Digital Isn’t Everything

Design on Turn of the Century Orchestrion

Design on Turn of the Century Orchestrion

Yesterday’s visit to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar (q.v.) has convinced me that the Smart Phone has warped our aesthetic sensibilities. The automobiles and music machines collected by J. B. Nethercutt and his successors are large and, for the most part, beautifully designed. Now our new automobiles are much more boring—even the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs don’t look much better than most standard-issue American and Korean cars. I get the feeling that the app-loaded Smart Phone is our new criterion of success. It is as if where we were evolving over the last hundred years is toward Dick Tracy’s wrist TV (see illustration below).

Is This All There Is?

Is This All There Is?

If we want to listen to music, we download the music ourselves, either from a free or a pay website, and load it onto an iPod or MP3 player. Of course, since the music is now completely portable, we usually need earbuds or an earphone. The Mighty Wurlitzer and other orchestrions at the Nethercutt produced a big sound without any digital amplification. Most notable is the top-of-the-line player piano on which I listened to George Gershwin’s own recording of Rhapsody in Blue. Trust me, it was better than the best digital I ever heard.

Perhaps we have taken digital about as far as it can go. At some point, Moore’s Law will run into some natural barrier; and researchers will start to take another look at analog. I’m not saying we’ll return to records: Toward the end of the long-play record era, I had a hard time finding vinyl records that weren’t warped. What will probably happen is a combination of digital and analog in new media. The CD is almost out of date; the MP3 player will be next. Who can say what will be the next medium for conveying music?