Tag Archives: music

10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

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What are ‘locked in’ legacy systems doing to our ears?

I have found, over many years of painful experience, that the first time I do something, I do it wrong.

Quite frequently, I then do it wrong some more. Often up to 20 or 30 times. But eventually I get better at it.

It is a basic principle of life. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again (as my mum used to say, ad nauseam.) Or indeed, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? (though I bet that if I went the wrong way to Carnegie Hall the first time, I would replicate the mistake at least two or three times.)

PRACTICE!

This is fine when you are acting on your own, but when you are in a position to persuade or be imitated, the results can be disastrous. Your attitudes, however ill-formed, are infectious to the people who observe you, particularly those under your power. Often with inhuman and disastrous consequences.

For anyone in a position of influence, this presents two constant challenges, with somewhat conflicting solutions.

1. Don’t start persuading until you are sure what you think (take the stick out of your own eye before etc etc). Failure to observe this is called ‘Clegging’.

2. Be prepared to change even these sureties on the presentation of new evidence (the only true wisdom knows in knowing that you know nothing). Failure to observe this is called ‘Thatching’.

So far, so difficult. But what happens when what you are creating is not an attitude, or an opinion, or advice, but a system.

Nothing has such a unique ability to change your worldview, attitudes or your psychology as the relentless reapplication and repeat of a behaviour. And these behaviours are totally reliant on shortcuts and systems, otherwise life would be an endless rotation of confused manual tasks (to experiment in what this feels like, go out and drink a vast quantity alcohol, sleep for too little tme and then attempt to do something tricky like cooking a full cooked breakfast.)

There are many types of these systems – language systems, software systems, etiquette systems – and whilst they all have some historical rational basis, they almost all have some glitches that make no sense. They were developed at a specific point in time, to the specifications of what seemed sensible or possible at that time, and then they got ‘locked in’ – socialized or codified to the point where it was impossible the change them.

Category 1 – fun, weird stuff that doesn’t matter, mainly language

Language is the classic legacy system – a form of communication that was always meant to be ever changing, but has been increasingly ‘locked in’ by such pesky inventions as the printing press and the dictionary. Legacy language can be dangerous, but there are many more examples of it being odd and funny. For example consider the category of ‘fruits’, which includes bananas (which I believe are technically a herb) but not tomatoes (because they tend to hang out with vegetables, in a category that might more usefully be called ‘salads’.)

Or maybe 'Salad Juice'?

Category 2 – little irritants that stop us from getting on with life optimally

I have talked about this area at great length before, being but one social grace and a lot of money removed from Larry David. For example inconsistent systems of measurement (like having to translate the weather across geographies/generations.) Or, to get back on a past hobby horse, different cultural practices in when the clocks change (yes, recently the US and UK were only 4 hours apart for two weeks again.)

Sometimes 4 hours difference, sometimes 5.

Category 3 – systems that degrade the way that people think

There is no doubt that the systems you use change the way that your brain works, and the way that you behave towards people and decision making (see the Nudge blog in the sidebar for more.) The danger here is that more new systems are being created than ever before, more rapidly, and since they are built into software and technology, they tend to become ‘locked in’ very rapidly.

And, given that many of these systems are created by megalomaniac geeks in California, you might want to think about what they might be doing to your brain. I don’t mean by this to rehearse the nonsense idea that using Facebook stops you from being able to talk to people. But the precise systems by which Facebook forces you define yourself could end up shaping the way that you think about yourself and what you like.

not a good description of what i 'like'...

However I just found a more elegant example in a highly provocative book I am reading, ‘You are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier…the example of MIDI.

MIDI was a casual experiment by a synthesizer geek in the 1980s called Dave Smith, who was trying to find a simple way to represent music in software. It is based on a ‘key-down, key-up’ methodology…great for keyboards, not good for the clarinet solo at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue.

Dave Smith didn’t intend MIDI to become anything more than a good way of creating and capturing synthesizer music. But it rapidly became ‘locked in’. It spread through instruments, and computers, and is now in billions of phones around the world.

Now it wouldn’t have spread so fast if the software hadn’t been useful. But along with the software, something else got ‘locked in’ – the concept that all of music can be reduced to ‘absolute notes’, that exist not only in theory (ie on manuscript paper) but in reality. Now many millions of musicians around the world spend 90% of their musical creative life playing with systems that are fundamentally rooted in MIDI…and it cannot help but change the kind of music they create (and not for the better.)

The ultimate end point – is this legacy software system, now easily improvable, changing not only the way that we make music – but also the way that we hear it?

This makes new design not just a craft, but a moral discipline, particularly when it comes together with software to create scalable locked in systems. Having spent much of this week at the MIT Media Lab however, there is an optimistic conclusion to this – many of the people creating this future are acutely aware of this…and are determined to make a better future for people through healthier systems…not just brighter and shinier ones.

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dreaming of the historical potential of 100 years of google…

if you’ve never read ‘fooled by randomness’ by nassim nicholas taleb, it’s definitely worth a look. this is what it looks like in paperback – though not my coffee which is inexplicably covered in coffee. well, coffee spillage was always going to be happen to someone, so i shouldn’t feel upset that it was me.

i can’t quite agree with Malcolm Gladwell that ‘it is to conventional Wall Street wisdom approximately what Martin Luther’s 95 these were to the Catholic Church.’ in fact i suspect in saying this that gladwell is making exactly the mistake scoped out in the book – mistaking a short term blip in intellectual discourse for a a long term see change in a thinking paradigm. but it is rather good.

it is a defiantly unscientific book in many ways, which appeals to me, but also (once you get past layer after layer of egotism on the part of its author) rather a refreshing and human one. in particular, it is salve to the wounds created by those peers or competitors that you see as being slightly more successful than you – don’t worry, says taleb, they are almost certainly just lucky, and if you hang around for a bit, you’ll see them fall flat on their faces (as long as you haven’t got too cocky yourself in the meantime, in which case it’ll be your face you should be worried about.)

the bit that i have been particularly enjoying is around the dangers of having too clear an idea of what is going on at the moment. he counsels traders to try to track their investments on a weekly rather than a daily basis, and laughs with scorn at those who check share prices of wirless devices. i think i will join him, it is a satisfying thing to do. the item below is a trap for fools of randomness.

of course it immediate occurred to me that this mistake is prevalent in all of the worlds in which i am most active – in marketing, in media, in politics and indeed in music and movies. we’ve all got to start checking the results a bit less often, otherwise we will never really know what is going on.

this is difficult of course. i have lost count of the time i have spent talking about social monitoring, instantaneous course-correction, live planning etcetra and nauseam. and if i have an intensely functional problem to solve, like getting as many people as possible into a cinema or onto a website within a couple of days, then this stuff is all pretty useful.

but if you really want to get a perspective on the health of a brand or company, or the quality of a piece of music or film, or the long term political prospects of a party and individual, a bit of patience clearly works wonders – otherwise you run the risk of becoming obsessed with burst of tweets or opinion polls or test screenings that really just reflect the consistent background noise created by randomness.

this takes me back to my post from yesterday (see below) and back to my friend Edmund Burke – a political opposite but a philosophical exemplar for me. if you really want to work out what the best thing is to do, don’t just ask lots of people right now, or analyse the patterns of behavioural data from the last couple of weeks – give it some time, and try to analyse what is really happening based on decent, long terms trends. we will then become less obsessed with trigger events and revolutions, and wiser in our understanding of evolution, and what might happen next. thanks edmund.

what becomes really exciting is when we begin to think at what this deluge of instantaneous data, thus far momentous in scope and detail, but fickle in terms of its trending and caught up in patterns of self-reference, could mean for understanding of human nature, if we start giving layering on to our approach for it a respect for the collective wisdom of time.

the mind boggles at what a historian would be able to do with 100 years of twitter or search data. i hope these sources are jealously preserved, and that someone remembers to look at them and ask interesting questions…once we get over the excitement of discovering the most tweeted subject of the week.

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