37. Things

Now for a special blog post from a guest contributor, Jon Crowcroft, the Marconi Professor of Communications Systems in the Computer Lab, at the University of Cambridge. We caught up with Jon – an avid guitarist – to talk about Carolan, music and the mysterious Internet of Things. Over to Jon …

Today I had the great pleasure to talk to Adrian Hazzard in the Mixed Reality Lab at Nottingham about the Carolan Guitar and the Internet of Things, a topic on which I am working in the Hub of All Things or HAT project.

To be honest, the guitar is a whole lot more interesting that Internet of Things, even without the aestheticode celtic knot patterns and sound holes!

The Internet of Things (IoT) has to a large extent been about instrumenting the world and then making that data (and control) available to applications so that people can slightly optimise their lives with regard to energy use, security, well being, entertainment, travel and so on. Its all good, mostly at least, since many of these uses of data will help improve how we consume resources (i.e. greener cities, homes) and some will feed into preventative healthcare. However, most of today’s smart city, smart home, and other smart this and that projects concern relatively small improvements that are easily anticipated from today’s Internet, mobile, Web and Cloud use application space.

There are some technical aspects to this that are intriguing for a computer scientist interested in systems and networks. For example, we have tried to keep data from the IoT under the control of the private individual rather than centralising it in cloud services (whilst still allowing multi-sided markets to develop, which is an interesting business/privacy proposition).

What’s different with linking a musical instrument to information?

For me, it is the idea that the guitar can now “bear witness” to events surrounding it. Of course, the implementation involves people doing a bit of work (we have to record people making, playing, and listening to the guitar, and then put those recordings somewhere so that the codes can lead people to them). But this idea has great resonance (more than the instrument itself).

It also makes you think of other possibilities – experiencing the feel of the instrument via haptic feedback, the smell of the wood and glue it is made of, the links to other people performing the same piece in other places, and also links to videos, tab, classical notation of pieces, alternate tunings, etc – all the things that have made kids today so much more wildly proficient at a number of musical instruments, simply because they can find these videos and no-one said they shouldn’t be able to play Eddie Van Halen’s solo from Billie Jean after only 3 months of learning, or that crazy shredding and tapping thing people do after about 5 minutes. Awesome.

The guitar is intensely democratic as an instrument. Unlike fretless instruments (especially the violin) it makes a nice sound without any real skill from the get go. It is pretty inexpensive to get an ok classical, acoustic or electric (certainly 100 pounds will get something perfectly acceptable for most use). Its portable, lets you sing at the same time and does chords, no other class of instrument does all 3 of these (ok, just possibly accordions and uillean pipes, but that’s a stretch).

As they said in the first 3 issues of sniffing glue back in 1976 …

“Here’s a chord, here’s another chord. Here’s the 3rd. Now go form a band”.

(several people obviously misread this as …

“Here’s dischord, here’s dat chord, and here’s de odder chord”.

So, what this special guitar is doing is building a narrative about itself, with a little help from its friends. This is a rich thing, not a mere temperature reading or thermostat setting. It isn’t about a nudge to peoples’ behaviour to make them think about reducing their carbon foot print. It isn’t about monetizing or optimizing.

Of course, one can think of ways to turn the Carolan guitar into a money making enterprise. Clearly one could contact a mass guitar maker and talk (as with personalized tee shirt web sites) about a way for people to add their own codes to cheap manufactured guitars. And the apps and info could spread more widely that way too. The value would be far higher than the money made (the direct ability to share narratives about different instruments, about ways tunings bring out better tones on different types of wood, or after the guitars had been around for longer and their tone/balance altered. People could match a guitar to their playing or singing style or to their voice – all classic Internet of Things optimisations. But the stories would add a whole different level of wealth.

Songs (a key vehicle for guitar music) tell stories (Moma don’t allow no guitar playing in here. Pearl’s a singer. Ziggy played guitar.) With Carolan, the story is hung off the guitar even when it isn’t being played, and it can be read without being in the same room at the same time. This time and space shifting (guitar tardis-wizardry) is also important.

Getting back to that Internet of Things, far more interesting features of the Internet have evolved out of people making up stuff to do with the tech (as William Gibson said, the Street finds its own use for tech) – the use of this “tech” is not at all obvious. There are weird things people do with music nowadays, such as incorporating early retro PC game sounds into songs (post Dubstep/PC music) or mashups (Greyfolded, a remix of all known good recordings of Dark Star by the Grateful Dead, superimposed together) – see also Dub Side of the Moon). Some of the more interesting festivals (Burning Man, Lost Vagueness at Glastonbury, and some of the classic storytelling festivals) aren’t so new, they are very very ancient (I am sure Homer had backing singers). And “high” art has mashed up things (Auden’s this is the night train poem etc). But this is clearly food for thought (if music be the food of love, then you’v gotta love the thought!!)

Thank you very much to Jon for an insightful post. And his contribution does not end there; of course Jon and Carolan also spent some time making music together …

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