In a recent episode of Channel 2's comedy skit program "Shorts," a man is seen playing table tennis by himself, serving balls across the net. When asked by a passerby what he is doing, he replies "I'm playing ping."
The skit is in keeping with the humoristic style of the program: ping without pong, punch lines unburdened by jokes. Even if "Shorts" is fairly funny at times, its format somehow makes one uncomfortable. It seems to bring to new heights the need for instant gratification. It completely gives up on the pleasure of going slow, the charms of a gradually unraveling text and multi-layered, multi-dimensional humor. "Shorts" is more like an ad for humor's coming attractions than the actual humor.
The sense that marketing people are behind the development of this format is strengthened by the ad campaign now underway promising to broadcast "Shorts" free to mobile phone users. It is hard not to think that the creators of the program (both the original British one and its Israeli adaption) planned it to be broadcast on third-generation cell phones - condensed clips are the ideal broadcasting format for their tiny screens. In fact, it is entirely unclear what was invented to market what - the new phones to market "Shorts," or the succinct skits to sell the new technology. The latter promises to turn every mobile phone into a mobile entertainment center for movies, newspapers and music, any time, anywhere. Will all these cultural elements be of the "Shorts" genre someday?
Before we begin to decry the loss of language and creative spirit, we can recall that technological inventions have always gone hand in hand with new artistic genres. LPs, for example, invented in 1948, were not supposed to replace the 78s, the format most identified with jazz and the early days of pop. They were supposed to allow people to listen to classical music, and its longer tracks, in the comfort of their own homes. No one could have predicted that the Beatles and their like would take advantage of the new invention to transform pop from light entertainment into an art form, from three-minute-long songs to lengthy creations with depth, internal perfection and great creative weight.
The development of the technology to disseminate music over the Internet may mean that the supreme status of the album as the most important format for rock and pop is in for a change. It is still hard to gauge the impact of MP3s and file-sharing programs on the music itself, but it seems that the single is now making a comeback as the king of pop, and that may spell the end of the album as an artistic genre.
British hit parades are already based not only on the sale of CDs, but also on the number of downloads of a song on the Internet. There is even a hit parade for cell-phone ring tones. No wonder that many people, and not only record company executives, see the digital format as a threat to the soul of music.
The classical pianist Glen Gould used to say that nothing he ever said was as controversial as his claim that the public concert would someday become a thing of the past, to be replaced by studio recordings. "I didn't think the idea I was expressing was so extreme or prophetic," he said. To Gould, the debate that ensued was the result of a basic human characteristic: the refusal to accept new technology, except after the greatest possible show of resistance. True to his words, Gould retired from the concert circuit, and for the rest of his life focused on recordings. But what would he say to hearing his music emanating from a tiny cell-phone speaker?
The most worrisome thing about mobile phones turning into entertainment centers is that if so far technology has tried to improve the quality of music and TV, it seems that now it will be working in the opposite direction: developing a marketing tool at the expense of sound quality. Will music as a ring tone be worth listening to? Will watching a movie on a miniscule screen be satisfying? Can a few seconds of streaming electronic information ever express more than a short punch line or a one-dimensional message? Will young people who have become used to music coming out of a multi-use tinny-toned tool really be able to concentrate on or comprehend its power and significance?
We may perhaps find some comfort in the knowledge that the impact of technology on art is always a two-way street. For example, legend has it that the maximum length of a CD, about 74 minutes, was set by the wife of the president of Sony, who wanted the new medium to be able to contain her favorite work - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. And so, for the past two decades, every musician who cut a full-length CD was to some extent inspired by that great composer.
We should also remember that even the "ping" player of "Shorts" needed the verbal ping-pong with the passerby to complete the joke. In other words, even a comedy skit broadcast over the phone will preserve something of the classical spirit of Western culture and Socratic dialogue.