What Technology Wants: Better Musics

No. Not Mel Gibson.

Molly Sheridan’s Mind The Gap blog has gotten particularly geektastic this past week as she hosted a virtual book club. The book in question, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. This certainly tickled the computer scientist in me, Kelly’s Out Of Control changed the way I thought about computing in the mid 90s.

Kelly has long been on the forefront of technological thought, hanging with Stewart Brand and his buddies back during the Whole Earth Catalog days through the WELL, and these days with the Long Now Foundation. And along the way he co-founded Wired magazine. Despite a long history of underconsumption and a fascination with Amish and other ‘anti-progress’ cultures, Kelly is cautiously pro-technology, believing that progress is inherently good while prescribing a very specific set of guidelines towards adopting technology more responsibly than we tend to.

Kelly supports the controversial notion (among biology geeks at least) of directed evolution, both biologically and technologically. He cites evidence that certain complex biological structures (flapping wings, eyes, tool building minds) are an inevitable result of the evolution process. Each of these structures have evolved multiple times in very unrelated species (birds, pterodactyls, and bats) and their most recent common ancestor does NOT have wings. Some biologists write these dupliations off as flukes, but Kelly believes that this is evidence of “Convergent Evolution”, that there is an inevitability to these structures, wings WILL happen because they suit biological needs.

He then extends this notion to technology, citing the common phenomenon of simultaneous invention. Almost every major invention had two or more parties working towards the same goal with no knowledge of the other. This would suggest an inevitability in technological advances, the incandescent lightbulb was going to happen even if Edison never existed. The direction of this inevitable flow of technology, if you believe in it, could be characterized as what technology ‘wants’ to be. Lightbulbs WILL happen because they suit technological needs, (which in turn emerge from biological needs).

So, back to music and theater. As I was reading the section where Kelly first asserts this directed technological evolution, I found myself naturally trying to extend it to creative endeavors. If inventions are destined, are schools of art similarly preordained? If Glass and Reich were not around, would minimalism happen? Sure enough, a few pages later, Kelly himself wandered into these waters, although rather unconvincingly to my tastes. He focused on the flimsiest of evidence, specifically the tendency of movie studios to release films with similar plots around the same time, to support the notion that there may be a similar inevitability to art. He cited A Bug’s Life and Antz as well as Armageddon and Deep Impact.

Those are some unfortunate examples, having more to do with the tensions between Disney and Dreamworks in the mid 90s more than any sort of predetermined tendencies in storytelling. (Working on A Bug’s Life while my wife-to-be was working on Antz gave me a unique perspective on that dynamic, but that’s a story for another blog.) But even if it was evidence of a trend, it would be a pretty uninteresting one. Detecting similarities in story elements is akin to finding the same pitches in different pieces. There are only so many pitches to choose from. Similarly, there are only so many story elements to choose from. Stories themselves don’t evolve much. StoryTELLING does.

And that’s where Kelly misses a real opportunity. How do styles of expression evolve? Are there inevitabilities in schools and styles and genre? Is art directed? Convergent? Would minimalism have existed if Glass and Reich hadn’t been around? If we’re going by an evolutionary model, would that imply that art designed to be most widely consumed is the truest expression of what art wants? Or is longevity the metric? What does ART want?

This sort of thing was brought up before in my blog. A paper earlier in the year showed that cinematography has shown evolutionary tendencies to converge upon optimum shot length and pacing. But shot length a tiny dimension of the question. I still have the same questions I had when I wrote that blog post, and though Kelly flits around the issue, I still don’t know of anyone actively engaging in this research.

My gut sense is that art certainly evolves, but there is no innate direction. It’s all noise, no signal (statistically speaking, of course). A chaotic random spewing of melodies and images that resonate with the population (or don’t resonate) in unrepeatable ways. The contribution of the individual matters (although which individuals end up mattering is itself random and chaotic).

Perhaps we’re not looking at this at the right level. Perhaps genre is too small a scale. Style, like the iPod or the specific design of the Edison lightbulb, is undirected and capricious, but modes of expression, like the art forms of music and theater, are themselves predetermined. Without Aristotle, theater still would have been invented. It’s what our SENSES want.

The question then becomes, as technology starts augmenting and altering our senses (including our sense of self), what new forms of expression will emerge? We’ve seen some of this with the emergence of reality TV and YouTube videos.  The invention of the image, both static and moving, combined with the immediate access everywhere of the internet has had a profound effect on human expression. But even this still relies on our conventionally defined sight and hearing. What happens when our neurological implants start occurring and our brains are no longer limited to our limited sensory organs when interacting with the outside world. What post-human musics will emerge? Perhaps THOSE forms of expression are what are, in fact, predetermined. At that scope, the distinction between minimalism and serialism will be as trivial as the distinction between the 45 and the LP is to us now (readers under the age of 30 are invited to google that yourself.  I don’t have the heart to provide a wikipedia link.)

OK. I need to stop now. We’re way outside the scope of this blog. If I go much further, I’m going to have to start writing a book treatment. And then I’ll never finish this damn opera…

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2 Responses to What Technology Wants: Better Musics

  1. We actually know what art wants and how it evolves. It wants to be culturally isomorphic with the society that consumes it. It wants to conform to the major social forces that contextualize it, like religion, economic and political systems, educational systems, technology, methods of delivery, social values, etc.

    For example, the symphony orchestra arose to reflect the cultural nationalism and post-revolutionary authoritarianism of the second half of 19th century Europe. A great deal of medieval visual art was written to conform to the belief systems and mythologies of the Catholic church. Most European art up to the Napoleonic wars was written, composed, or built to reflect the status, power, and glory of the aristocracy.

    If a society believes in the harmony of the spheres it produces the clockwork music of Bach. If it believes in the rational nature of the enlightened man it produces Haydn and Mozart. If it turns toward Darwinism it produces the Rite of Spring. If it believes in scientism it produces Milton Babbitt. If it decenters authority through postmodern philsophy it prodcues John Zorn and Pixar.

    There are very few known artists who expressed ideas completely outside the cultural norms of their societies. Can you name any? Artists might contribute to the forward movement, but those who are remembered are those who remain in step with the leading edge. Avante-guardists are merely those who sense where society is headed and who express ideas near the cutting edge of the intelligentsia, but not beyond it.

    Even works that caused dismay in their time, like The Rite of Spring or Wozzeck, or transgressive authors like Joyce, Artuad, de Sade, and Genet actually conformed very strongly to the cultural currents of their periods.

    It is almost always philosophers who lead these developments, but they too can only move in step with the forward progress of the society as a whole. Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Marx, and Foucault are a few examples. Societies move forward as a collective. Inspired geniuses only contribute to that movement. They cannot create it alone.

    If an artist defies these principles, his or her work will be neglected and forgotten, regardless of how good it is.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Great comment! The zeitgeist as cultural arbiter is a strong notion.

    But is the culture an indicator or instigator? Is the artist driving the culture or is culture driving the artist?

    More likely it’s an interplay, and exchange of ideas between individual speakers. What resonates is a function of the makeup of society at the time, a sort of echo chamber of individuals.

    We need an acoustic theory of memes and ideas…

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