A Space Shuttle sits on the launch pad. Two massive booster rockets are attached to the sides of the fuel tank. The engineers who designed these rockets wanted them to be bigger but because they had to be shipped by train to the launch site, there was no way they could be enlarged beyond the size of the tracks. Ok, but why couldn’t they have made the tracks a little wider? This is NASA after all. The tracks couldn’t be modified because then the trains themselves would have had to be redesigned, and then the individual parts of the trains would have had to be redesigned. Everything would need to change to fit a design scheme that’s been part of the human landscape for more than a thousand years. The one-size-fits-all train track comes in just one size, and it has everything to do with the width of an average horse’s ass.
That “average horse” is the sort of horse that once pulled Julius Caesar’s war chariots over the rough stone roads of the Roman Empire. If you were in charge of making those roads you’d also have made damn sure you weren’t wasting time, materials or your slave’s strength by making them even one inch wider than they needed to be. And over the years, as chariot technology eventually morphed into locomotive technology, the size of the track remained as it had been for millennia. The same thing goes for things as diverse as MIDI music technology, computer files and the width of your standard toaster opening. All of them are locked-ins, all of them, likely to be with us forever.
I first learned of locked-in technology from Jaron Lanier’s strange and beautiful book, I Am Not a Gadget. Once a technology is officially locked-in, that is to say, when the whole world becomes invested in it, the cost of changing it will be far too daunting. But even though it’s locked-in, it doesn’t mean it’s the best technology imaginable, far from it. It simply means that it has caught on in such a profound way as to be irrevocable. MIDI, a firmly locked-in music technology for example, can seem clunky and slightly phony sounding to some ears, more like a mosaic than an oil painting, but because Yamaha and others have sunk so much money into MIDI technology, no one is likely to invest in creating something better.
Take computer files as another example of locked-in technology. Files are so ubiquitous that few of us would even consider improving on them. Files as we’ve come to know them, are discreet little boxes that hold information of a similar kind. But the flaw (if you’d even think about files long enough to call it a flaw) in the ‘file’ as it now — and forever — will be, is that our minds don’t hold information of a similar kind in discreet little boxes. Our minds move from idea to idea, they go on strange and often random leaps. In other words, I can be thinking about my sister Nina’s country house in upstate New York and then, all of the sudden I’ll be thinking of the oboe solo Stravinsky’s Firebird. That’s what makes the human mind so wildly creative and so difficult to replicate.
As far as the idea of ‘locked-in’ is concerned, the same thing goes for etymology as it does for technology. Once a word or a phrase catches the ear of the public, you can bet it’s going to be around for tens, or even hundreds of years. Take the word ‘content’ for example. We all knew what content used to mean; content was the stuff that filled a box, or the things packed into the overhead bins on your flight that are “constantly shifting.” But in the last 10 years or so, content has become an annoyingly ubiquitous catch-all for: the supposedly artful shit people make that’s used — not as art once was; to stimulate ideas and conversations and to deepen the perspective of an audience — but to attract the eye and cause the harried Facebook or LinkedIn user to buy shit they wouldn’t otherwise buy, or otherwise need.
Content is now the word used to describe what many artists, writers and musicians such as myself have been forced into creating; essentially, mental flytraps to catch the attention of the hapless and unwitting consumer. I can already hear what you’re thinking…‘Peter, you’re on a tirade, what you’re saying is neither true nor accurate.’ I hear you, but still; let’s examine some kernels of truth here.
Words are the most exacting means we have of creating meaning and as such, they can be used to clarify or obscure. In the case of the word content, I believe it’s been doing some serious obscuring lately. I posit that it’s had a hand in diminishing the value of music, as just one example. It isn’t only that music is now basically free on the Internet, (true the Internet may have had the biggest effect on killing off the industry as we once knew it,) but that word, that C word, content, is also a culprit. On some subconscious level it’s made the general public think even less of the work of many artists (now sadly referred to as content creators). When we think of the word content we now, automatically intuit that it refers to something innately valueless, inherently disposable — and therefore an adjunct, as opposed to something central to our lives.
I first heard the word content being bandied about in its new usage in 2010. I’d just released an independent record called, Are You There. I was dismayed when the publicist my team had hired kept asking for more content. “Content,” she kept saying. “You know, assets, little video clips ‘n stuff that we can use to promote the record.” When I asked why the 13 songs on the record weren’t in themselves, content enough to promote the record, I was told, “Yeah, songs are ok, but these days no one really has time to listen to a whole song. We need tiny things, short catchy things. Content ya know?” But in fact, I didn’t know, and to a large extent I must be living in the stone-age, because I still don’t know, or at least I’m having a hard time getting in line.
But the cynics among you (and who dares to be other than that these days) are already muttering, “Peter, isn’t what you’re writing at this very moment, content? Aren’t you caving in at this very moment with this essay?” It’s true, I’ve been called out. Eegads….I’ve just created content! No one is paying for this essay you’ve been so kind to read. And admittedly, part of why I’ve written it was to capture your attention so that you’ll read the little thing at the bottom of my last sentence, the short and all-important biographical paragraph that lets you know I’ve got a new book out. A good and helpful book by the way, that I hope to God you’ll actually buy.
Like I said, the word content is a locked-in etymology. I can grouse about it (as I’ve often done) or join the fun. And just as the inescapable, irreplaceable, average horse with its average ass, runs with chariots charging, down an ancient path of stones, so too, am I in this race.
And I guess I’m in it for the long run with content —a proven winner. Hail Caesar.
PETER HIMMELMAN is the author of Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Lifeand founder of Big Muse, a company that teaches creative thinking, leadership skills, and deeper levels of communication in all facets of life–from personal to professional. As Big Muse has grown in popularity over the last four years, Peter has come to share his program with thousands of individuals, including charitable organizations, start-ups and international brands. A successful musician, he has been nominated for Emmy and Grammy awards, won the NAAPA Album of the Year Award, won six consecutive Parents Choice Gold Awards, and received six ASCAP awards.