Thursday, 31 July 2008

OK Mozart

The trivial pleasure of making a Wordle (see below) has got me thinking of Mozart, who wrote a "Musical Dice Game". Players of the game construct a convincing-sounding Minuet by selecting pre-composed bars with the throw of a dice. A computerised version has been available on the internet for years. There may be earlier examples, but we're looking at a whole genre here: works of art (or artifice) in which the creator creates a process, rather than a finished product. We, the consumer, play the game. We feel we've created something. We are pleasantly surprised.

Many composers in the 20th Century created pieces which were not unlike Mozart's Minuet. Mozart will have created that for fun, or money (though sadly for him he died before it was published). The 20th Century examples are more serious, exploring the idea of music that is free to change shape. The most radical (and famous) example is John Cage's 4'33", in which process is simply to do nothing and let it happen.

In a sense the highest form of this genre is the computer program. Since the last forty years have seen the arrival of computers in just about every household in the world that can afford one, the role of most of the artists in the 21st Century (i.e., the designers of computer programs) is to create systems which enable others to "be creative". Photoeditor programs make crude attempts to turn photos into “charcoal drawings” and the like. Computer games have blurred the boundaries between art and play. The wordle-maker software has made artists of everyone who uses it. What constitutes “the arts” is changing: the 21st Century audience for the arts doesn't dress up, sit still and listen. It sits in its bedroom and interacts.

The best thing about all these developments is that they are fun! (John Cage, incidentally, was very hot on fun). However, they have a dark side too. One of the interesting things about Wordles is how our eyes graze on their content not unlike the way our eyes graze on a web-page that may or may not interest us. We activate a subconscious search engine that enables us to scan the page without knowing what we're looking for until we find it. The words we find and the associations we make between them please us. Do internet search engines already have this facility? Yes: but it's focussed less on the individual, and more on his or her commercial potential. It chooses adverts, it tries to guess what you might want if only you knew about it. It is conceivable that in the future my computer will be so well informed as to my interests and enthusiasms that I would be able to research and create interesting lists of links and blogs to visit for this page with the literal blink of an eye (OK, so by then blogs and links might be cumbersome things of the past). I, like you, might eye them with curiosity, wondering what I'll find if I explore them.

I freely admit that I'm in danger of getting out of my depth here, but at what point does the computer cease to be a tool and start to be a kind of "exo-cortex"? The short answer is that it has already. The longer one is probably this: when a computer can intuit for its operator. It's a commonplace to say that computers only contain what people put into them: but their systems are becoming so connective that they are already beginning to make connections we are used to thinking of as individualistic and personal - even if at the moment all it leads to is an ad placement.

Moore's Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a processor chip is increasing exponentially. If that wasn't enough, the structure of computers will change, and new technologies are developing that could make electronics as we know it obsolete. Since, I presume (and it is only a presumption), we will still be needed to put the information in, what will we become? In a world in which we are all consumers, we need to ask not what place will we find for computers in our lives in the future but, rather, what place will computers find for us? I'm not thinking of a crude, science fiction fantasy world ruled by power-crazed machines. Rather, I'm thinking of something subtly different: a world in which we might view allowing a significant part of our inner lives to be lived in a machine as a convenience: especially if it would make us "fitter, happier [and] more productive" of course. Now that's the scary thing.

NOTE: Since writing the above post last week, I've discovered the highly informative "new-born Meta-Cortex of Derek Harter", Blogging the Noosphere.


derekharter said...

Wow, isn't it amazing how many areas computing and communication technology (CCT) impact?!

Just to let you know, Dominic, I recently returned from the SigGraph 2008 conference for computer graphics and visualization. Lots of artistic types there, mostly in the computer gaming industry. The keynote speaker made a point exactly the same as yours:

"The role of most of the artists in the 21st Century (i.e., the designers of computer programs) is to create systems which enable others to "be creative"."

He was talking about Spore and other examples. I agree and think it is a hopeful sign. The more that these technologies (and people driving them) create tools that everyone to contribute and participate their best and brightest, the more hope I have for our future. (But as you say, there is always the dark side: decreased privacy, ubiquitous surveilance, etc.)

It is hard (for me at least) to look at evolving CCT trends, and not believe we are heading towards some sort of phase change, some sort of fundamental shift in what it means to be human as a result of the merger of our CCT technologies with our cognitive abilities. As you say, I would claim it has already happened by many criteria.

I don't know if we have a full-blown Vinge type technological singularity in our future, but it seems obvious (again to me at least) that CCT will cause more impacts in what it means to be human than any past cognitive enhancing technology we have experienced.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this Derek.If, as they say, Shakespeare managed to change the way Westerners think(quite an amazing claim), how will CCT have affected the human way of thinking and being 400 years from now?
I've not read any Vernor Vinge. I've just read his Wikipedia entry and found a link to his story, Synthetic Serendipity, which is online. I've bookmarked it to read later.