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 that list, I would add a third responsibility: prevent people from doing sustained focused work.

Harris’s bosses must have been impressed because he was soon 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, and he eventually left Google to start the non-profit Center for Humane Technology. The Center aims to bring the harmful effects of the internet economy to the public’s attention. It’s a David v. Goliath struggle.

I sense that many of us are aware of the harmful facets of the digital world we inhabit, especially those who came of age before it enveloped us so completely. In a presentation at a recent technology conference, Harris warned, “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 the “Culture Wars” between left and right. The war I refer to goes deeper, to the very core of what it means to be human regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum. One the one hand, there are forces driving us to ever shortening attention spans and constant superficial stimulation. In opposition to these potent forces, however, are much older traditions of patience, perseverance, and deep knowledge. (To be fair, this war didn’t commence with the Internet age. I trace its origins to the rise of the original mass distractor, television.)

When history calls. You can’t help but feel sorry for the monks of Lindisfarne on the British Isles on June 7 in the year 793, carrying on 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 Vikings descended on their monastery. In our case, the collision between past and present is much slower, so slow, perhaps that you may not have noticed it. Nevertheless, we stand at a juncture in history.

Virtually all of us now carry a potent little device in our back pockets that can entertain and distract us endlessly. This device gives us immediate access to a brave new world of immediate gratification and endless stimulation, and nothing is more than 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 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 the 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 most majestic music human ears have ever heard. The quantity, leave alone the quality, of his work 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 struggle. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to note that their towering achievements may never be repeated—or even approached if we go too far down the road of shortened attention.

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 brain atrophies when we always allow the computer to navigate for us. 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. But I’m sticking with my saxophone.