Rob Kaplowitz: Mindless Influence

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 1, 3rd November 2020

You can listen to one of Rob’s compositions while reading

We’ve had a lot of protests here in the States lately. Last week, after a Louisville Grand Jury decided that the police shooting of Breonna Taylor was not a crime, I joined a march through the center of our city. We walked, chanting together, in and out of sync, behind our masks, past City Hall, hotels, and restaurants that our fellow Philadelphians can once again visit, provided they eat outside. As we traveled down a particularly busy street, three of my fellow protesters broke off chanting, and began haranguing the diners. “You should be out here with us!” “You should donate that money to BLM, instead of spending it on a fancy dinner!”

The next day, I was riding my bicycle to my current gig. It’s a nice bike, inspired by the “oma fiets” my wife and I rode around Amsterdam with our toddler strapped to our backs. As I rode by the river, I felt a pang of guilt – there I was on an upscale street bike, moving past tents pitched by homeless people near the water. I realized I was judging not only me, but a woman I passed as she exercised mere steps from those shelters.

And then I stopped and checked myself. A couple eating dinner instead of marching the streets is branded “bad” – but what if the restaurant they’re eating in is a Black-owned business, barely surviving the pandemic – are they still spending their money the “wrong way?” What if they’re doctors, who save lives, and are restoring their spirits after a hard day’s work, or lawyers who spent the day fighting no-knock warrants? What if that lady doing lunges is staying strong so she can be effective as she builds homes, fight fires, or develops a vaccine? What happened to “Yes, and…”?

Of course, this trend towards binary thought exists everywhere. Globally, political polarization is peaking. On social media, nuance is like an endangered species – rarely sighted, and far too often hunted to death the second it raises its head from cover. It seems to me that, over the past 40 years, we’ve fallen more and more deeply into this either/or way of thinking.

You know what else use binary logic?

Computers. Computers that have been in more and more homes since 1980 – hmm – about 40 years, eh?

I know – now I sound like a conspiracy theorist, or a Luddite. I’m not. I just know how microprocessors work.

As complex and amazing as computers are, they still store and describe all data as a combination of 1’s and 0’s, Yeses and Nos. The fundamental data processing tool in computing is still the Logic Gate – a tiny circuit that either passes a signal, or doesn’t. It’s less like the gate in your garden fence, which can be partway open, and more like a bear trap – all the way open or closed – no in between. The MOSFETS inside our microprocessors are made up of hundreds of millions of logic circuits. At the end of the day, even the most complex computer on earth is still processing information in strings of 1’s and 0’s. It’s still binary.

Everything organic is made up of curves. Acoustic sound moves in waves. Light is so complex it’s a particle and a wave! So, in order to represent that real world on a computer, we chart out massive numbers of points, making every complex shape out of a series of microscopic lines. Because, of course, two points can only describe a line, not a curve.

Two points, which are all a computer can ever offer us. On. Off. Yes. No. Right. Wrong.

This is why early digital sound was rejected so fully by critical listeners. There were not enough points being charted, because those 1980’s processors couldn’t handle the number of bits of data needed to reproduce acoustic sound accurately. It’s why MacPaint was a fun graphics tool, but incredibly inefficient for creating anything close to naturalistic representation.

Of course, technology has come a long way. We can, if we want to, take 192,000 samples of a sound each second, charting every one of those points with 64 bits of depth. Almost everyone agrees that we are recording sound with more detail than the human brain can comprehend.

But that’s not actually my point – the question isn’t, “Can we get so close to a curve that we don’t know the difference?” it’s “How does this way of perceiving and representing the Universe influence us?” Humanity is constantly transformed by the tools we use.

Until this pandemic hit, vast processors of binary data were helpful tools in our hands, not the mediators of almost all of our interactions. Our screens were in our offices, along with our co-workers. Computers played sound, ran lights and projected images in our theaters to support actors, musicians, dancers, poets. They accompanied us on our journeys around the world. They were on the wall at the meetings; they weren’t the meetings themselves.

The experience of going to a movie will always be different from the experience of watching it in our homes, no matter how “HD” our TV’s get. No concert album can ever compare to the experience of being in a sweating crowd, blood pumping, bodies swaying or thrashing together as live music finds its way into our bodies. We know that we undergo a medical alteration in the theater together, our breathing and heartbeats aligning.

Perhaps these live communal experiences allow us to overcome the daily binary influence to some degree, or at least not be overtaken by it. Since this necessary isolation we’re all undertaking began, my brain seems to spend far more time in an on-or-off state.

In the end, computers aren’t wrong, or even a bad tool. But – when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. The empathy machine we create in live performance can’t be replaced by a digital stream, however good it may be. This is not to dismiss the artistic efforts many of us are making these days – I do believe that to connect digitally is better than to disconnect entirely. I simply think it would be foolish to confuse the substitute with the real thing.

As this pandemic passes, many people will want to stick with that series of hard “yeses” and “nos” in lieu of the soft, curving breath of the earth. It will be our job, as artists, to remind society of the importance of leavening our deepened machine-life with direct human and tactile interaction. After all, it is only in that intersection that we can transcend the binary.


Robert Kaplowitz has spent the last twenty-five years designing sound and composing music for theater, and has been honored with an Obie for Sustained Excellence in Sound Design and a Tony for Fela! His musical Minors premiered at the Lantern Theater in Philadelphia; he also creates installation art, runs Nine Hostage Arts in Philly, teaches at Princeton, is an ambassador for the Prague Quadrennial, and loves his family more than anything else.

Photographs by Christopher Colucci