The Future is Noisy
Thriving in the age of distractions is hearing the music inside the noise.
When I imagine forward into futures, all of them but the worst are noisy places: highly interactive, densely woven, layered, and syntactical – and as in any web of chatter, lots of lossy transfers, errors, and the patterns of intelligences too bizarre or fast or vast for anyone to notice are registered as noise. Stand back far enough and it’s hard to ignore the curve: from the biofilms that dominated early Earth and made no more noise than gaseous bubbling, to the launch of rockets and atomic bombs. We’ve found a way to make ourselves heard.
The music industry is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to tracking new technology’s effect on culture. But music made by modern industry just abstracted the melodic soundscapes we inhabited, and their literal canaries dying in the mines of the technium that gave us the petroleum and metals we needed for electrified pop songs.
What’s lost in this reconfiguration of the networks of the biosphere? Shipping-traffic-interrupted whalesong and the baby turtles misdirected by hotel lights they mistake for the Moon.
Humans aren’t the only ones confused by the proliferation of new stimuli. Mockingbirds in my old Austin neighborhood were uncanny in their reproduction of car alarms, the “new normal” of an auditory environment with thirty percent fewer birds and insects than there were in my childhood. A web-famous lyre bird in the Adelaide Zoo learned to perfectly mimic the sounds of construction equipment. Meanwhile, urban domestic animals go insane from the thick matrix of mechanical noises humans ignore or can’t even hear. I saw Patrick Flanagan give a talk about this in 2008: not just the refrigerator and the idling television, emergency sirens and washing machines, but the swaying of apartment skyscrapers themselves groaning in the breeze.
Noise is our constant companion through time. While I write this, my three-year-old daughter bangs on one thing after another across the house, and intermittently on the door to my office, joining her infant brother in punctuating my brief intervals of research and composition with squawks and stomps and sweet earnest questions that nonetheless chop my attention up into task-switching slices. These children of a turbulent decade sure love to rock the boat. If the invitation here in writing this essay is to scry by looking into the surface of a pond, my unrecognizably distorted reflection foretells a future of surprise and puzzlement, nonlinearity and irruption.
This is the perennial refrain of People Getting Old. For centuries, “kids these days” have enjoyed music that unsettled elders whose ears had been trained on tamer compositions, simpler harmonic structures – more consonant, predictable material. The story can be traced back at least to the Catholic Church’s banning of the tritone in the 1600s, a dissonant interval it called “The Devil’s Chord.” Yet in the words of complex-systems-savvy historian William Irwin Thompson, “Evil is the annunciation of the next level of order.” The noise may well be understood as a harbinger of coming phase transitions, much like the way a pot of water boils at the boundary between water’s liquid and gaseous states.
At the very point you can’t remember one new word for every new socially relevant experience, the threshold where it all becomes too convoluted, something snaps and syntax forms and now you’re making sentences, because recombination outdoes an additive approach. Suddenly, things click together. It’s not you; it’s me. Welcome humankind, according to Martin Nowak, Joshua Plotkin, and Vincent Jansen, who propose this process as the origin of human language. This is the attitude I choose to take to a confusing and cacophonous media ecology: the clamor of contrasting worldviews seems to be a symptom of these moments when new information technologies transform our social epistemological practices and rip up the tidy order of the prior age. Noise, like water, arrives in waves – some smaller, some larger, some so great they threaten the fragile structures we erect upon the shores of the unknown. We can think of history as the fossil record left by these waves, and the records that they have erased.
The internet is certainly a noisy place, but it has precedent: both Niall Ferguson and Jamie Stantonian have drawn robust analogies between “the meaning crisis” of our time and the rift created by the printing press and its role in catalyzing an evolutionary arms race between pamphleteers, as well as the Protestant Reformation and The Thirty Years’ War. As early as 1974,Thompson recognized the need for academics to move beyond the form of the lecture and into what he called Wissenkunst, “the play of knowledge in an age of serious data-processing.” He writes in Passages about Earth: “In a world in which men write thousands of books and one million scientific papers a year, the mythic bricoleur is the man who plays with all that information and hears a music inside the noise.” The goal is not merely to report on knowledge, but to engage in a Bardic performance of the dynamic reality a scholar seeks to describe – to lay bare and demonstrate the process of knowledge production. To reveal the truths we stand on as a chain of islands formed by geologic processes, still changing shape.
A more contemporary term for Wissenkunst is “mind-jazz,” and appropriately so. We can pinpoint the origin of “noise” music as roughly simultaneous with that of both jazz and the First World War. One of noise music’s founders, Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, writes in The Art of Noises (1913) that, “At first the art of music sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound… Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds.” It was an earnest response to the times. While the narrative of modern progress and its tidy march of betterment was torn apart by artillery bombardment and the clear horizon of the Enlightenment’s confident rationalism disappeared behind a wall of poison gas, those at a safe distance from the trenches founded new creative schools to acknowledge and accommodate the gap between a naïvely real “out there” and the actual jumble of our sensorium. This is the moment Benjamin Labatut memorialized in When We Cease To Understand The World: at which point it becomes apparent that more comprehensive knowledge doesn’t lead to more control. New discoveries ask more questions than they answer, technologies take on lives of their own, and every good idea has unintended consequences. A thrown stone can hit the mark but the ripples it makes in air or water are notoriously hard to model. Cosmologists sift through microwave background radiation at the furthest limit of our most sensitive equipment like gold miners.
(Of course, you can’t even say for sure what’s “just” noise if you don’t know how to read the signal; covert signaling abounds and whether all of the microwave background is actually Big Bang residue or encrypted alien communication is, and will remain, an open question. As Michael Lachmann, Mark Newman, and Cristopher Moore write in 1999, “A message transmitted with optimal efficiency over a channel of limited bandwidth is indistinguishable from random noise to a receiver who is unfamiliar with the language in which the message is written.” There are physical limits to communication, and epistemic bounds on what we can even recognize as intelligence. For all we know, we’re surrounded by ET chatter. But “We don’t talk about Bruno.”)
Understandably. Seeking is a compulsive praxis. Noise (as opposed to signal) predominates in the child’s brain; what childhood development researcher Alison Gopnik calls the “explore-exploit” tension, driven in part by dopamine, draws children out into the world, imagination and play, possibility and opportunity abound.
In old age, it’s the same, except reversed: Everything fades. Peter Gabriel, reckoning with his mortality, draws his 2003 album Up to a climax with an appeal to reason and clarity amidst the confusion of aging: “And in this place can you reassure me / With a touch, a smile while the cradle's burning / All the while the world is turning to noise?” But no such luck, and in fact, it’s this very passage-into-dream that affords the all-connects-to-all wisdom of elderhood. Slumping under the weight of memory, overgrown associative networks in the brain superimpose conflicting emotions and narrative coordinates on one another, making the world rich with meaning. The deeper one passes into economic and cultural irrelevance for those obsessed with fashion, work, and news, the less one’s mouth is inhibited by executive forebrain activity, and the easier it becomes to speak one’s mind with impunity. Like an old-growth forest, creativity depends on mulch. We cannot grow without decay, and so “the” future, whichever future we end up inhabiting, is guaranteed to be creative and thus noisy in as many different ways as possible.
Something similar goes on at every scale we care to look. Evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner, in his book Life Finds A Way, links the evolutionary utility of play to the way gene regulatory networks employ noise as a way of jostling themselves out of stuck points, out of false optimizations in an ever-shifting adaptive landscape. Appropriately, Wagner cribbed the title of his book from another (fictional) Santa Fe Institute researcher, Ian Malcolm, who in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park recognized the growing prominence of noise-as-chaos, defying technocratic control schemes in our modern era. W.J.T. Mitchell later called our time “The Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” a protracted dissonant stretch in the score of history when reanimated dinosaurs are just par for the course amidst a milieu of cultural memory remixed by digital technology (what Douglas Rushkoff describes as Present Shock).
At the same time, linear genetic inheritance is interrupted by the horizontal gene transfer of bioengineering experiments and the convenient genre categories of twentieth century record stores dissolve into the vertiginous novelty of cultural recombination that now requires music recommendation algorithms for human minds to navigate. But “the death of the genre” – the Web’s liquefaction of isolated subcultures in which innovative scenes can spawn new British invasions – is also a recapitulation of the recombinant proto-social incubator that Nowak et al. claim bootstrapped the modern human mind. It’s not the end of creativity but a critical threshold at which the avalanche of creative output precipitates new emergent strategies to help us all keep pace. Paradoxically, it’s the machine helping us shake up our stuckness in machine-like fealty to history.
In other words, noise is here to stay because making noise on purpose can jolt a system out of its rut. The fool in the king’s court or the heyoka at Sun Dance both keep the social system from settling into maladaptive complacency. When mass extinctions disrupt the byzantine symbiotic networks of mature ecosystems, fine-tuned specialists take the hit and loose, messy generalists that can catch as catch can – the raccoons, cockroaches, Lystrosaurs – misfit organisms that seemed forever out of place suddenly come into their own and help reboot the entire food web. It pays for the biosphere to keep these clowns around.
Then there’s Michelle Girvan, who explains that literally just the live feed of a camera trained on sloshing water in a bucket is enough to double the predictive horizon of a machine learning algorithm trained to model weather – seeing further by leaning less on memory. Similarly, Erik Hoel hypothesizes that dreams function to prevent “overfitting” of the brain to its conditioning, allowing it to generalize from past experiences to novel future scenarios. It would fit, then, that not only jazz and noise music but the myriad other dreamlike expressions of modern art – from surrealism to cubism to combinatorial music – all emerged at a time when we started to “lose the plot,” or perhaps more accurately, realize that the story the modern world had been telling itself was nothing more than a linear projection drawn poorly from heavily biased historical sampling.
In times when you can’t trust the score civilization has been following, it’s a more sensible recourse to stop following the conductor and play by ear. Cognitive scientist Tyler Marghetis, in studying the quantitative data tracking critical transitions among improvisational jazz ensembles, notes moments when the entire group breaks through and shifts together all at once, like a pirouetting murmuration of starlings; the pace and immediacy of this kind of response is impossible for those who insist on an objective “view from nowhere” – a monolithic, canonical version of reality – and refuse to accept that, in Thompson’s words, “A fact requires a theory just as a flame requires an atmosphere.” In other words, people who refuse to relax their focus, let figure dissolve into ground, enter a flow state that can respond faster than the clunky executive processing of the frontal lobe, and dream with the agility of a disinhibited mind in attunement. Education at the edge of history can’t rely on the authority of educators brought up in a world that no longer exists; a postapocalyptic pedagogy for digital natives discards rote memorization and writes curricula that emphasize curiosity, lifelong learning, collective intelligence, and the power of search.
A syllabus of only the established classics makes no room for new classics, doesn’t teach students to recognize them, regards new masterworks as noise. (See Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner”: that squeal is the sound of a PA system “aware” of itself.) But while strong convergence rules evolution (the dozens of independent "inventions "of the eye, of fins and wings, of snakelike burrowing bodies), these solutions are attractor basins in a landscape of adaptive possibility, not stock off-the-shelf solutions. Don’t tell me where it is; tell me how to get there.
Noise becomes music and music becomes noise as the listener changes. As John Cage puts it, “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.” Our brains construct our sensorium in an act of sophisticated interpretation; neuroscience has conclusively demonstrated that beyond the age of five months or so, we see and hear what we expect to. Babies see things adults cannot. Noise is, again, a way of getting out of this cage: oracles since before Delphi technologized it to tune into messages from the unconscious mind we’d ordinarily shut out. (This appears to be why psychedelics are such potent therapeutic tools: they disinhibit cross-talk between feuding, isolated brain motifs and shut down narration, forcing confrontation with The Real.)
Deceiving expectations is, incidentally, the secret behind adversarial fashion – the practice of deceiving facial recognition algorithms and driverless cars with cubist face paint, dense and distracting stickers, or other such minor modifications that would never throw off a human pursuer. As Melanie Mitchell puts it, even a two-year-old has common sense, but deep learning networks have no body to speak of, don’t actually dream, and even state of the art A.I. can’t generalize abstract concepts. Twenty-first century humans are learning what plants and fungi figured out millions of years ago: make psychoactive compounds that confuse your predator, spoof their GPS, make it hard for them to find you again. It’s been working at least since ergot dropped a ninja smoke bomb on the dinosaurs.
Deliberate noise is a signal, the transmission of intent. A noisier future is both more and less intentional, depending on where you're standing, because as William Gibson apocryphally puts it, the future is already here, it's just distributed unevenly. The fractal shoreline is ever-unfolding; right now we have how many people being born per second and having to learn the rules from scratch, drawing some sense from the maelström? (...which speech to text, deployed while walking my son back to sleep around the neighborhood, mistranslated as “male strum” – a gorgeous techno-Freudian slip reminiscent of the leks of birds competing for female attention.) At what point does a conversation become just part of the burbling stream of banter? When does the burbling resolve into sense? The brain flowers as a means of finding lines and edges, identifying patterns and consistencies, pulling oneself up on a table and standing in confidence that this thing is persistent and will not break. And when my son rattles the fence, the hanging decorations jostle; it’s cause-and-effect, the noise is a signal, an accomplishment.
I take him on a walk around our neighborhood to keep him from waking up his older sister at bedtime and perform the ritual of noise, which is to stroll within a few blocks of some major streets that run through Santa Fe and issue not entirely periodic but completely dependable engine noise. It is, on more ominous nights, reminiscent of the wolves that Dracula so loved to hear sing at the Moon. There are coyotes here too, but as far south in the suburbs as we are, we rarely hear their yapping. Nonetheless it seems like an equation in which one child-eating monster is replaced by another. And yet when bundled all together by the unity provided by our auditory processing, the sense of self in place, immersion in the way that Marshall McLuhan recognized oral cultures, my son is lulled to sleep by all these sounds, just as his sister was ensconced by a white noise machine in her own infancy, in our apartment downtown, closer to the mountains and coyotes. Noise is a blanket and we wrap ourselves in it.