How music will save the soul of technology

Copyright 1996 Jaron Lanier

(A manifesto written at the request of a recent music and technology festival in New York City- It originally appeared in an ad in the New York Times as an introduction to the festival's schedule.)

Every once in a long while, technology serves us in its sweetest role, as the bearer of surprising good news about human nature. Most recently, this happened with the World Wide Web, the first proof that people are capable of happy, productive, massive anarchy. The web wasn't needed, but was simply wished for. We brought it into being without money, planning, advertising, authority, or any other form of social coercion. For the first time in history, so far as I can tell, millions of people from all over the world suddenly cooperated in peace to build something beautiful. We never before knew we had it in us.

But long before the Web, another technological phenomenon reflected our better side even more dramatically. In most historical eras, and in most cultures, musical instruments have been among the most advanced technological devices produced, often edging ahead of weapons in sophistication. Think about this: We have put as high a priority on making gizmos that make new sounds as we have on finding ways to kill each other.

Maybe we'll be lucky, and we'll be able to see another bit of good news in our lifetimes. Or maybe our children will. The art form of the next century is being born right now. It will be a fusion of the great arts of the 20th century: Jazz, Cinema, and Programming. It will not be packaged, or packagable. It will be a spontaneous shared dreaming, through the net. We will nurture each other through it and find our meaning in it.

Maybe we'll be lucky, and our new art won't get bogged down by assumptions that most people are too dull to be creative participants in interactive media, or other such 20th century baggage. But what we'll have to be the luckiest about is not getting seduced by technology itself.

Information technology is no mere tool; it seduces in the most devastating manner, by appealing to our narcissism, as I'll explain below. As an example of its power, I would point out that musical notes didn't really exist before computers. They used to be nothing but interpretations of what musicians did. Musicians without computers are a lot like scientists. A scientist can never know an absolute truth about nature, only propose theories that might someday be proven false. So a scientist builds a tentative island in a sea of mystery. A musician with an acoustic instrument does the same thing. Even after forty years of playing, there is still more to be learned. Mastery does not reduce the mystery. The instrument is a piece of infinite Nature, ever yielding but never fully conquered.

But digital technology can't make a sound unless it is programmed, and programs can't exist without freezing a theory into fact. A note in a computer that is used to make music is no longer an interpretation, an instruction, or a model. It's a real thing, a mandatory construction, that was someone's idea of what a musician should do. This is the exact origin of the bland or nerdy feeling that permeates computer art. We are looking at our own ideas, as they were fixed in programs, instead of confronting mysterious Nature. This is the way computers serve our narcissism. It can be like trying to get nutrition by hooking a tube from your anus to your mouth.

There is a way out, and it is to find mysteriousness in each other. If we treat computers as conduits between imaginations, rather than as things that are real in their own right, then the new art will be born.

The purpose of most technology, aside from the lovely exceptions like musical instruments, used to be to protect people from nature. Now we've gotten so powerful that our own behavior threatens us more than nature does. Our fears, jealousies and paranoias have been amplified by weapons of mass destruction and hyper-consumption to the point that we might destroy ourselves completely. Yet we don't give up the quest for more technology, because we've fallen in love with it. It has become our talisman. The future of technology, and the survival of our race, depends on shifting the foundation myths of technology away from the seeking of power, and towards the ultimate adventure of bridging the interpersonal gap. Music must not be seduced by technology, but must seduce technology. If there was doubt about the mission of art in the 20th century, there can be no such doubt in the 21st: The purpose of art is to distract us away from mass suicide.

Go back to Jaron's home page.