essays

27 March 2013

Sound and its discontents through history
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy (Profile)

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.
From artisan coffee to road-worn guitars, Beyoncé to Sartre — what does authenticity really mean?

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, North London, earlier this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee-shop, had just learned to their horror that supermarket chain Tesco owned a 49% stake in the company. Tearful caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset”, since they thought it was an “independent” coffee-shop. A rival coffee-hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values”, though presumably he was too. Most charmingly, the manager of the controversial café confided that head office “had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible”. “We try to be independent,” she said. “We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.”

She’s right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is just one symptom of our current predicament: there is no way out of the simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still just a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminate, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now just another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

11 February 2013

Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is it us?

It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

19 January 2013

It’s a melancholy fate for any writer to become an eponym for all that he despised, but that is what happened to George Orwell, whose memory is routinely abused in unthinking uses of the adjective “Orwellian”. On Monday it is “Orwell Day”, the 63rd anniversary of his death. This year also marks the more pleasantly round number of 110 years since his birth (on 25 June), so there is a Radio 4 series about him forthcoming, and Penguin are reissuing his works, including a standalone edition of “Politics and the English Language” for 99p.

“Politics” is Orwell’s most famous shorter work, and probably the most wildly overrated of any of his writings. Much of it is the kind of crackpot screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers. So why do so many people still genuflect in its direction?

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Like every other era, the internet age has its own class of booster gurus. They are the “cybertheorists”, embedded reporters of the social network, dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

8 November 2012

On the history and future of human enhancement

In The Matrix, one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: “Only human.” Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven humans themselves, over the millennia, to pursue self-enhancement. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been “only human” in the sense of getting through life solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all these are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body, and thus enhancements. Even clothes, adopted according to the Bible after a moment of Edenic shame at what is “only human”, are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Now, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hi-tech prostheses enable some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen; cyborgs; post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

6 November 2012

Recent news suggests an internal war at Apple over its “skeuomorphic” interface designs: making software visually resemble real-world physical objects. I here republish my anti-skeuomorphist manifesto of February 2011, originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily.

Please tear your eyes away from this elegant and curiously seductive prose for a few seconds and look at what surrounds this webpage on your display. Unless you are browsing in full-screen “kiosk” mode or kicking it old-school with Lynx, chances are your browser program is designed to look like some sort of machine. It will have been crafted to resemble aluminium or translucent plastic of varying textures, with square or round or rhomboid buttons and widgets in delicate pseudo-3D gradients, so they look solid, and animate with a shadowed depth illusion when you click them. Me, I hate this stuff. I think it’s not only useless but pernicious and sometimes actively misleading. Won’t you please join me in declaring War on Chrome? Continued →

17 October 2012

Late one Friday evening, my phone played the codec-out sound from Metal Gear Solid, and an email arrived. My stolen laptop had been taken online, and now — like a resourceful kidnap victim — it was phoning home, unknown to its captor. The laptop was beaming back all the information needed to rescue it. And so began one of the strangest episodes so far of my life with technology. Continued →