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Electroacoustic Ageism

First presented at the Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium (10–13 August 2011). An earlier version of a section of this paper appeared in the author’s PhD submission to the University of Birmingham (UK) in 2006.

This paper explores some of the ways ageism may appear in the practice and study of electroacoustic music. Its perspective is based in direct involvement in the subject area, similar to participant-observation work. However, the analysis is not objective ethnography or sociology. Rather, it is fundamentally a series of subjective observations and reflections about an area of artistic practice of personal importance to the author.

In its broadest sense, ageism is discrimination based on age. Originally associated with prejudice towards the elderly, the term is increasingly applied to any situation where a group or individual’s competence, desirability, acceptance or skill is assessed primarily (and presumably unfairly) on the basis of length or stage of life — whether young or old — rather than pragmatic criteria.

To fully understand the potential range of ageism in electroacoustic music, we must extend that definition to include not only a priori assessments of artists and scholars based on their chronological age, but also pre-judgements of the techniques and technologies they use, and of the stylistic trends or approaches evident in their work. The impact of ageism in those additional two areas is amplified both by the accelerating pace of information dissemination and by frequent shifts in our technological and stylistic expectations.

This extended definition thus provides us with three distinct, though ultimately interlinked, categories of ageism to consider: chronological, technological and stylistic. We can assess manifestations of ageism from two complementary pairs of perspectives: internal-external assessment, and inclusionary-exclusionary group behaviour.

It is widely accepted that artists and scholars are subject to external assessment by the public and their peers. However, we all engage in internal or self-assessment of our own work as well, often with a profound impact on our creative output. To some extent, our second perspective pairing, inclusionary and exclusionary, simply provides reverse points of view for the same group behaviour: excluding those who don’t “fit” in order to protectively include only those who do. But there is one important difference: those who exclude others based on ageist views often have no self-awareness of the practice, while those who are excluded are usually keenly aware of the impact.

For our present purposes, we define chronological ageism as prejudice based on a person’s chronological age, or apparent “stage of life”. Chronological ageism can be self-critical, where the artist denigrates their own merit purely on the basis of their age, or it can be a kind of group behaviour that includes those who meet specific age criteria and excludes those who do not.

Like other artistic practices, in an effort to support emerging, early career artists our community may impose age limitations on competitions and festivals. Few would argue with the goal; the difficulty arises with the definition of “emerging”. When organizers use age to define “emerging”, they close the door to older practitioners who may have taken a non-linear career path and begun to specialize in their work relatively late. But if they use student status for the same purpose, they exclude those who have chosen to learn outside of academic institutions, whether as autodidacts or through non-traditional studies.

Both definitions properly support those who do meet the criteria. But they may exclude artists who do not, but are otherwise genuinely “emerging”.

In musical workplace contexts, chronological ageism commonly appears as a negative pre-judgement of attributes such as energy level, willingness to take on extra work, potential period of interest in the job and competence with current technology. The assessment is sometimes valid — for example, late-career university teachers may be less concerned about advancement and resist taking on extra duties, while younger teachers may be hungrier to prove themselves. Similarly, older artists involved in commercial sound design or media scoring may be less interested in, and therefore less skilled with, current technologies. But the danger is that the assessment stops there, and simply fails to also take into account the breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding that can be acquired during a lengthy career.

One of the assumptions underlying chronological ageism is that being older or younger than the protected or “included” age group automatically means less capable. Obviously there are physical and cognitive declines that occur with aging, which can affect one’s ability to perform particular tasks. But age-related dysfunction is often presented in stereotype or even outright caricature, and even the more benign presumptions frequently generalize and exaggerate any actual limitations.

In an art form based on sound, one physical change we are keenly aware of is hearing loss. Undeniably, our hearing often does diminish in acuity as we age (or as our abuses of it accumulate). Similarly, visual acuity often declines with age. In most cases, we would not question the capability of someone involved in the visual arts just because their wearing of corrective lenses informs us that their sight needs help to become “normal”. But if an electroacoustic composer presents their work wearing visible hearing aids, many in the audience may wonder if the perception that underlies that artist’s work is now in some way deficient.

A parallel situation exists around assumptions about cognitive abilities. As artists working in the visual arts or paper-based musical practices age, we are not likely to begin questioning whether their capacity to use the conventional tools of their work, or to adapt to new ones, has diminished. But we are fairly likely to assume such an effect with technology-based artists, such as electroacoustic composers.

Again, there is an element of truth: we do tend to become less adaptable as we age, for a variety of reasons (including will). But there is no objective reason to assume that aging technology-based artists will become inherently less capable or adaptable than those using more traditional tools.

Younger artists face their own ageist prejudices. An older group may protectively presume that artistic merit, skill, knowledge and access to opportunities should come only after an “appropriate” period of time working in the art form. Once again, the assessment is not necessarily unfair: the ability to create strong mature work does require application over time. But younger artists whose work already demonstrates that level of maturity and skill may find themselves denied serious consideration purely based on their chronological age — or, conversely, saddled with the designation “genius”, and set up for unrealistic expectations.

In technology-driven arts, another prejudice sometimes works in favour of younger artists, and sometimes against them. We tend to assume that younger people, particularly “digital natives”, are inherently more comfortable and skilled with technology than older ones. That means we may favour younger artists for commissions or performances that explore newer technology, even when another older artist has equivalent or greater knowledge and experience. But it also means that we may not offer younger artists as much leeway for learning newer technology, and may automatically expect their familiarity with new tools solely on the basis of their chronological age. This a priori expectation of technological competence based on age is ageism, no less than presuming technological incompetence on the part of older artists.

But, as we see next, technology offers its own varieties of ageism.

Technological ageism manifests itself in a priori judgements of an artist’s choice of technologies and techniques for making their work, based on the introduction date of those tools and procedures, rather than on the work produced with them. Unlike most instrumental music, where the tools and techniques are rooted in lengthy traditions and therefore inherently quite resistant to change, electroacoustic music is driven to a large extent by technological advancement. Certainly there are artistic traditions, styles or schools — and even loyalties based upon national identities — all of which do lead to a measure of equilibrium. However, broadly speaking, technical change is anticipated and more quickly accepted in electroacoustic music than it is in instrumental music.

But technical change is not without hazards. Most composers have experienced the all-too-common phenomenon of upgrading one hardware or software component, only to find that interactions with other components are now dysfunctional. Yet there is constant pressure — often self-inflicted — for composers to upgrade. Even armed with the knowledge that something will surely “break” when we do so, we may still plunge forward, for fear of being perceived to be — or simply feeling — in some way outdated.

Of course, practitioners of digital arts are not the only targets of technological ageism. A carpenter showing up on a job site with perfectly functional, older tools may be viewed with disdain by those who have acquired the latest laser-guided, rechargeable, brightly-coloured plastic devices, even though those may not necessarily do a significantly better job. And, like the carpenter, even though our tools may still do exactly what we need them to do, the perception of being out-of-date can easily engender a presumption of incompetence — both by observers, and by ourselves.

What is, however, particularly hazardous to artists working with digital technology is this: not only do the software and hardware tools of our work change with ever-increasing speed, but, thanks to our increasingly networked lives, information about those changes is now propagated almost instantaneously as well. And, with the intense “buzz” that often surrounds technology, that information may be conveyed well in advance of the updates even being available, thus creating a climate of anticipation and impatience and a growing dissatisfaction with the tools currently at hand.

This combination of speed and pressure also effectively reduces any meaningful time buffer during which early adopters might gradually share experiences with the majority, who could then embrace the new tools with some reassurances that they will indeed provide the promised improvements. The trickle-down effect is thus heavily time-compressed, and, in fitting lockstep with the rest of the digital realm, the status of our desktop toolkits becomes increasingly binary: up-to-date (on) or out-of-date (off).

The marketing of change is somewhat different for hardware tools than for software. As feature-bleed amongst devices increases — for example, the blurring lines between computer, telephone, media player and gaming device — manufacturers must try increasingly harder to distinguish their devices from the rest of the pack. Sophisticated marketing campaigns take advantage of every medium available — from print to Facebook — to raise awareness of and create demand for their product. The goal is simple: to generate a perpetual cycle where those who have not yet upgraded to the latest device feel out of date and respond by purchasing.

With products by smaller niche manufacturers, users frequently bond based on genuine common interests. But for products by large industrial makers, a group identity may be forged largely by the fact its members have all embraced the same marketing message. And, because these pseudo communities extend far beyond a single artistic practice such as ours, the momentum of that message is often unstoppable. The new devices may well have genuine artistic applications, and some users will have good reason to acquire or upgrade them. For example, both the iPhone and Wii controllers are general consumer devices that have found uses in electroacoustic music. But membership in the macro group requires only ownership of the device, and with that membership will come pressure to upgrade, even when there is no pressing need to do so for an individual’s particular application of the device.

Hardware tools can also be the subject of a kind of “retro” ageism, where groups share a fierce nostalgia for older technology, such as hardware analog synthesizers, vinyl records or 2” tape. The cachet which the original objects possess goes well beyond their function. Even when their processes can be indistinguishably emulated with DSP or modern hardware, the original older devices may be glorified to the exclusion of far more sophisticated contemporary ones.

Because software can be distributed electronically, it does not necessarily carry the same industrial baggage or require the same marketing momentum that physical devices must. This opens the door to a wider range of producer and distribution options — such as open source, freeware, shareware — and smaller niche commercial products, as well as applications by larger commercial producers.

However, software has a unique way of compensating for this less monolithic marketing model. Most computer users are familiar with the built-in software update checks that insistently remind us that our applications or operating systems are out of date. These reminders can range from cheery exhortations to take advantage of the latest and greatest, to dire warnings of security risks, lethal bugs, trojans, viruses or other techno-hazards. A reminder that something better or more secure is now available can certainly be useful. But automatic update reminders also — without any action on our part — tell us that our tools, and by implication probably our creative activities too, are now “out of date”.

These practices represent a subset of technological ageism we can call automated ageism. Even if we are perfectly content with our software tools, automated reminders — which insidiously appear to come from the very toolkits we depend on — will plant seeds of doubt. And any such seeds that were already planted will receive a healthy dose of virtual fertilizer.

Of course, automated behaviour shaping extends much further into our “digital lives” than the tools we use to do our work. For example, like any other internet user, any time we enter our birth date into an online profile we open the door to automatic, demographically targeted advertising. In the first case, the target was our software. In the second case, it is our personal consumption patterns. But in both cases, our toolkits have been pressed into service to automatically deliver messages that attempt to mould our actions in response to someone else’s perception of age-related (or “age-appropriate’) behaviour.

Finally, we briefly consider stylistic ageism, a pre-judgement about the acceptability of an artist’s work based on whether its style is perceived to be sufficiently modern or current. There will always be contexts that are appropriately style-specific. For example, an acousmatic piece could fairly be considered out of place in a festival dedicated to interactive laptop performances. But in contexts with ostensibly wider objectives, exclusion by style may largely be a response to what is currently in vogue. And, similar to what happens with technological change, our awareness of what is presently considered stylistically up-to-date is constantly being refreshed by our information networks — while the lifespan of that status is constantly diminishing.

We generally expect popular music to celebrate the newer or younger very openly and directly: this seems understandable for an industry whose economic health is supported by ongoing stylistic obsolescence. When so-called “serious” music focuses on newer practices, to the exclusion of previous ones, it will likely be framed in an implied discourse about authenticity or deeper cultural relevance. But the underlying motivation could simply be short-term trend-following or fashion, no less so than in popular music.

Stylistic ageism can also be an internal, self-judgemental act. It is possible that an artist genuinely believes they have exhausted the creative potential of their current idiom and feels compelled to move on to greener pastures. But it is equally possible that this artist undertakes a change in style in response to the awareness that his or her approach is no longer as widely seen, heard or talked about as it used to be. In that situation, the transition is based on fear of being “left-behind” or “out of date”, rather than a genuine artistic reason.

Taken together, chronological, technological and stylistic ageism provide a rather wide range of potential opportunities for undermining our work in electroacoustic music. My original intention for this paper was simply to bring those opportunities briefly into focus for consideration, not to pass judgement on them. As my thoughts on the subject evolved, I began to understand that I was limiting my position because of my own age, for fear of appearing defensive or self-serving. In other words, I had imposed an ageist view upon my own comments about ageism.

It is rather ironic that ageism is itself not ageist: it can be applied equally to — and by — people of any chronological age. I believe that breadth of reach makes it all the more important for members of our community — of all ages — to be aware of when they are affected by, or themselves practising ageism. We may find it within ourselves. Or recognize it coming from the media, employers, colleagues, students, teachers — even from our damned computers. But wherever we find it, we do have the choice to confront it — and to refuse to empower it.

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