The culture of “air guitar”

Since I started listening to Alan Kay’s ideas I’ve kept hearing him use the phrase “air guitar” to describe what he sees as shallow ideas, both in terms of educational and industry practice, which are promoted by a pop culture. Kay is a musician, among other things, so I can see where he’d come up with this term. My impression is he’s referring to an almost exclusive focus on technique, perhaps even using a tool, looking confident and stylish while doing it, and an almost total lack of focus on what is being worked with.

I watched video recently of another one of his presentations on Squeak, this time in front of an audience of educators. He brought up the issues of math and science education, and said that in many environments they teach kids to calculate, to do “math,” not mathematics. Students are essentially trained to “appreciate” math, but not in how to be real mathematicians.

He’s also used the term “gestures” to characterize this shallowness. In the field of software development he alluded to this idea in his 1997 keynote speech at OOPSLA, titled, “The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet”:

I think the main thing about doing OOP work, or any kind of programming work, is that there has to be some exquisite blend between beauty and practicality. There’s no reason to sacrifice either one of those, and people who are willing to sacrifice either one of those I don’t think really get what computing is all about. It’s like saying I have really great ideas for paintings, but I’m just going to use a brush, but no paint. You know, so my ideas will be represented by the gestures I make over the paper; and don’t tell any 20th century artists that, or they might decide to make a videotape of them doing that and put it in a museum.

Edit 4-5-2012: Case in point. I found this news feature segment about some air guitar enthusiasts who actually hold a national competition to see who’s the “best” at it. The winners go on to an international competition in Finland! Okay, it’s performance art, but this is like asking, “How great can you fake it?” It’s a glorified karaoke competition, except it’s worse, because there’s no attempt to express anything but gestures. When I first heard about this, I thought it was satire like the movie Spinal Tap, but no, it’s real.

I’ve been surprised when I’ve seen some piece of media come along that comes pretty darn close to illustrating one of Kay’s ideas. A while back I found a video clip of a Norwegian comedy show taking the learning curve of today’s novice computer users and making a media analogy to the “introduction of the book” after Gutenburg brought the printing press to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kay had always said that personal computers are a new form of media, and I thought this skit got the message across in a way that most people could understand, at least from having experienced the version of “personal computer media” that you can buy at a retail outlet or through mail order.

South Park is a show that’s been a favorite of mine for many years. It’s an odd mix of “pop culture with a message.” Despite the fact that it’s low brow and often offensive, on a few occasions it has been surprisingly poetic about real issues in our society. The show is about a group of kids going through life, misunderstanding things, playing pranks on each other, and getting in trouble. It also shows them trying to be powerful, trying to help, and trying to learn. Maybe that’s what interests me about it. It’s unclear what “grade level” the kids are at. There was one season where they were in “4th grade.” So I guess that gives you an idea.

I’ve included links to some clips of an episode I’ll talk about. The clips are from Comedy Central’s site. Fair warning: If you are easily offended, I would not encourage you to watch them. There is some language in the video that could offend.

Season 11, episode 13 is one where the kids buy a console video game system and play a game on it called “Guitar Hero”. The game is played by taking game controllers that look like small electric guitars, and manipulating switches and buttons on them in the right sequence and timing, to real music played by the game console.

What I’m going to say about it is my own interpretation, based on my own life experience.

What’s interesting to me is a parent of one of the kids tries to engage the group in learning how to play real music on a real instrument, but the kids are not interested.

http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155857/guitar-hero

The dad wonders what’s so special about the game, and that night sneaks down and tries it himself, showing what a bad fit a real musician is in this “air guitar” culture (or showing what a piece of crap it is).

http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155858/randy-sucks

I have the feeling this episode is based on a movie, though I don’t know which one. There are other parts not shown in these clips that dramatize betrayal between two friends, and reconciliation. Kind of your typical “buddy movie” plot line. These next clips show the “wider world” discovering the talent of these kids playing the game.

http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155861/rock-stars

This gets to what I think the pop culture promotes. Even though it’s pretty empty, it makes you feel like you are accomplishing something, and getting something out of it. You are rewarded for “going through the motions,” “making the right gestures.”

If this next clip doesn’t scream “air guitar”, I don’t know what does.

http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/163728/acoustic-guitar-hero

I won’t show the ending, but it shows how utterly empty and worthless the whole “air guitar” exercise is–It’s not real!

I think the reason this episode had some meaning for me is what plays out feels kind of like my past experience as a software developer. Not that software development is an “air guitar” exercise in and of itself. Far from it. What I’m getting at is the wider computing culture with respect to software development is like this. Those of us who care about our craft are trying to play “good music,” often with bad instruments. In my case, I’m still learning what “good music” is. We may be with a good “band,” but most “bands” have “band managers” who don’t know a thing about “good music.” That’s why it seems like such a struggle.

“Real music” with good instruments in computing is available for those who seek it. You won’t find it in most programming languages, programming web sites, symposia, or tools. The idea of “good music” with “good instruments” doesn’t get much support, so it’s hard to find. Unfortunately the reality is in order to really be educated you have to seek out a real education. Just “going along for the ride” of school systems will usually leave you thinking the pop culture is the real thing. Seeking a real education, being your own learner, is much more rewarding.

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6 thoughts on “The culture of “air guitar”

  1. One thought here is that ‘South Park’ is not air guitar, but a sophisticated program promoting critical thought and which appeals to critical thinkers. But it’s still entertainment. The media regarded as most dumbing down (TV) has to become more sophisticated in at least some respects.

    Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005)

    Is it possible for a society to be smarter in certain ways (trivial pursuits) while at the same time becoming less knowledgeable about more important Enlightenment Knowledge, knowledge with a capital K? That’s my current hypothesis of what has been happening.

    (reference: our intelligence )

  2. Hi Bill. I wasn’t trying to say South Park is air guitar. I was saying that this episode demonstrated well the idea of air guitar (ie. “Guitar Hero” in contrast to real guitar and real music). The show is part of pop culture. It’s a show that can help people think, but because it wants to help the message go down with sugar, it doesn’t get too deep into it. It’s kind of like the social messages in pop music, though a bit less shallow. There’s a narrative that helps engage one’s mind more.

    From what I hear teens and pre-teens really like it, even though the humor is supposed to be too mature (gross or offensive) for certain ages.

    I agree with the idea that some elements of pop culture can make us seem more savvy and sophisticated, but I agree it doesn’t offer deep knowledge.

    My hypothesis is that the pop culture that really has an impact on people has deep knowledge hidden behind it. The creators take their understanding, put a “low-pass filter” on it, and release it to the public. Consumers feel impacted by the knowledge that went into it, without understanding how what they’ve enjoyed was created.

    I’ve seen that in my own experience as a software developer, and in a small minority of other developers. We are able to appreciate the power we see in certain software architectures, but most of us don’t have the knowledge to create something like it ourselves. That’s something I’m trying to change with myself.

    I’m quite sure this watering down of deep knowledge goes on. When I was in college taking a course in technical communication, we were told that only about 18% of the population had college degrees. Most newspaper readers only have a 7th grade vocabulary, so any sophisticated scientific/technical content has to be watered down to that level of understanding so that people can read it and understand a little of what’s going on.

  3. Pingback: Programmer Hero | Wisdom and Wonder

  4. Pingback: The challenge of trying to get a real science of computing in our schools « Tekkie

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