What Only Humans Can

The YouTube educational video maker CGP Grey has a justly large following. He makes short explainers of, for example, the difference between Britain, the U.K., and the British Isles, Coffee, the Lord of the Rings mythology, and the family tree. Generally speaking, they’re very good.

One of his most popular (and best) is Humans Need Not Apply, a chilling look at the future of automation and industry, and the potential massive spike in unemployment that may come about in the next fifty years as computers become better at human jobs than humans are. It’s about fifteen minutes long, and worth watching.

While I can’t dispute many of the facts, I think the video gets it very wrong on some aspects of creative professionalism. Grey is a utilitarian. He openly admits on his podcast, Cortex, that, for him, music is a tool that helps him get work done. Elsewhere, he’s sardonically mocking of poets and artists (as he is in the video above). That’s all well and good. Not everyone can be an art lover, and not everyone should be. But a utilitarian view of the arts leads to a fairly simple notion of art as something trying to accomplish a job.

In the last two weeks, music has lost two titans of two genres: the austere, difficult, polarising composer (and undeniably brilliant conductor) Pierre Boulez, and the chameleonic, gloriously weird rock1 musician David Bowie. The two men had little in common, and as far as I knew never crossed paths except in passing. But their music mattered to people, and it mattered far less because of its qualities than because those qualities were the result of human work.

David Bowie’s early rise to fame came about because he revelled in his weirdness. He was, as Hilton Als noted in his New Yorker piece, “that outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference”. No computer, no matter how good the music it made, could ever forge that connection with people. A glance at Twitter over the past week shows how keenly his loss is felt as a personal one by people around the world.

By contrast, Hatsune Miku, a fully computer-generated performer from Japan (if you haven’t heard of her, then yes, really), certainly has her core group of fans. And I have no doubt that her fans enjoy her performances, and listening to her singing. But were she to vanish tomorrow, through some freak accident of data loss, all her fans would really lose would be her songs. With Bowie, they lost an icon.

Pierre Boulez’s early music became famous (and notorious) for its high degree of mathematical precision—not only the notes, but the dynamics, tempi, articulations were all rigorously figured out beforehand. Regardless of the emotional content of the music (which some listeners passionately defend), that is a type of music that is surely highly suited to a computer’s labour. But again, part of the appeal of Boulez as a musician is the fact that a human could create and hold music of this scale and complexity in his mind. Who would be interested if it was automatic? If his music had been made by a computer—a machine which necessarily would have found it easier—it would have been less interesting.

Recently, the American composer Andrew Norman made exactly this point on performing. From a New York Times interview by Will Robin:

“By thinking of the orchestra as only a sound-making machine, we’ve actually eliminated a huge part of what makes a concert experience amazing,” Mr. Norman said. A laptop, he pointed out, easily supersedes what the symphony can offer in terms of sonic power and flexibility. “What makes an orchestra special, for me, is not actually the sounds that it makes but the fact that there are a hundred human beings doing that, right in front of me,” he added. “In a way, it’s performance art.”

There are already computers that can generate music; even ones that can do a job of imitating Mozart well enough to fool Mozart experts. But short-term existential crises aside, these works become curios—interesting for how they were composed, but passed over because there’s nothing to get your teeth into. No composer weeping over the streets at the beauty of the sound of a fire sergeant’s funeral. No artist in a fit of horror at war dedicating himself to representing that horror in black-and-white. No writer so full of self-loathing that he imagines himself transforming overnight into vermin.

That’s not to say there won’t be room (not to say a market) for computer-generated art, but only in its most functional sense. What if I told you your film could have music by John Williams? Would you say no? What if the other option was Beethoven? Or night clubs, whose music—beyond the compulsion to follow certain trends of fashion—is essentially background noise for socialising.

But a computer-generated Beethoven symphony? Would we really want that? Beethoven was great, and we have piles of his music to listen to now—but he’s been and gone. Music has changed since his time, and to go back is pointless. And any originality expressed by a computer is uninteresting, not in spite of its lack of imagination, but precisely because its imagination is theoretically limitless.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe next generation’s Hatsune Miku will be one with a personality and life programmed by her team (as authors program characters—no judgement here), able to inhabit independently a virtual world. People can definitely come to love fictional characters, and maybe they’ll love her as they love Katniss Everdeen. Maybe the following generation will see a wholly computer generated performer, with appearance, personality, life all created by computers with the last human interaction having occurred thirty years before.

But my suspicion is that for the people who find human connection in art, art made by humans will always be essential. At least until computers can imitate a full, creative human mind. And then we’ll have plenty of new philosophical issues to deal with.

Last week, on the podcast Exponent (and to a lesser extent, in this blog post), Ben Thompson detailed a political position I hadn’t been familiar with before, but one which I find interesting. In short, as technology has a greater and greater impact on society, and as its presence costs more and more people their jobs, it is in technology companies’ best interests to lobby not only for less regulation (the clarion call of so much business), but also for higher taxes and an assured “ground floor”, economically, so that those people whose jobs are lost through technological disruption are not left with nothing. This way, the people whom regulations are supposed to protect are protected by the safety net, and the corporations have the freedom to grow as they please.

The reasoning is this: a job done by a computer is not of net benefit to society until the person whose job was lost is contributing something new. Otherwise, nothing is gained overall. The technology companies benefit through having fewer restraints on the ways they can develop; those restraints are less necessary if people are assured a stable means of livelihood anyway; and that better quality of life can be achieved through revenue generated from higher taxes. In both the businesses’ and the governments’ cases, something is given and something is gained.

To be sure, it’s not a flawless plan. I’m sure that one of the common criticisms levelled at it will be that if you pay people for doing nothing, then people won’t do anything. I’m more optimistic than that. I think, left without the constant worry about meeting basic needs, most people will try to occupy their time in ways that fulfil them, whether that’s making art, or starting a business, or whatever.

In any case, we may know soon enough whether a basic wage for everyone can have positive effects on a society: the current government of Finland are in the early stages of carrying out the experiment.

Equally, those more skeptical of the corporate world would argue that no corporation would lobby for higher taxes—these are self-interested entities, after all. But they wouldn’t be doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but as a trade-off for reduced regulation (which, far more than tax, is the bugbear of many large businesses, especially tech companies). If the total cost of a computer doing a job plus a higher general tax rate is still cheaper than an employee (and it could well be), then the company still makes a saving, and the sooner that change is made, the more money saved.

More concerning to me is the ability of small and of poor countries to fund a project like this. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the tech companies who gain the most customers now, firstly, will become far bigger than any company that’s existed so far in human history, and secondly, will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future. Services become verbs—Google, Skype, Uber—and these services, as U.S.-based entities, will pay the majority of their taxes to the U.S. government. Good for American citizens.

But these services have a much smaller stake in other markets they choose to enter, and both the incentive and leverage to push local taxes as low as they can. Rich citizens (or visitors) in these countries demand the same services they get elsewhere in the world, but the companies that make those services can choose whether to enter the markets on their terms. They may be amenable to high tax at home, but would they be so willing to pay it everywhere else too?

These smaller countries, and these poorer countries, would be thus less able to compete with the rest of the world, and so would slip further and further behind in economic stakes. As a result, their governments would become less and less able to support their citizens under any system. In the Internet’s winner-take-all economics, maybe somebody still has to lose.

As I said, though, I’m an optimist. I think that most national systems will tend towards this sort of arrangement sooner or later, as a consequence of Internet economics and the needs that will arise because of it, in the same way that most western countries now have some form of socialism. (Not enough for some; too much for others, I know, but such is politics.) If companies can be compelled to pay high taxes in all territories where they operate—if that becomes the norm—then the revenue generated from that can keep people fed when their jobs disappear. Growth shoots already exist; the only real question is when it happens—and I believe the longer it takes, the worse off everyone will be.

As for whether people will still have things to make and sell, no matter how good computers get at making things (art, design, music, yes, but also sofas, clocks, kitchenware), I think people will hold onto a romantic attachment to the human-made. The down-side of Internet economics is that it allows companies to become enormous to a degree previously unthinkable, but it also—assuming it remains open and free as it should be (vote wisely, folks)—allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection access to the largest market in human history.

This is Grey’s biggest error in judging the creative professions: he assumes that it’s a popularity contest. It isn’t. In order to get by, a creative person needs only a few thousand fans. Amongst the billions of people connected to the Internet, that is a fraction of a fraction of a percentage. Moreover, there’s a tangible thrill for fans in discovering something that nobody else knows.

For an artist in the twenty-first century, finding fans is hard, no doubt. But it’s far easier than it ever has been before. And Grey ought to know this. He’s done it himself.

  1. I guess? 

Tools We Love

In 2003, the Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry arrived in Heathrow Airport from playing tournaments in Asia to discover that his cue had been broken in the plane’s baggage hold. Hendry had used the cue since he’d first got it as a gift from his parents 20 years before, and with it had won 34 world championships. After it was broken, Hendry didn’t win a professional match for two months. He described the psychological and emotional loss painfully: “You cannot underestimate the body blow for a snooker player of having your cue broken, after all it’s an extension to your arm.”

Any professional’s tool is an extension of her body. And of all the relationships that exist between workers and their tools, one of the closest and most complex is that which exists between a musician and her instrument. An instrument is many things to a musician: a flexible, intricate device; a beautiful object; a lifelong companion; a conduit for communication. Musicians spend hours with their instruments every day, learning the touch, the action, the glide, the exact technique needed to produce subtle differences in tone—everything that makes their instrument make the sound they want it to make. They know their instrument’s strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.

A few years ago, I had a piano with a faulty E. It produced a note, but required considerably more pressure than the other keys. I paid it little heed and practised on, straining for sound on the E so that it fitted better with whatever I was playing. I barely noticed I was doing it, and it quickly became a habit. Only in a lesson, on my teacher’s piano, did I discover that I was still applying the extra pressure, hammering out that E because I subconsciously expected it not to work.

The piano is an unusual case. Most pianists have to arrive at the concert hall and take what they’re given for their performance. Good halls will ensure that their piano is perfectly tuned and maintained, but different pianos have different characters. A piano with a fuller, more resonant bass might work wonders with a rich, sonorous Debussy prelude, but need careful control to keep Mozart light and clear. One with a more naturally dry, crisp sound will suit Haydn better than it suits Brahms. It’s like poker: you play the hand you’re dealt. Pianists have to adapt, in the space of a rehearsal or two, to the instrument they perform on.

The only pianists I know of to buck this tradition are Glenn Gould and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli was a notorious perfectionist, said to be so concerned about achieving the exact right acoustic quality that if it would help, he would remove every chair from the auditorium. And so particular was he about the instrument he used that when he toured, he liked to take not only his piano with him, but also his tuner, Ettore Tallone.

Gould, after he’d found his perfect piano, stopped performing publicly and worked solely as a recording artist. In this Rolling Stone interview, he described the only way he could psychologically recover from an experience rehearsing on a piano that didn’t agree with him. After the disastrous rehearsal, Gould got in his rented car and fled to a sand dune:

So I sat in my car in the sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room…and first of all to imagine the living room […] and I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualise the piano, and…this sounds ridiculously yogistic […] but so help me it worked.

Anyway, I was sitting in the car but looking at the sea and got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day, got to the auditorium in the evening, played the concert, and it was without question the first time that I’d been in a really exalted mood throughout the entire stay there.

It was only by recreating, psychologically, the feel of his own trusted piano that Gould was able to tame the one on which he performed that night.

But where pianists (and organists, and a few others) are unlucky, most other musicians are fortunate. A trumpeter, or an oboist, or a guitarist, plays on the same instrument at home and in performance, and so can develop a deep trust in her instrument. Where Gould carried the memory of his piano onto the stage that night, most other musicians will carry their instrument itself, and with it their awareness of how to use it.

At the opposite extreme to the piano, at least amongst musicians I spoke to for this piece, lie string players. I asked some how they would feel if they were put in a pianist’s situation, and asked to play on an instrument that wasn’t their own. Kevin Ng, a violinist, said that it would be fine if he had “a week or so beforehand to get comfortable with it,” while the cellist Corrina Connor expressed a sort of resigned acceptance, saying, “I would just have to get on with it, and do my best.”

The relationship between string players and their instruments is so close that it’s not uncommon for them to ascribe personalities, and sometimes even names,[1] to their instruments. Kevin Ng calls his violin “a temperamental Italian asshole at times.” And in 2013, Tom Service wrote for the Guardian about Jordi Savall, who plays viola da gamba:

[O]ne day, if it’s feeling unloved and if Savall hasn’t given it his full attention for a while, the gamba will take time to warm up, being at first obstreperous and unyielding and only complying to his touch and his musical will after a few hours.

Between the extreme cases of pianists, who must always adapt to new instruments, and string players, who seem to develop particularly close relationships with theirs, lie musicians who, for one reason or another, regard their instruments in more practical terms. Instruments like the recorder and the harmonica have more restrictions in range and available notes, and wear out quickly, so players will typically own a collection. For recorder players, Laoise O’Brien told me, playing on unfamiliar instruments and even swapping instruments is normal “because we need so many types of instruments it is difficult to have absolutely everything.”

Eimear O’Brien, a French Horn player, compares swapping her instrument to driving. I could almost read the shrug in the email she sent me: “You love your own [car], but if you have to you’ll drive someone else’s.”

Brand names come up in discussions of instruments almost as frequently as they do in discussions of cars. To O’Brien, the Alexander 103 is “the Mercedes of French Horns”, while flutists will brag about upgrading to a Nagahara from a Yamaha. Most pianists will develop an enormous preference for either Steinways or Kawais. (I’m a Kawai guy.) Then of course there’s the elephant in the room.

Niccolò Paganini, probably the greatest soloist of the early nineteenth century, played a Stradivarius violin. According to one of the many half-myths he nurtured about himself, or that have sprung up since his lifetime, he disabused one concert audience of the notion that he was a mediocre violinist playing on a great violin by suddenly smashing his instrument on stage. He then, so the story goes, revealed that he’d been playing on a cheap violin for the first part of the concert, and finished on the real Strad.

But the idea of an instrument that can produce perfect sound with minimal effort is nuts anyway. Roman Totenberg, whose stolen Stradivarius was recently recovered, spoke of his loss as of a beautiful relationship which took decades to develop, and was lost after precious little time at its prime. From the New York Times’ report on the recovery:

Mr Totenberg […] told CBS News in 1981 that it had taken two decades of playing the instrument before it reached its potential. “It took some time to wake it up,” he said, “to work it out, find all the things that it needed, the right kind of strings and so on”.

This is the balance that comes from owning an instrument, the mesh of practical and emotional considerations, of knowledge and understanding, of knowing the sounds your instrument can make and how to make them. You can approximate on another instrument—you may have to—but your own instrument is your home. It’s interesting that Gould, sitting out in his car in that sand dune, didn’t try to summon up his memory of his piano’s touch ex nihilo. He recreated his home first, and his piano as part of it.

The most profound art form surely would be one that allowed direct communication, mind to mind. Such a form doesn’t exist, because we’re not psychic, but of all the arts, music comes closest. Musical instruments are the bridge that make that connection. When a musician performs well, the effect is a paradox of consanguinity and solitude. She can make you feel at once like the only person listening, and like a part of something grander. Between the musician and the audience, there is only the instrument.

So it’s no surprise that some musicians come to love their instruments. It’s a love, too, that transcends musical boundaries. Amy Winehouse felt she drew a masculine power from her guitar. Miles Davis felt isolated without his trumpet to hand. Taiko performers speak of harmony with the souls of their drums. A musical instrument is a companion in training and a partner in performance, an intimately-known tool, a vehicle, a friend, a nemesis, a coach, a drug. That we can develop an cherished relationship with something of wood, gut, steel, and plastic is peculiar, but in that peculiarity is humanity. People can make these connections with objects because the objects were made by people, and because they connect people to each other, and because they have strengths and flaws and intricacies just as people do. And, though they are ultimately only tools, the relationships musicians develop with them are as complex and deep as any love.

  1. I spoke to several musicians for this piece. Some of them—string players and others—had named their instruments. Those names, in no particular order, are Isabelle, Gertrude, Gerald, and George. ↩

Stolen Stradivarius recovered after 35 years

Michael Cooper, having mixed metaphor pun fun in the New York Times:

It was a cold case for more than three decades—a cold violin case—but now it has been closed. A Stradivarius violin that disappeared without a trace after it was stolen in 1980 from the violin virtuoso Roman Totenberg has been found, and is being restored to his family, said one of his daughters, Nina Totenberg.

Nina Totenborg’s description of the recovery was pretty funny:

The appraiser looks at her and says, ‘Well, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that this is a real Stradivarius. And the bad news is it was stolen, 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg, and I have to report it right away.’

Great story—worth reading the whole article.