What’s Wrong With Touching the Computer?

These days countless controller apps and hardware controller devices promise emancipation from the dreaded computer interface. DJs and live performers have fallen head over heels over the concept that touching the computer somehow lessens an onstage appearance and the act of touching the computer at all is often met with derision and disdain.

This philosophy is certainly at the core of many product marketing campaigns and it has really distracted from the fact that a computer, particularly a laptop, is a bonafide playable musical instrument in and of itself.

Granted, watching the top of some pasty geek’s head sweat glisten in an LCD haze whilst he (most always a he) pours over his screen onstage as if merely browsing Reddit, occasionally stumbling upon a delightful cat video and jumping around a bit in memeful glee is – to usurp Laurie Anderson – as interesting as watching someone else doing the ironing in a game of Sims, but the idea that a kind of authenticity is lent to a laptop performance because a performer “never touched the computer once” is absurd.

The idea that the computer has limitations as an instrument and performance tool is a widespread myth, and countless vendors rely on perpetuating that myth to sell their gear, but these “limitations” might not be all they are demonised to be.

A hollowed out log with animal skin stretched over one end would also appear to be a very limited tool for creating music but the drum, the external heart, has formed the roots of all musical expression.

It’s not that external controllers don’t have their place or aren’t necessary; they provide a way to perform task that a computer interface is simply not designed to do, yet. Multiple, simultaneous manipulations of faders and knobs are impossible with a mouse or track pad and twisting an actual physical knob wins hand down for tactility and expression over mousey maneuvering and rubbing a flat glass panel, but the fact that the computer keyboard/mouse/trackpad trifecta is largely ignored as a medium for musical input and performance is crazy even when the software has keyboard functionality coded into the fabric of its GUI.

The issue is that the medium of computer production and performance has become largely framed as such that the computer itself is somehow lacking or limited as a physical musical instrument and therefore must be externally enhanced to be useful or authentic. Since it is one of our most intimate technologies – and an extension of our nervous system – it’s no big thing to wonder if these ideas seep into ourselves too.

How does this false notion of an inept device, itself an extension of self which then, by association, must also be inept, affect our music making and performances?

This notion certainly drives sales of gear but does it really assist us in becoming better musicians and performers if, at its base it is, in effect, undermining our interactions with ourselves?