Today, admittedly, April Fools day, I heard a story from the sports world that for the first time, a major league baseball umpire was over-ruled by a computer. I’m not a big sports fan so I was a little surprised by my significant and negative reaction to the story. I commented to my wife, this seems like a good introduction to a “future shock” movie where people welcome this kind of “accuracy” in determining fairness when it involves a game, but then have to fight against it when it expands to monitoring of traffic, who gets what jobs and benefits, and even whether an individual committed a crime or not. Enforcing the rules without exception seems like a great thing until you ask yourself who gets to make the rules?
I’m not a sports fan, but I do love music. Twenty-five or so years ago I was so excited to get into digital recording. Even the most basic equipment came with a wealth of digital instruments and you could record what you played. The huge game-changer was that rather than recording the sound the instrument made, the new systems recorded the details of what you played. So the computer kept track of what key you hit, when you pressed it, how hard you played it, and so on — not the sound that the key made like a tape recorder. This enabled all kinds of neat things. I could play the song on a piano and later tell the computer to play it back but this time on a harpsichord. Amazing.
So what is the tie to my umpire story? Well it turns out another “feature” that this new technology enabled is the ability to correct elements of your recording. The computer could take what I recorded and make sure all the key presses lined up with the true key signature. If I played notes 1,2,3,4 but a little off where they “should be” in the measure, the computer could fix the recording so that my key presses were now exactly on the beat – so long as I was close enough for it to make a guess what I “intended.” This technique is called quantization. Playing with consistent timing has always been a challenge for me so this was an incredible tool to erase one of the major short-comings of my playing. One click removes the imperfections.
Or so I thought. After recording and quantizing many songs and playing them for family and friends, I discovered that removing the imperfections from the music essentially also removed the life from it. Although the music was technically much more accurate, it was also mechanical and lifeless. And the harder I worked to make my recordings “right” the worse this effect became.
So it turns out that, in music at least, the people making the real “rules” are the people experiencing it, not the people that define the dry theory behind it. I guess I worry about people losing sight of that point whether its in music, sports, or any of life’s decisions where some set of rules created by experts can be applied to ensure the world is fair. I am reminded of a person being tried by a “jury of their peers” – right now that still shouldn’t be a computer no matter how “right” it may be.