Media @ McGill

From Difficulty to Delight: the Politics of Touch in Musical Screens

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Victoria Simon


Software interfaces shape the way we create, consume, and experience music, explicitly and implicitly reflecting the larger cultural, social, economic, and political systems in which they are embedded, while simultaneously embodying and transmitting the sensibilities and interests of their designers. From Difficulty to Delight: The Politics of Touch in Musical Screens uncovers these embedded and embodied interests, sensibilities, and systems, and the consequences for their users, through a comparative historical study of the production and design of music composition touchscreens. From Iannis Xenakis’s Unité Polyagogique Informatique CEMAMU (UPIC) in 1977 to contemporary commercialized musical touchscreens in apps for smartphones, it analyzes how historically and culturally specific ideas about musical expression, human computer interaction (HCI), software design principles of usability and ergonomics, intersect to express cultural and technological ideals of universality in music touchscreens, with broad implications for aesthetic technique, usability, inclusivity, and music production.

My research contributes to central debates in software studies, new media theory, and science and technology studies (STS) about the biases and exclusionary mechanisms of interface design, the politics of design practices, the privilege of visual knowing in software interfaces, and democratization in emerging digital cultures. Touchscreen interfaces—so often imagined to be accessible to all—are designed, I argue, to configure specific user identities and prefer certain patterns of use under the guise of efficiency.

I first examine Xenakis’s UPIC (1977), a music touchscreen invested in the political aspirations of “democratizing” music-making and making musical production practices inclusive to the entire population. I show how its reception in popular media romanticized touch as the sense modality that would lead to the democratization of musical practice, while in practice the interface placed vision as the dominant sense modality and instrumentalized people with disabilities to demonstrate the UPIC’s capacity for democratization. Although the popular media described the UPIC interface as “simple” and “natural,” chapter 2 reveals and assesses the implications of actual user experiences of difficulty, reflection, and discovery through failure as defining features of the UPIC’s “user-friendly” interface that have been largely forgotten today.            

Chapters 3 and 4 trace the assumptions about musical values and ways of making music from the UPIC, to Lemur (2005), a touchscreen that predates the app economy but closely resembles their discursive construction and design conventions, to the dominant conventions of popular music apps produced under the economic conditions of the app store: Thumbjam, iMaschine 2, and Skram. In contrast to the UPIC and Lemur, the apps’ paradigm of efficient design, instant mastery over the interface, and the affect of delight prohibits users from making “mistakes” or “failing,” which opens up questions about the relationship between queer theory, UI/UX, and game theory. Similarly, Chapter 5 presents two alternative case studies of music app design that embrace the musical values of discovery through failure and habituation and provide a counterweight to dominant discourse and user-testing design practices.

Ultimately, this study uncovers how software systems embed ideologies that they simultaneously reproduce, provides empirical evidence on how broader social and political processes circulate and infiltrate the design practices of these technologies, and identifies ways that software systems can be made more inclusive. This study aims to guide the discourse around music touchscreens, and communication technology more generally, in ways that can expand cultural participation while simultaneously challenging the abeilist presumptions that circulate around the aspirations of universality in technological design.