Culture Magazine

Music and Meaning in an Age of Intelligent Machines [Keil, Yes! Thiel, No!]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Tara Isabella Burton has recently published an essay in which she critiques the ideas of Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist, billionaire, and prominent Silicon Valley ideologue. I'm going to use her critique as a vehicle for arguing that we are going to need more music-making if we are to survive and thrive in this age of intelligent machines. First, her presentation and critique of Thiel. Second, I say about my experience of playing in a band half a life-time ago. Then I let Charlie Keil make a case for the vital importance of music. Finally, I let Miss Sutan take us home with a Stevie Wonder song.

Thiel's techno-vitalism is a dead end

The title of Burton's essay, " The Temptation of Peter Thiel," is an obvious play on Thiel's messianic and apocalyptic themes. She begins:

Peter Thiel thinks we should all be less worried about the apocalypse. In a November 3 speech, given at the Novitate Conference commemorating the birth of the French philosopher Rene Girard, the influential billionaire investor painted a portrait of the end of human existence at once terrifying and, in Thiel's highly aestheticized telling, more than a little tantalizing. Condemning our present "zombie period" of neoliberal modernity as a "low testosterone world" of dysfunctional "modern gender dynamics" and nihilistic solipsism of "amus[ing] ourselves with memes and TikTok videos," Thiel offered listeners another option.

Reject the "peace and safety of the Antichrist"-which for Thiel means a "one-world totalitarian state"-in favor of "nihilistic action." Peppering his speech, titled "Nihilism is Not Enough," with references as wide-ranging as sixteenth-century English scientist Francis Bacon to the controversial Weimar-era political theorist Carl Schmitt, Thiel concluded in a bombastic vision of cosmic collapse: "Silence has descended upon the earth as if an angel were about to open the seventh and last seal of an apocalypse."

Just what is one to say in the face of that? Burton has quite a bit to say, noting in passing that "Thiel has wholly or partially bankrolled-among other projects-Hulk Hogan's defamation lawsuit against Gawker, the Trump campaign, an anti-woke film festival, a Catholic religious app, a libertarian seasteading program, and transhumanist initiatives to hack human biological limitation," and is a dedicated contrarian. His mission is a religious one, though "it is not a Christian one." Rather it is "a kind of Nietzschean techno-vitalism: a faith not in genuine ideals but in their power to shape and subdue a fundamentally stupid and innately violent populace." While she has interesting things to say about that vision, I want to cut to the chase.

Four paragraphs from the end she says:

What makes Thiel's vision either appealing or dangerous, depending on your perspective, is that he is in fact on to something. He understands that much of modern life is alienating and boring, that we have lost a sense meaning and purpose in civic life, that there are truths about the profundity of human existence that life in America in 2023 seems designed to obscure. [...] He has been successful and influential, in part, by finding and funding well-meaning, thoughtful, and intelligent people who correctly sense that something needs to change, and are seeking the tools and vocabulary to elucidate what and how. If he controls the memes, it's because he has an uncanny gift for reading, as it were, the vibe shifts of the past decade. Many of us are not just hungry for, but desperate for, a world where things matter.

That's what I want to talk about. Here is her conclusion:

... next: one rooted not in the frisson of transgressive aesthetics but in a robust quest for the best of what technology can offer. We need prophets of technological change capable of envisioning a positive relationship between human potential and human goods: rooted in awareness that all of us, "techno-mage" or "NPC", are at our core vulnerable and interdependent beings.

The quest for modern meaning Thiel has consistently fostered-and funded-is a worthy one. But the accelerationalist techno-vitalism of Thiel's speech is, ultimately, a dead end.

Those were the days, gigging with the band

Not so long ago I spent a great deal of time over two weeks writing an essay about a series of events in which I participated over forty years ago, On the Road with the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band. These events didn't bring me fame or fortune, although they did bring a bit of money. While the money was important, it was enough to cover me food bills for several years, it wasn't the most important thing about those events. Those events were meaningful.

Did they give me "a sense meaning and purpose in civic life"? I don't know, maybe, but those terms seem a bit strained to the activity of making music in bars and clubs on weekends. Whatever it is that happened on those weekends - there are various ways of talking and theorizing about it - I have remembered them over half a life-time later. That's what's important.

During the process of writing that essay I spent an hour or three - spread out over two weeks - exchanging emails with Ken Drumm, one of my bandmates. We've only seen one another once since I left upstate New York; that was when the band had a gig in Manhattan and I went to see them. But we keep in touch through email. When I told Ken I was writing the essay, he helped me remember what we did, and he went into his basement and searched through boxes of band memorabilia. He even talked about writing a book together. Probably not, but if Steven Spielberg wants to make a movie, I'm sure Ken would be glad to serve as a technical advisor - for a fee of course. (Me too.)

Those evening and late-night gigs were often fun, at times even joyful, for me and the other musicians, and for the people who listened to and danced to our music. We, all of us, weren't alienated and we weren't bored. We were excited, delighted, and engaged.

That's music.

Charlie Keil Pleads the Case for Music

Here's how Charlie Keil could respond to Thiel:

But more and more people are seeking spirituality, humility, 12 steps out of their addictions, tech fixes, frenzies, anxieties. Buddhism of all kinds is growing, perhaps not as fast as it was before Sept. 11th but heart softening continues, compassion increases, joy grows steadily for those who find their way to the dharma in the Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron books and go on to build sangas and practices. Find the Earth Charter. Endorse it. Spread it. The Green Party will mature and expand. Broad religious and political movements worldwide are converging on species diversity, cultural diversity, ecological balance, sustainable economics as reachable goals. This "hubris" wheel is slowing and must stop soon. Can it be reversed in time to stop "technology"?

The "technology" wheel grinds on. Money, Hakim Bey's triumphant "numisphere," pours legitimacy into weird science & tech as never before. People who should know better still believe in better living through chemistry. Bioengineering runs amok and may do us all in just as the "population" and "hubris" problems are being resolved. This is the wheel that still has momentum and causes much confusion in our minds. Many people think they can or must absorb the rising levels of pollution. Many people think most of TV is bad "but some of it is really quite good". Many of our leaders still think war is needed to push along technology; a big majority shuts up and goes along. Lots of craziness here and I think this is the wheel that should be the focus of editors and op-ed writers and readers in all the coming issues and podcasts because I can't say that the "technology" wheel is slowing and will stop soon. This is where any single terrorist or group of terrorists can find a growing arsenal of "easy to use weapons."

That's from his essay, "Reclaiming our species being: Humo Ludens collaborans," in our recent book, Playing for Peace (see ad below). No doubt Thiel would reject it, probably couldn't even see it, but then, what does he know? Systems, of a sort, I grant him that. People? I'm not so sure.

Just as Thiel has his plans, Big Plans, Big Tech, Big Bucks, so Charlie has his plans, for people, for children. In particular, for more music for children. One of his plans is called "Paidea Con Salsa," also in Playing for Peace. The general idea is to create a disseminate a primary school curriculum in Latin drumming and dancing traditions. Here's how we begin:

In the first year, discover how these styles are learned in situ, in the communities. Do children normally dance a style before they learn to drum it? In what order is it easiest to learn the percussion instruments? How do conga players gradually move from holding patterns to improvisation in each idiom? And so forth. We may already know the basic parts, but we need to perfect our understanding of sequential acquisition and traditional processes of cultural transmission. We might also want to deepen our understanding of roots and contexts with some field trips to centers like New York City, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

Then we develop pilot projects in a variety of schools along with a series of summer institutes for teacher training.

While Charlie's more skeptical about technology than I am, he's right about the need for music, not music we merely listen to (no matter how good that music may be), but music we make ourselves, with our friends and family. In my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil (Basic Books 2001), I have argued at great length that it is music that allowed bands of clever apes to remake themselves into human beings. Music has been and is important in every society throughout history and around the world. Up until the twentieth century you couldn't listen to or dance to music unless you were in the presence of the musicians making the music. While sound recordings have made a wealth of music available to all, especially through sources on the web, like YouTube, that wealth cannot nurture us deeply unless we also make music with others. If we cannot recover our capacity for making music, and the expressive arts more generally, all the technology Thiel would foist upon us will kill us.

Don't You Worry About a Thing

Children love music, and they love to dance. Let me present one final passage from Keil, yes, from the same book (Chapter: "Peace and Joy Unlimited"):

The good news is that children want most of all to be in synch around 8-11 months old: they want to sing 'vocables' in tight synch on cue; "crow" & "squeal" and explore the sound spectrum; have lots of the legfun, mouthfun and peekaboo that we adults call 'poetry;' want to bang on things; do call and response 'razzberries' with their lips; to nuzzle and be nuzzled; to be bounced and dandled in time to music, etc. etc. etc. You know how toddlers about to toddle are; you were one once yourself. Do you remember using your members flexibly, wildly, crazily?

Here's my final argument, a three-year old Japanese girl, Sutan, using asparagus as a microphone while she sings "Don't You Worry About a Thing" as her mother prepares food:

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Music and Meaning in an Age of Intelligent Machines [Keil, Yes! Thiel, No!]

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