Pop Sensibility

Sociological theories illustrated through musical examples and other half-baked ideas.

Month: March, 2013

Religion is an artificial conscience.

PatchSuperstition comes from ignorance. What this means is that what mankind doesn’t understand it mystifies. Example: Thousands of years ago, our ancestors thought fire was a divinity. Now we know fire is nothing but a chemical reaction between substances. Here’s another example: Hundreds of years ago folks thought the earth was flat and its mass was sustained by giant turtles. Now we know better. Yet one more example: Decades ago the origin of the universe was a complete mystery, but since then, with the Big Bang theory -the actual theory, not the sitcom-, more powerful telescopes, the Large Hadron Collider and all the other scientific discoveries we are getting closer than ever to discovering the origin of the Universe.

Leaving all the political intentions of religion aside and the fact that the very concept of “God” reeks of humanity –otherwise how can such a typically human idea define the terms of existence for the entire universe?- religion is quite simply the evolution of superstition into a more complex system to organize itself. Its only power resides in the things mankind can’t yet explain. As we unveil the mysteries of the universe this field of influence gets smaller and more abstract each time. The current argument in favor of religion is the supposed existence of a Superior Power that manages the universe and is responsible for the perfection of nature. Truth is, nature doesn’t need any kind of Superior Intelligence to tell it what to do. Everything happens as a consequence of something else and that is it. There’s no Higher Power that separates us from the animals. We are what we are solely because of the blind selection process of evolution.  Out of the thousands of fishes that came out of the water, eventually a few managed to breathe, and in the same way some mammals survived through the ice age, some monkey learned to beat other monkeys with a club, some caveman learned how to make fire, etc. Evolution is nothing but a sequence of events in a given timeline. There’s no particular scheme to it and it’s not a particularly brilliant system either. Out of millions of tryouts, errors and repetitions, some fish actually got to the point were it could breathe in dry land, some little rat got deep enough under a tree as to cape the weather, etc.

Truth is, all you need to become God yourself is time. If you could live a couple hundred million years instead of a lousy hundred you could place some water inside a Petri dish, let it sit for a few million years, watch it become a bug colony or a jelly fish or some other life form and voilà, you have achieved the exact same thing God has.

But don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying God is a bad thing. Or religion, for that matter. At least not in every case. Not to mention the fact that religion is an artificial conscience and as such it has prevented an unthinkable amount of terrible things from happening, we’ve all seen desperate people turn to religion and God in search of comfort when tragedy strikes. And we’ve all seen people find peace in the knowledge that their loved one is in a better place or some form of explanation to help them come to terms with tragedy. And in the end, if it helps them overcome grief and sorrow without harming anybody else, it is a good thing. Be it an emotional void or a knowledge void, God is what we use to fill it.

Why Technology cripples Creativity.

Old Creativity VS New Creativity

The evolution of mankind is inherently associated with the evolution of its technology. You can’t have one without the other as they are co-dependent. This means that if we want to evolve as a species we have to develop the technology to help us do just that or otherwise we would still be dying in our thirties of a bad flu or a dog bite. Point being: We need technology to evolve. The thing is, not every single outcome of this situation is good. Here’s an example: Have you noticed a certain lack of musical geniuses in the last hundred years? Some people might say “Well, that’s because music geniuses have migrated to other styles, like rock n´roll”. Really? The Beatles are great and all but are they as great as; let’s say, Beethoven or Bach or Mozart or Vivaldi or Debussy or Schubert or Wagner? I know this is getting dangerously subjective but, really? Also, have you noticed how mankind has gotten lazier in the last sixty years? This is even more obvious than the above. People give up on things disturbingly easy these days. Have you noticed that? As much of a great thing technological evolution really is we have to accept it has a few downsides. The following reasons are the main suspects:

1. Industrial Revolution –in some ways- is to blame.

One of the main characteristics of the Industrial Revolution was the birth of sub-specialization. The division of knowledge and human abilities into small cells in order to maximize every single person’s potential for a specific task and fasten up the whole process. Up to that point in history each person had a craft and knew all there was to know about it, from start to finish. A shoemaker knew how to select the raw materials, treat them, cut the pieces, make the strings, holes and soles, how to sew them together and every single aspect of the shoemaking process. When the Industrial Revolution came along the shoemaker’s job was divided into a series of small chores done by a different person at each step of the process in order to make the whole thing faster. Now, instead of one craftsman who knew how to make a really good pair of shoes in one day we had twenty fellows who knew just one step of the process each and could collectively make twenty pairs of shoes in one day. The resulting product wasn’t as good as the one delivered by the shoemaker but it was done faster and therefore, more capable of complying with the growing demand. This method was translated into every single aspect of the human knowledge. Science, arts, and all kinds of crafts were subdivided into small cells of expertise. Musicians started diving into more specific compositional styles and stayed in narrow niches for the rest of their lives becoming masters of their highly specialized –and therefore obscure- trade. The chances of a Leonardo Da Vinci or even a Richard Wagner appearing in our days are extremely unlikely because of this same thing. The figure of a wise fellow who mastered countless trades and combined them all to come up with something new was replaced by group of individuals which are most efficient within their own small areas of expertise.

2. Too many possibilities wear you down and distract from the goal. 

The technological evolution of the past two hundred years has broadened the specter of possibilities in every single aspect we can think of. Were we had one tool to perform a certain task now we have twenty to do that same thing with slight differences amongst them. The problem is, possibilities tend to distract one’s attention. When you only have one tool to do a certain thing there ain´t two ways about it, you either get to it or you don’t. Same happened with music. The excess of possibilities distracts the artist. In the times a musician only had a violin or a piano or even his own voice at his disposal there weren’t other elements to distract his attention from the composition itself. Melody, harmony and rhythm –the core of any music piece- played a much more important role than now.

When I was a young kid I used to record my songs in a little tape recorder and only one instrument could be taped at the time. I had to play the recorded tape in the home stereo and dub myself on the little tape device singing or playing on top of the home stereo reproducing the previously recorded tape. The resulting mix was awful as it contained all the overlapped layers of ambient noise including cars honking, phones ringing and such but the truth is, when I had to go to such lengths to record my songs I was much more prolific and enthusiastic than now that I have all the technology and fancy equipment I want. The lack of resources and possibilities made me concentrate in the few tools I had and make the most out of them instead of worrying about my possibilities, as there weren’t any. When you see how primitive the equipment the Beatles used to record their music was compared to all the modern gadgets we have today it makes you realize how much they did with so little. And when you go back even further and you see how Mozart did so much more with so much less, you start to realize that there’s a certain pattern to it: The more, the less. The more stuff you have at your fingertips the less you end up doing, creativity-wise.

From time to time you hear somebody saying “Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart were alive today, the stuff they could do with all the modern technology at their disposal”. I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure Mozart would’ve come up with all that brilliant music if he had had to choose between a thousand musical styles and a million sound textures each time he came up with a tune.

3. Getting lost in the quest: Technique has to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Modernism, post-modernism, serialism, polystylism, minimalism, post-minimalism, post-classic tonality, new simplicity, holy-minimalism, spectralism, new complexity, conceptualism, concrete music, experimental music, and so on, this styles all started as quests for something other than itselves. And it’s always a great thing when you come up with something unexpected and make a whole new style out of it but at some point you should either resume your quest for the original purpose or try to come up with some sort of musical work that gives a real meaning to the new style other than just a few musical compositions whose main goal is quite obviously to showcase the new musical style rather than actually use the new technique to create a relevant and meaningful piece of music.

There’s a reason why there isn’t as much great music composed in the serial technique as in earlier classical tonal one and it’s not just because the latter has been around for a longer time but because the tonal technique has been used as a means to an end rather than an end in itself -as the serial technique has mostly- and that is because when the earlier classical tonal technique was the only way to make music people didn’t have to spend so much time worrying about the different possibilities and means they had in order to make music but just get on to it. The sculpting of the sound in itself through different mechanical processes is a great thing but while this is supposed to be a just a tool to aid the artist it usually ends up being the most relevant aspect in the artwork, which in turn, ends up becoming just some sort of showcase for the newly found sound.

4. The abuse of technology in your daily activities is crippling your abilities.

It is a known fact that doing math exercises helps your mind process information more efficiently, playing chess improves your spatial, numerical and administrative-directional abilities, musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word and countless other activities help us exercise, train and develop our mind for infinite things in ways yet unknown to us.

Over the years, technology has relieved us from many repetitive, mechanical, tiresome and time consuming chores. It does make our life easier. It prevents us from doing the small things in order to concentrate on the Big Stuff. But at the same time, all these little activities are what exercise our minds for the greater things. To put it more boldly: Leaving aside absolutely all of the menial tasks to concentrate in the important stuff is as stupid as a professional marathon runner staying in bed all day in order to save stamina for the big race. By preventing our brain from doing the exercise it needs we are atrophying countless abilities we might not even know we have.

Also, on a more personal note and as a byproduct, all this technology that makes my life easier and avoids me from having to perform all this small tasks has spoiled me rotten. It’s a universal truth that when things get too easy you don’t feel like doing them and I don’t know about you but that’s something that happens a lot to me. When the core of your work has to do with inspiration and coming up with new stuff all the time you really need to stand on your feet and engage in mentally stimulating activities. As Nietzsche said, all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must take a stroll around the block each time you need to do some thinking it means that good ideas usually come up when you are already stimulating the brain.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m not so sure Leonardo da Vinci would’ve come up with all the brilliant things he did had he lived in this day and age. His mad skills would’ve been seriously crippled by the lack of mental exercise, his decisions would’ve been compromised by the endless possibilities we are presented at each step of our modern life, and he probably would’ve ended as some sort of child prodigy who lost his thunder somewhere in his teens or worse.

There’s a tendency in human nature to underestimate the truly important quantum leaps that take place in our day and age and only deem as valuable the ones that happened in the past. This is because it is impossible for the masses to grasp a concept that is ahead of their time. Simultaneously, as someone said, no one wants to be a part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh so we hurry to praise individuals who aren’t really worthy of such, just in case; and fail to recognize the ones who are really worthy of praise. This exact same thing has been happening over and over again since ever, actually. So, you might say, maybe it is not that there are no more geniuses but we don’t recognize them till fifty years after they are dead. Let me say again: Really? I think we should’ve seen at least ONE Ludwig Van in the last fifty years, don’t you? And, while I´m using musicians as an example because Music is a field I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge about, this also happens in every other field where Creativity has a significant role.

Perfection is relative to Time.

frozen time

People who think Nature is perfect confuse cause with effect. Yes, it is a great thing that we have a planet with air we can breathe and a temperature we can endure and food we can eat and all that but it’s not like all of this stuff is here for us, but actually we as humans exist in this planet because of this conditions and it is because of this conditions that we are the way we are. Just like mold is an effect of time and moisture we, the human race, are just an effect of time and the predominating conditions on this planet. Not the other way around.

So, what would be a good definition of what “Perfection” is? The most widely accepted definition of perfection is the absolute balance of powers in a given situation. A system that works flawlessly. Examples: The human body is a perfect machine. The Earth is a perfect system. The Universe is a perfect equilibrium. Not quite so. The truth is, it’s apparently easy to be perfect for a nanosecond or two, and that’s exactly what nature does. Suppose you drop a glass filled with water. It goes down and explodes leaving scattered glass fragments and water all over the floor. The whole incident takes a fraction of a second and the glass and its content are gone. Hardly a perfect system, isn’t it? Well, quite possibly the sub-quarkian bacteria we can’t yet see in our most powerful microscopes, living in the glass and the water would differ. For them, the whole incident lasted a much longer time during which they lived, reproduced and died for several generations. They had all the necessary things for their life right there and then. The falling glass was their whole universe and a miraculously perfect environment that lasted maybe millions of years in micro bacterial time between the moment you dropped the glass and the moment it exploded against the floor.

It is generally accepted that the Earth is 4, 55 billion years old. The Solar System is supposed to be 12 billion years old. Scientists have recently just found out the Milky Way is approximately 13 billion years old and that the Big Bang took place 15 billion years ago. The current estimations say the Universe itself is 15-20 billion years old. Now, that’s an almost unthinkably huge load of time for us humans who consider ourselves lucky if we can manage to live 100 years. The fossilized remains of mankind’s earliest known ancestor are estimated at 6 million years. And we are not even talking about an intelligent human being, someone we would instantly recognize as an equal and share a funny anecdote with but some sort of über-ape who would fear and worship anyone with a lighter. As it is, human kind isn’t but a mere blip, a fraction of an instant in the continuum timeline of the Universe. Of course, that fraction of time is enormous to us.

Earth is not a perfect system. It has destroyed almost all of the life in itself at least once since its creation and a few million years of peace can hardly be called a perfect balance in Universe time. Not too long ago a comet the size of the Earth crashed against Jupiter. The Universe is filled with comets that size and even larger because the Universe is actually one huge explosion were all the fragments are crashing against each other while being tossed through space at incredible speeds. Would you consider that an absolute balance of powers? The only reason complete destruction hasn’t fallen upon us is simply because we are such an ephemeral race that, so far, we have been living in between these catastrophes, just like the sub-quarkian bacteria in the falling glass. It’s only a matter of time for the Earth to be squashed like a bug by some gigantic meteorite or worse.

Again, it´s apparently easy to be perfect for half a second. The trick is to maintain that same state for an undetermined amount of time. And so far nothing has accomplished that.  Just like Coincidences, Perfection is a human concept that only exists in our minds, not a reality. At least not until we learn how to control Time.

Is yesterday´s crap today´s premium?

Old is better

Last week I took my old home stereo to get the CD player fixed. I’ve had it for quite a few years now and asked the specialist if it was worth repairing it or if it was more convenient to buy a new one. The store also sells new equipments so I’m pretty sure the answer wasn’t biased. His answer was that I should definitely fix it because the craftsmanship and the quality of my old home stereo were far superior than the ones found in newer devices -We’re talking about an old Philips mini component here, not some expensive hi-fi gear- I even remember the time when I first bought it: It was a good piece of equipment but nothing too fancy. I got it to replace a previous model I had which didn’t have CD player and I also recall that even back then on the last repair that device had gone through the specialist told me the exact same thing about that home stereo: the quality of the materials and the construction were far superior than the models being produced then.

This next example is a musical one because I’m a bit of an instrument geek and I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge about this: I bought my first electric guitar in 1998. A decent yet beginner’s model, really basic and cheap. Or at least it was when I first got it brand new: By today’s building standards my guitar is the equivalent of a semi-premium instrument. The quality of the woods used, the different components and the craftsmanship are far superior to the ones found in an entry model guitar built today.

And one more: I bought my first iPod in 2005. It came with Bose ear buds, usb cable, Itunes installation cd, paper instructions and a wall socket adapter. I bought a new iPod in 2008 at the exact same store. It came with generic ear buds, usb cable, no cd, no instructions and no wall socket adapter. Even the packaging was far less appealing than the older model. The price? Practically the same.

So, what´s happening?

The common corporate answer to this is that lowering the quality standards has allowed all sorts of people access things that otherwise wouldn´t be accessible to their budgets. Back in the day, only the rich guy in the neighborhood could afford to buy a TV, a luxurious device with high quality components and fine craftsmanship. But since the TV companies started making cheaper models every household could have their own set. Which is quite alright up to that point but what really happened was that the lowering of the bar didn’t stop there.

It happens with everything: domestic appliances, musical instruments, furniture, building materials, food, you name it. Chances are, if it was built a few years ago, it has a superior quality compared to something manufactured today.  And it’s not just a thing of nostalgia where old stuff is better than new stuff. This is not just a feeling. At some point we all have experienced this: How walls are thinner than they used to be. How things are becoming increasingly more expendable. How everything seems to wear and break down quicker. How things seem to come with less accessories each time. How things that used to be taken for granted are now considered high-end.

Yes, lowering the costs by lowering the quality to become more accessible can be understood –up to a certain extent- but the fact is that we end up paying more each time just to maintain the same quality because what yesterday was considered crap, today is considered premium.

The anti-corporate answer to the question above is that the real reason is good old fashioned corporate greed: The capitalist concept of shortening the lifespan of an object by worsening the quality to ensure a more frequent purchase is not new. From that story about light bulbs originally lasting forever and how the light bulb companies decided to shorten their lifespan so people had to go back and buy a new one each time one burned out to the 1920´s concept of Styling -the process of embellishing the outer surface of a product to disguise structural flaws- we have been consistently fed worse things each year in a progressive manner for quite a long time now.

I don’t know if that’s entirely true but it certainly illustrates a principle and it’s hard not to believe it when you see a printer built today vs. a printer built 15 years ago. The evolution of technology and safety are counterbalanced by the decline of quality.

We have gotten used to a fake sense of luxury by having things that were once considered extravagant and now are deemed standard. Everybody seems to have huge houses, seemingly better clothes and better cars than the previous generation had. All of which would be great if things were really better but at the same time all this new fancier stuff has far less quality than the stuff our grandfathers possessed. Things used to be more modest and at the same time had a far better quality than their contemporary versions manufactured today.

I´m currently addicted to that restoration show on the History Channel which features a tattooed guy in a sleeveless shirt who restores old stuff to its mint condition. In the opening sequence of the show this guy says something like “Remember the days when things were meant to last?” Yes, I do. And I don´t know about you but I want those days back. Until that happens I´m sticking to my old home stereo. This doesn´t mean that I´m rejecting evolution or technology on my life but I´m definitely sticking to the stuff that has real quality and I´m getting really picky when it comes to new stuff. After all, there´s a huge selection of everything out there and a huge number of products for every single category competing for my bucks. We can afford to be picky, it´s not an issue of budget but an issue of looking in greater detail. It takes more time, yes, but it improves your quality of life and that´s worth taking the time. It´s either that or getting used to own worse things or pay more money each time, you choose.

We won´t have time machines. Ever.

amanac2200126

How do I know that? All human inventions start out as a secret for a few, usually a group of individuals or the army. Because of its price, the risks it may imply, its complexity or a variety of reasons, every human invention takes time to be fully grasped by the masses. But eventually they all do. From air travel to lasers to plastic surgery to space tourism eventually the masses get to own, use and misuse each and every single human invention. Take my word on this: In less than a hundred years idiots crashing their spaceships into the Sun will be everyday news.  Everything mankind has invented finds its way into the hands of the masses. Everything. As it has been proven, even big and expensive things like nuclear plants eventually end up in the hands of idiots.

And that is exactly how I know a time machine will never be invented. Because if a time machine was to be invented at some point in the future we would have seen it by now. Eventually and inevitably some idiot would get his or her hands on a time machine, travel into the past and be seen. And this would happen more than once. It would happen enough times as for us to accept the existence of time machines in the future as a fact. This should have already happened and should have been properly documented and it hasn’t. And it’s not because time machines will be invisible or something like that because it is a proven fact that eventually an idiot would fuck up. And be seen. More than once. So there you have it. That is how I know time machines will never exist.

The Ghost in the Machine is You

Blue Screen

People get mad at people. That makes sense. People disagree, change their minds, make mistakes, have irrational whims and do a thousand things more that make them human. It is ok to be mad with somebody for any of these reasons. But quite often we get mad not at people but at things. Inanimate things. As in non-human things.

Have you ever gotten mad at your computer? Perhaps you are working on something important and all of a sudden the machine freezes up. Or the screen starts shutting off and then back on –an incredibly annoying situation I experienced myself recently- or the word processor is set on making you write “taxidermy” instead of “taxi”. At least for a brief moment, don’t you get angry at the motionless, soulless piece of equipment? Don’t you feel like channeling Michael Douglas in Falling Down and let the machine have it with a baseball bat? Or when you are driving your car with a clear destination in mind, maybe even pressed for time, and suddenly and for no reason at all the car just dies and some weird never-before-seen light starts flashing on the dashboard; If only for a second, haven’t you ever gotten really mad at the vehicle? Like it was doing it on purpose just to mess with you? And yet one more example: When you are on your way to work and realize the subways are down, the line at the bus stop is half a block long, the streets are flooded with heavy traffic and all of a sudden it starts raining: Have you ever thought of the city conspiring against you, coming up with all of these schemes to make you late for work?

Why is it that we get mad at things? And not all things because you don’t get mad at a screwdriver if the tip is too worn out to loose a screw or a T-shirt that lost its colors after two washes or an old tree that has fallen over your car. You get mad at things that are complex enough as to escape your understanding. Things that are complex enough as to hide their logic from you. As inhabitants of a modern society we are surrounded by complex things: computers, cars, circuits and networks of all kinds, the cities themselves, you name it. Sure, you can drive a car or use a computer but most of us don’t really know how these things work. Not necessarily because of a lack of intelligence but more possibly because of a lack of interest or time to learn about these things. Our limited comprehension of its mechanics is enough to use them but we don’t have a clue of what goes on under the hood or behind the screen.

We never get mad at a defective T-shirt because its shortcoming is obvious and understandable to us: The fabric or the inks used where of poor quality. We never get mad at the old tree because we understand that its wood was too rotten to support its weight any longer and we never get mad at the screwdriver because we understand the basic principles that make it work: we understand the screwdriver’s tip is worn out and it fails to function properly because of that. We might even get mad at the company that built the screwdriver for their poor craftsmanship but never at the screwdriver itself. When this happens with a computer we don’t get mad at Intel. We get mad at the computer itself, don’t we?

A computer technician never gets mad at a broken computer unless the problem proves too complex for him. A mechanic never gets mad at the broken car unless he can’t find out what is wrong with it. Just like Homer Simpson, we get mad at the things that present us with problems that are over our heads. That is why we get mad at the computer when it breaks down: Out of sheer frustration we become enraged at an inanimate object simply because we can’t fathom its workings. We –unconsciously- attribute its mechanical shortcomings to a whim, which is a very human characteristic (the whim itself, not the act of attributing a whim to something.). Flaws and whims are two of the biggest trademarks of human behavior and almost every single time we get mad at an object it’s because it’s displaying at least one of these two characteristics. A computer doesn’t have whims. But is complex enough as to hide its logic from you and therefore make it seem as if sometimes it does things that make no sense at all. And THAT makes you mad. The funny thing about this is how in the same way we mystify the things we fail to explain through logic we humanize the things that act in unpredictable ways. So, in the end, people do get mad at people. Or whatever reminds them of people.