Gardens and Walls

10/13/2011 2:48:20 PM
By PSN Staff

by Danny Maland

With the passing of Steve Jobs, a lot of ink and bytes have been spilled about him as a person, an innovator, a businessman, a showman, and an icon. In those regards, I really have nothing to add. Everything that needs to have been said has been said, and nothing that I can come up with – especially with my being rather ambivalent towards Apple – would enhance the discussion.

What I would rather do is discuss something that I think has been mostly overlooked, often because it doesn't have a place in the ideological discussions surrounding what Steve Jobs did with Apple over the last several years. It may be (actually, it probably IS) that I just haven't done enough reading, but it seems to me that the conversation about whether or not “walled gardens” are a good idea is always a polarized debate. If you're not familiar with the term, a “walled garden” is a place where a person sees, hears, smells, and touches only the things that the curators of the space have allowed. In technology, this means that an entity has almost exclusive, if not completely exclusive, control over the user experience. Some folks think this is THE way to go at all times, whereas others oppose it vehemently.

In a lot of ways, what side of the argument you end up on is rooted in how you use a product or service. People who love and advocate for the walled garden tend to be the folks for whom the relationship with the device is the end in itself. They love the way the device looks, and they love the way the device makes them feel – usually, that feeling being empowerment. The device empowers them to get things done, and the device speaks to their aesthetic sense at the same time. (The “device” need not be a physical object. We could be talking about software, or a service.) On the flipside, the folks who dislike the walled garden are the people for whom the device is an end in itself. They use the device to do things, but they also are keenly interested in how the device functions. They often want to tinker with the device, and may or may not care about the device's aesthetics – and if they do care about the aesthetics, they are likely to prefer contrasting things to “walled” advocates.

Anyway, you've essentially got two camps, and these two camps tend to get into heated tribal conflicts about one way being correct, and the other being incorrect. What I've not yet heard, though, is a discussion about how walled and unwalled gardens might actually just be applications of technology, with each application being appropriate at different times.

In other words, I would respectfully put it to you that the standard pro-audio maxim of “the right answer is situationally dependent” is a more constructive view of the issue, especially as AV is concerned. Here's why:

Walled gardens are fantastic when clients are non-technical, or insufficiently experienced in a technical area. By way of example, there was a last-minute special event scheduled at my steady gig that conflicted with a prior commitment. The owner of the establishment is perfectly capable of getting audio through a mixing console, but doesn't yet have the experience necessary to understand all the intricacies of how and why audio is routed and processed in certain ways. Further, we had just installed a computer-controlled DMX lighting system, and the operation of that system was something he had no experience in at all. The solution to empowering my boss, thus ensuring the best possible experience for him and for the people involved in the event, was to construct a walled garden.

To build this walled garden, I did two things. First, I set up and tuned the audio rig in such a way that the owner could, quickly and with minimal effort, get FOH and monitor world “barking” loudly and clearly enough to satisfy a reasonable and capable rock band. We opted for a simplified  micing scheme, a cut down monitor world with only a couple of mixes, and me setting the various equalizers involved to what I thought would be a good compromise. I showed him the usable gain ranges on the mixing console, telling him that as long as he stayed within those settings, he would probably have clear sailing. For lighting, I set him up with a simplified control scheme. The lighting control software autoloaded, and with a single click he could access a short cue list that would let him get worklights on, switch to a couple of basic “rock band” cues that emphasized visibility, and then shut the rig down at the end of the night. By way of access permissions, he would be prevented from deleting or changing anything in the lighting rig's control setup.

This walled garden (actually, a garden with well-lit and clearly defined paths, featuring signs saying “stay on the path, please”) created a situation where the owner of the establishment had the power to run a specific show without my presence being required. The aesthetics of the experience were chosen and narrowed in advance, so we lost some flexibility, but flexibility wasn't required. What we required was empowerment for the purpose of fulfilling a singular, well defined task.

In contrast, an open garden is often the right choice for technical users, users with experience and desires that enable them to craft their own practices and find their own pathways. An example of this occurred when we – again, at my steady gig – hosted a band who brought in their own A1 (audio technician). This gentleman had plenty of experience with Pro Tools, and was quite pleased to have a chance at using our software-driven mixing console. I got a ballpark mix dialed in, showed him the common key commands, and put him in the driver's seat. (The only restriction I put on him was to please not defeat the system limiter, a proviso he accepted without complaint.) He had as much control as he desired over the aesthetics of the experience, which were not narrowed in the least. He had all the flexibility he wanted, as control over what he could and could not do was not the requirement. The requirement was that he have the “open road” available to run a show in the way he wanted to run it.

Interesting, isn't it, that creating a walled garden is actually more involved than creating an un-walled garden? Just thought I'd point that out. Anyway...

My point to make in conclusion is that the misapplication of either the walled or open garden would have caused serious problems in the above situations. Walling the band's guest A1 into a restricted space would have ticked him off, put a crimp on the band's performance, and would have been just plain unnecessary. Throwing my boss into a situation where he had full flexibility, no boundaries, and no guidance would have made him struggle with unnecessary complexities, cause him and everyone else to have a frustrating experience, and actually would have empowered him far less than a carefully controlled setup.

Walled versus open does not always have to be an ideological battleground. Both are legitimate applications that have appropriate uses, uses that are situationally dependent. You don't have to pick one or the other at all times.

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