Carlo Rotella

Quantity distilled to quality

By Carlo Rotella
January 5, 2011

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NEW-YEAR tech predictions and ads for the latest gadgets promise a near future in which everyone is online all the time, which sounds pretty horrible to me. I am being asked to look forward to inhabiting a world in which everyone wanders blindly through life with nose to screen, having outsourced to the cloud even the most rudimentary competences and desires — a world full of people who depend on their electronic fairy godmother not only to amuse and distract them but also to tell them where they are, what they want to eat or listen to or look at, who they are and who they hope to be. I realize that I tend to react with skepticism to the overheated promises that surround technological innovation. Looking back over the columns I wrote last year, I notice that I generally pushed back against pro-tech ballyhoo: why I don’t allow laptops in my classroom, the cellphone as a vector of bad manners, and so on. I was — I am — kind of a crab on the subject.

But it’s a new year, a time to keep an open mind, so I am trying to resist my tendency to regard technological progress as the creeping advance of dystopia. One of my philosophical role models in this effort is the Israeli musician and mashup artist known as Kutiman. If you’ve heard of him, your first reaction will probably be that he’s old news. After all, his big viral hit, “Thru-YOU,’’ a compilation of tunes assembled from YouTube samples, was released in 2009. That’s, like, last decade, which, as time is measured online, makes him a figure out of dimly remembered classical antiquity.

But Kutiman’s my role model because he takes such a generous view of what people are doing online. You could easily see the proliferation of musical performances on YouTube as Exhibit A for the emptiness of techno-utopian promises. Yes, sure, there are thousands upon thousands of videos of all sorts of people from all over the world playing all sorts of music on all sorts of instruments, more than you could ever possibly watch in your lifetime, but what does it all add up to? It’s tempting to see it as the greatest archive of mediocrity, self-importance, and triviality ever assembled. Here’s a 12 year-old from Serbia playing the guitar part from “Wonderful Tonight’’ note for note. Here’s somebody’s cousin singing a fragment of a Katy Perry song over and over while juggling a single plate. Progress!

“Thru-YOU’’ encourages a different view. The best example, Kutiman’s magnum opus to date, is a tune called “The Mother of All Funk Chords.’’ The foundation is an instructional video by the great funk drummer Bernard “Pretty’’ Purdie, on which Kutiman layers snipped and pasted bits and loops of instructional and performance videos — two different how-to lessons in rhythm guitar, a little boy playing a trumpet scale, two encounters with a Theremin on different continents, and so on. The whole, a crushingly awesome groove with a soaring bridge, is almost infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the point.

The assembly draws from those parts a collective secret intent: all of these musicians, professional and amateur, good and bad, offer up their share of the overarching project. The self-conscious way they arrive on camera and address their instrument, the affected airs of formality or forced informality, the noodling and dramatics — it all begins to feel less like “Look at me!’’ and more like “Here’s my humble offering toward the greater human groove.’’

The online world mostly offers quantity over quality. There’s lots of information, much of it bad. There’s lots of writing, most of it in need of stern editing. And there’s lots of music, much of it lousy. But Kutiman offers a reminder that quantity is not the enemy of quality, and that to live well online one must learn to transmute quantity into quality. That requires creative ingenuity, technique, and a generous view of what people are up to — virtues to cultivate in a near future that’s coming, and in fact already here, whether I like it or not.

Carlo Rotella is a director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.