What does this button do?

**This post is the first in an on-going series on technological tools for ethnomusicology students**

I know next to nothing about technology. I probably know barely enough to get by in this day and age. This is something that concerns me because there doesn’t seem to be a lot written or even discussed concerning contemporary tools for ethnomusicologists. The SEM Student Newsletter available in the spring/summer of 2013 did dive into the moral and ethical issues of internet use and theory, online education, social media, etc. We all know about the internet, YouTube, Skype, Facebook, MOOCs, etc. But these seem to be seen as large, ponderous entities that are mentioned by name without any specificity, except to warn against misuse. Richard Daja’s piece “Digital Technologies and Music: Hardware and Habits” was the only article that addressed specific tools (specifically cell phones and smartphones), but he focused more on how people and musicians in South Africa were using them, not how he, as an ethnomusicologist, used them.

Ethnomusicology’s use of technology is not a new phenomenon. There seems to be two separate yet related ways ethnos deal with technology. We are very vocal about the pitfalls of misuse when it comes to the final stages of fieldwork: should we post our videos on YouTube? Should we make them available at all? How are these recordings and other information we’ve taken from the field going to be used if they are placed in an archive? We seem strangely silent, however, with the use of technology when we are first beginning fieldwork, specifically on the practical application of the new technology with which we are constantly inundated. What I am interested in for this particular post is a closer consideration of the latter. I’m curious to know what tools ethnomusicologists are using in the field, how they are using them, why they chose the tools they did, and what they would have done differently.

The challenge here, as with any consideration of technology, is how fast it changes. Thus we must walk a fine line between the specific and the general. Should we be concerned with the specific serial number of an audio recorder when, by the time this gets posted to the blog, three more will have appeared on the market? Should we say “Hang it all” and march off to the field with nothing but a notebook and trusty pencil? (#2 pencil or mechanical? Curse you, technological decisions!!!) I think a more useful approach to this topic would be the way ethnomusicologists tend to approach other topics: in a way that offers experience rather than advice. I don’t want to say “Buy the Kodak PlaySport (Zx5) HD Waterproof Pocket Video Camera (2nd Generation).” I think it’s far more valuable to say “I like this particular video camera because I’ve dropped it ten times and it still works.” My friend and colleague Justin Hunter found it was easier to keep things simple technologically. In his experience, a laptop and an iPhone worked perfectly well for what he needed. No video camera. No separate audio recording device. No extra batteries!

The great and annoying thing is that both needs and experiences will change. A piece of technology that was perfectly adequate for one situation may be woefully inadequate for another. This is why I think the more ethnos (particularly ethno students) talk about this, the better prepared we can be for all, at least technological, eventualities.



One thought on “What does this button do?

  1. I love my iphone as well for recording interviews. People seem to forget it’s there, whereas if I use my Zoom H4N, it seems to linger in the minds of my interviewees a bit more. However, I find the H4N to be GREAT for recording really high quality audio. I’ve done a recording with both at the same time before, the iphone and the H4N, and it was much easier to hear details with the H4N.

    It’s interesting that you include YouTube several times here. I recently did a small project that included some use of YouTube comments, and they had really changed how they worked from when I had last really looked at a comment section. For instance, before, it seemed that comments that had been liked a lot were ALWAYS at the top, with lots of “up votes” and whatnot. Now, it seems more scattered, and I have trouble finding comments with more than 20 up votes, even on very popular videos, and lengthy debates that would usually be threaded under such comments are hard to find.

    I think technology is always great to discuss, because it changes so often, and it can both help and hinder us as researchers.

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