The iPhone vs. the saxophone

Tristan Harris used to work for Google. In 2012 he gave a company talk arguing that “we [have] a moral responsibility to create an attention economy that doesn’t weaken people’s relationships or distract people to death.” To those two downsides of the attention economy, I would add preventing people from doing sustained hard work.

Harris’s bosses must have been impressed because he was subsequently appointed the company’s “design ethicist.” Yet the work of designing ethics wasn’t apparently as high a priority to Google as Harris had hoped it would be, so he eventually left the company and started the non-profit Center for Humane Technology, which aims to bring the harmful effects of the internet economy to the public’s attention.

I sense that many of us are at least vaguely aware of something harmful in the digital world we inhabit, especially those of use who, like me, came of age before it took hold. Harris, with an insider’s perspective, puts that unsettling factor succinctly. In a presentation at a recent technology conference, he said, “When your business model is extracting data and attention out of people,” the result is “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” Harris was first brought to my attention by Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik.

There’s a war going on in our culture—not a war of guns and bombs fought between two rival nations, but rather a war to define what it means, in my opinion at least, to be human. You could oversimplify a bit and call it a war between the attention-span shorteners and the attention-span lengtheners, or, to give them better names, between the iPhones and the Saxophones.

The iPhones, weighing in at robust 275 lb. with bulging biceps and superhero strength, stand for the principles of instant gratification, shortened attention span, and easiness.

The Saxophones, although not matching the iPhones in terms of strength, stand on a base of traditions that stretch back for thousands of years. They stand for the ideals of knowledge, patience, perseverance, and struggle.

When history calls. You can’t help but feel sorry for the poor monks of Lindisfarne on June 7 in the year 793, going about their routines, unaware that their tranquil lives were about to be upended by Viking invaders on June 8. On that day, the past collided quickly and violently with the present as the Viking raiders descended on their monastery. In our case, the collision is much slower, so slow, perhaps that you may not have noticed it. Nevertheless, we stand at a juncture in history.

Each of us now carries a miraculous device in our back pockets that can entertain and distract us endlessly. Want to know how your team did last night or who wrote the screenplay of your favorite movie? Want a few hours of mindless distraction with a video game? Want to buy some new shoes? All of this shiny world is a few strokes of the thumbs away. To be sure, these devices have many purposes, many of them very useful, but, as Tristan Harris noted, we are foolish to ignore their malign side, especially as our children are growing up with these devices appended to their bodies.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with music. Before I get to the answer, I am reminded of a joke: How long does it take to make an apple pie? [Dramatic pause] Billions of years. First, you have to create the universe, then the stars, then habitable planets, then soil, then apple trees. The joke illustrates the idea that even the most “trivial” of things has a unfathomably long pedigree. There are literally billions of years of cause and effect behind everything in our lives, from apple pies to the highest arts.

Fifteen years. Learning to play a musical instrument—let’s say the saxophone to honor our “army” in this struggle—exemplifies and perhaps epitomizes the traditions of the past. To play a musical instrument, you spend years patiently working on a craft—scales, arpeggios, etudes, recitals, hours of practice—to achieve a somewhat nebulous but critically important goal of mastery. To get back to the joke about about creating an apple pie, how long does it take to play Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 in E flat major? [Dramatic pause again] A minimum of 15 years. The piece’s duration is measured in minutes, but the preparation needed to get those minutes just right lasts for thousands of hours stretched over many years. Thousands of hours of knowledge, patience, perseverance, and struggle.

Or, to take another example, consider the music of Western music’s greatest composer, J.S. Bach. With great care and workmanlike attention over a span of many decades, he wrote some of the greatest music human ears have ever enjoyed. The quantity, leave alone the quality, of music is staggering. Just copying one of his masterpieces by hand would take more time than most of us could imagine spending on a single task. And yet Bach—and many others who are less well known today—did it. They built cathedrals of music out of knowledge, patience, perseverance, and much struggle.

Does being human mean that we have everything we want within easy reach? Want something? Touch a few buttons, or just speak to your smart speaker, and it can be delivered to your door almost immediately. Want to watch a Korean soap opera ore distract yourself with Candy Crush? Want to put some light jazz on in the background? All of this is available and so very easy to reach with a few finger or thumb motions.

By now, you should be able to tell which side of this struggle I am on. The other side in this war seems to be whispering that nothing need be hard anymore. Relax and let the machines do it. To me, that’s a problem in the way that I define what it means to be human. The meaning of life emerges from the struggle for survival, for mastery, for greatness. Make it too easy, allow the algorithms and devices to do all the hard stuff, and you lose the essence. The false paradise of instant gratification and ease may sound nice, but I just don’t think it’s a place where humans will thrive.

What worries me in particular is that short-term gratification and constant distraction are becoming the new traditions that we will bequeath to our heirs. Will our descendants be like the characters from the movie “Wall-E,” needing nothing but to be passive consumers of food and entertainment? I hope not, but I also know that the war will be a long and difficult one. The other side has massive advantages that my side cannot match.

What does it mean to be human? Does it mean to take the easy road? Or can we make our own music?