decisions in a vacuum? Did they think they had to compete with MySpace? Or did they simply get bored with their sand castle and have to change it again and again until part of it fell over? I can't help but wonder.

In another recent example ripped from the headlines, I went to my local office superstore to pick up an ink cartridge a couple of weeks ago, and found (not surprisingly) that the ink cartridges had been moved. I visit said office superstore relatively infrequently, and the cartridges have not been in the same place on any two visits. Exasperated and tired of going on scavenger hunts in place of shopping trips, I broke down and asked an employee where they were (it turns out they had been moved to the extreme opposite side of the store, away from the printers and the cartridge refill station, which struck me as an odd choice, and not the best way to sell more ink).

I've witnessed this phenomenon in stores of various sizes and specializations for most of my life, starting with the local corner store in the neighborhood I grew up in, and continuing with the supermarkets I shopped at in college. I have always wondered if the constant reorganization of the products isn't the result of a natural human tendency to become bored with things that never change. It simply doesn't make sense that their inventories would be changing over at such a rate to justify all the shuffling, for while I may have trouble finding what I'm looking for, it's most always the same thing I was looking for last time, and in the end, they most always still carry it, but have inexplicably moved it to a different part of the store.

I've never worked in anything quite like a store, but at the jobs I have had, I often sense an impatience with the fixed nature of the given physical space that I and my coworkers inhabit on a far more regular basis than even the most frequent visitors. In such cases, becoming intimately familiar with something is only the penultimate step in becoming bored with it, a result which naturally drives us to desire change for its own sake. This, I think, is decidedly unhealthy in music, if not elsewhere as well. I think it not only betrays an childish impatience, but also a lack of confidence in one's work (of course, an aversion to revision could represent an overconfidence as well). Change, to the extent that it is inevitable and cannot be delayed forever, cannot be hastened either. As a composer, I've always been inclined to view cases where wholesale revision is in order as outright failures, choosing to simply move on rather than dilly dally in trying to make an average sand castle into a great one.

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