Thursday, 24 November 2011

Music and embedded cognition

My friend and colleague Brian Garvey gave a work-in-progress paper yesterday about embedded cognition and the evolutionary explanation of morality. I'm not going to do justice to it, because I want to pick up on one small issue that intrigued me.

Embedded cognition occurs when we outsource cognitive work: when we write things down instead of remembering them, or use a calculator to do sums. One of Brian's other examples was the organisation of orchestras: the players outsource the cognitive work of keeping a beat, moving together, balancing different instruments, and musical interpretation, to a conductor; they outsource thinking about what notes to play, in what order, to a score.

I frivolously suggested that this explains why jazz is better than orchestral music. That claim is silly as it stands, of course, and I don't mean it. But there is an interesting difference here: jazz players do far less outsourcing than orchestral players. Jazz is centrally music in which the players are individually doing the cognitive work to produce a communal piece, without conductors or scores. (Not entirely: several features of jazz can be thought of as outsourcing techniques, or at least as techniques for reducing cognitive load. Part of a jazz musician's education, for example, is learning heads and changes - snippets of melody and sequences of chords which shape improvisation. That's what a jazz standard like 'Body and Soul' or 'Stella by Starlight' is: a melodic head plus chords over which players improvise, often in an alternating chorus/solo form. Free jazz, if we think this way about it, is an attempt to outsource as little as possible: to return all of the work of music-creation to individual cognition.)

That difference between jazz and orchestral music offers a way to defend a less silly version of my silly claim: jazz is better than orchestral music at engaging and interconnecting the many different cognitive capacities involved in music-creation. Where an orchestral player is using just some of her own musical faculties (at a very high level of skill and effort), a jazz player is using many more of those faculties, as well as meta-cognitive faculties to organise and coordinate them. So, if we think that the purpose of playing music, like the purpose of other human activities, is fully to express human and individual faculties, and jazz is better than orchestral music at fulfilling that purpose, then jazz is better than orchestral music.

That's a big 'if', of course...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

One way seminars go wrong

For me, anyway. This week I found myself in a familiar, depressing pattern in a seminar on Mill's account of the good life. A talkative but not very well-prepared group gradually accelerated into a free-for-all in which we very rapidly and confusedly moved over a lot of ground, missing important distinctions and failing to stick to the question in play. I was slow to react: partly because I was slow to gather that the group as a whole hadn't understood the question I had asked at the start of the seminar (because most of them hadn't come to the lecture, and because many of them mistakenly believed that their A-level study of Mill had been adequate to the day); partly out of irritation at a particular, self-confident student repeatedly asserting that Mill's position was 'pretentious' (irritation not helped by his helpful definition of the word 'pretentious' when I said that I didn't understand what his argument was. Yes, thank-you, I know what the word means. What I am politely trying to convey is that calling Mill pretentious is a rather silly ad hominem).

What should I have done instead? I now think I ought to have gone back to basics: returned to the question at hand - what is the good life? - and the answers in play - hedonism, desire-satisfaction, perfectionism; insisted on the precise use of terms in discussing them. I'm wary of doing that kind of remedial work in seminars, because it too often reinforces the unfortunate impression that many students have of seminars as revision classes on the 'points' in the lecture. But perhaps I was too wary in this case.

For this particular group next week, I'm going to be rather more directive and careful about these basics, and see if that improves the quality of discussion.

Paul Motian is dead

The wonderful jazz drummer Motian died yesterday. He had an extraordinary ability to suggest swing, and to express ideas, with minimal means; he was a great musical conversationalist.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A former self speaks: sketch utopia

I found the text below in a long-forgotten corner of my laptop's hard-drive. It must be from around 2002, when I was doing my PhD. It seems, although I'd forgotten this, that I planned my thesis to be much more directly utopian than it eventually turned out - it and my closely-related 2007 book, Living Without Domination, ended up being much more about how and why we should construct utopian texts. This is my attempt at actually writing a utopia rather than writing about them. William Morris and Ursula Le Guin needn't worry about their preeminence, but I have to admit I quite like it, considered as the product of a relative I don't remember very well.


Joseph lives in what was once a hotel, and which is currently officially called Ice Station Bakunin after a slightly drunken general meeting, but is called Home Farm by most of its hundred-or-so inhabitants. Unluckily for Joe, the meeting last night didn’t get silly until after a work rota’d been agreed, and so he’s digging manure into a field which was once a tramp-haunted park, at seven am on a cold, bright october day.
          Joe’s half-brother Hakim nudged him awake an hour ago, hung over, and they stumbled between heavy hangings and out of the old breakfast hall, with muttered swearing following them from the futons, camp-beds and blanket-nests scattered around it. Joe and Hakim started the breakfast-hall crew two years ago, when they decided they couldn’t live with dad and his ominous silences any more. They and six others in their teens cleared the room, dried it out with space-heaters after begging the power from that week’s resource committee, learned some basic tent-making from the web, and then got Rob, Joe’s mum’s partner, to help when their first go looked more like a collapsing balloon than the combined opium-den and barbarian camp they’d imagined.
          Already though, they’re thinking about moving. Little kids keep joining, nobody’s got any new ghost-stories, and sometimes they’d like a little privacy. If either could be bothered with the work, he could commandeer a room, have his own bathroom and cook for himself. But Hakim might be moving in with his partner Carl soon, and Joe’s thinking about leaving Home Farm. And anyway, who’d want to eat breakfast alone when you can have scrambled eggs and rye pancakes in the refectory, and listen to the gossip?
          Joe’s been thinking of moving on for a while now. He’s been talking to a group of musicians on the web, sometimes throwing themes into their sprawling communal pieces, sometimes just listening and chatting. They’re based fifty miles south, they concentrate on their one art instead of just messing about with everything and anything, and – best of all, thinks Joe – they live in one of the new ceramic domes, not in some urban-bricolage mess held together with cellulose-still plastic and ridiculous ancient skills like plastering and carpentry. Bricolage is going out of fashion. More and more people are moving out, casting domes under the forests which are spreading again, eating from hydroponics pools instead of farming, and concentrating on creation instead of just living. There are web-based design groups working on self-sufficient domes for the deep oceans, and more and more sealed-environment skills are being developed and spread by the orbital communes.
          Some don’t like this. They say the single-issue affinity groups are unstable, that the old communities work because the people in them work at all sorts of jobs, see each other in all sorts of roles, and can be masters today and apprentices tomorrow. Hakim’s beginning to think they’re right. He likes the respect he gets from the younger breakfast-hall kids, likes teaching his skills and telling his stories, but he also likes being the na├»ve newbie on committees. He likes digging fields in the morning and arguing about economics in the afternoon. He likes knowing, as Joe doesn’t, how much maintenance the hotel’s ancient plumbing takes, and even almost likes the repair jobs themselves, stinking hard work though they are. But he’s got some ideas about how to make them easier.
          The cities are emptying, and the people who still live in them are either traditionalists like the Home Farmers, or weirdo affinities eagerly scanning the web for every new invention that’ll leave them a few more minutes to make music, or design games, or work on the maths of faster-than-light travel. The skies and seas are filling up. There’s talk of colonising the asteroids, ‘though if anyone does go, they’ll be arguing all the way, the time-lag gradually increasing, with the conservationists. And maybe the conservationists will convince them after all.
          The web links everyone who wants to be linked. Big number-crunching projects are run distributed across the idle microseconds of millions of computers. Experiments are run in Birmingham, Cairo, and under the Black Sea as part of ambitious projects, medical, artistic, techinical, and blue-sky physical. The meta-collation software gets better all the time. There are uncountable conversations, cross-fertilisations of ideas, negotiations, self-selected emergency committees for a thousand contingencies, novel forms of conflict-resolution or avoidance from simulated wars to poetry contests to massive tetris championships, going on every second. Joe once helped arbitrate a real squabble about an orchard in Australia, without ever knowing, by how he played an online roleplaying game.
          Hakim is happy where he is, digging the old park and watching his steaming breath. He’s thinking about whether he should ask to be deputised to the local moot next month. Joe is restless, and will move to that muso commune soon, and then on into orbit when music gets old the way tent-making, and history, and many other things did. He’ll have a burst of depression in his twenties, but hard work designing the acoustics of an orbital habitat’ll pull him out of it.
          There’ll be other restless seekers and other depressives. People will die tragically young, like Hakim, who’ll break his neck in a fall at thirty. Not everyone will get want they want to do done, or stop their loved-ones leaving them, or be satisfied. But there won’t be wars, or famines, or nations, or tyranny. There will be bullies and domestic tyrants, but there’ll be creative resistance and ways of leaving. Great things will be created in music, architecture, technology, maths, subjects we don’t have names for yet. By negotiation and creativity, community and initiative, humans will continue to organise themselves, as they have done ever since there were humans. And this time, they’ll get it right.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What's wrong with Battlefield 3?

Battlefield 3 is a first-person military 'shooter' or 'soldier sim' for PC, Xbox, etc. I'm using it as a stand-in for all such games (see also Call of Duty), as the target for a suggestion:

What's wrong with Battlefield 3's 'simulation' of modern, small-unit infantry and vehicle warfare is that it's dishonest. It's represented as realistic, but it isn't. It misrepresents the actual experience of war in at least these ways:

  1. It creates a myth of individual agency, in which a soldier or a small group can, by choice, make a decisive difference. Compare the actual passivity, control by impersonal forces, and subjection to luck of actual soldiers.
  2. It misrepresents warfare as individualistic. Compare the deeply communal nature of actual small-unit infantry fighting.
  3. It misrepresents warfare as costless - one can always restart or respawn. Compare the terrible costs of violence on both perpetrators and victims.
  4. Its 'wars' are implausibly narrative in form. Compare the actual fragmentary experience of soldiers.
This is an aesthetic criticism: I'm taking it that games are a form of art, and that this kind of dishonesty - dishonesty in self-representation - is something wrong with an artwork.

As an aesthetic criticism, this has no immediate results for legislation, for example - banning bad art is a terrible idea. But it might have results for virtue and for self-cultivation. These games are realistic in another sense: they engage the moral emotions involved in our response to violence. And it's possible that they thereby corrupt and misdirect those emotions: that these games are to those emotions what high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food is to our appetites.

Three expected objections:
  1. Games aren't art, and therefore aren't subject to this criticism. I reply: I'd like to see the plausible account of art which excludes them.
  2. Unrealism is necessary in an entertainment: an actually realistic game about warfare would be dull apart from the 1% of the time it was unbearably horrific, just as an actually realistic war film would be. I reply: this just means that these games are necessarily, not contingently, dishonest, and that's no defence. No-one has to make such games.
  3. The makers of these games are just responding to market demand: don't blame them. I reply: demand for these games is not an eternal feature of human nature, it's deliberately created by advertising in a culture burdened with a fantastical notion of individualistic, effective, consequence-free violence. And even it were natural and unavoidable, that wouldn't require anyone to pander to it.