Interface to Face: Touching with Technology

I have always been a musician. From banging pots and pans on the kitchen floor as a toddler to mauling my first guitar at age 9, making music has been one of my primary creative outlets. While music truly has a timeless and primordial quality, perhaps even more than language itself, it is also inherently technological.

Even during my increasingly focused academic career (I am a diplomatic historian), I have simultaneously pursued my musical career as both a pastime and as a profession. Most recently, I scored a film called “Elliot King is Third” with my partner Barb Morrison – herself a full-time professional composer and record producer. The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past Sunday, is set ten to twenty years in the future – utilizing the power of science fiction to address the emotional and controversial issue of transgender rights.

You can view the entire 20-minute film online:

Like any successful artistic undertaking, the elements of the piece (in this case the plot, dialogue, acting, direction, cinematography and score) all combine into a deeply evocative whole, one which connects on a fundamentally emotional level with the viewer. As an assistant composer and score engineer on the film my focus was not only on the music but on the use of technology to compose and engineer the score. However, my job would not be a success were the viewer of the film to notice the technology per se… my goal was not to impress with technology but to use it invisibly in order to convey emotion. In film scoring, technology is a tool to be wielded to greater purpose – communicating ideas about the story’s characters, evoking the moods of the scenery, and facilitating the viewer’s emotional journey through the plot. If technology is to be used successfully it must remain in the background, an indispensable but invisible mechanism for communication.

The same general principle applies to all forms of art, whatever the medium or mode – including (I believe) good academic research and writing. Whether one uses word processors like Microsoft Word, citation managers like Zotero, presentation software like PowerPoint, visualization tools like Gephi and d3.js, etc. the technology is not the centerpiece – it is there to facilitate understanding and provide a scaffold for the story one intends to tell. Indeed, even as Digital Humanities races into more and more academic disciplines with the youthful vigor of its proponents, it remains the research, the narrative, the –story–, that must be told, and told well.

As special effects and technology have raced ahead, how many films have flopped, all ‘eye candy’ and no emotion? Likewise, how many papers, so loaded down with technology that the thought process of the writer is eclipsed (or even ignored), will suffer a similar fate as Digital Humanities further penetrates academia? As DH evolves and matures, the impressiveness of visualizations, sophistication of methodology and other technologically-enhanced facets of research will increasingly assume a supportive role, just like the samplers and sequencers used to facilitate the director’s vision of a film through its score. Such tools will be similarly indispensable, facilitating the academic’s efforts, but it will remain the scholar’s greatest achievement to take the reader on a journey, to communicate effectively with both confidence and nuance, and to deliver a satisfying experience that – while perhaps not primarily emotional – evokes a more profound understanding.