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Beauty after upscaling: how technology and mass communication impact our aesthetic perceptions

In order to get in sync with this article, it might be beneficial to listen to this sound generator while reading it. Unfortunately, this kind of content cannot be incorporated right into this webpage.

Milan Kundera, contemporary and one of the best Czech writers of all time.

Kundera and the crisis of contemporary music

Since I am very interested in digital technology, a few days ago I was browsing the web and I stumbled, studying the most widely used security and cryptography protocols, in this website, which hasn’t been updated since 2008. What may come across as kind of striking for those who, like me, spend a lot of time online is the almost primitive design of its graphics. Despite the high level of its content, the visual impression is definitely no match for the daily experience of the average internet user. Or such was my first impression.

While realizing it, my mind was crossed by an impulse to reflection: it was not the first time that I happened to read an aesthetically unappealing internet page but -as long as my memory can go back- I had never paid much attention to it. The last time it was certainly a several years ago, when coding was less interesting for me. So I started to mull over why such an irrelevant visual difference was catching my attention so much and in a negative way.

All of a sudden, while thinking, this excerpt from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the most famous novel by Milan Kundera, contemporary Czech writer, came back to my mind. I insert hereby the whole piece, because, as each and every reflection featured by Kundera’s novels, it has the power to state in straight and direct words what one usually hesitates to confess to oneself with the required brutality:

Music.

For Franz music was the art that comes closest to Dionysian beauty in the sense of
intoxication. No one can get really drunk on a novel or a painting, but who can help
getting drunk on Beethoven’s Ninth, Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, or
the Beatles’ White Album? Franz made no distinction between classical music and pop.
He found the distinction old-fashioned and hypocritical. He loved rock as much as
Mozart.
He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the
dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into
the world to make friends. He loved to dance and regretted that Sabina did not share
his passion.
They were sitting together at a restaurant, and loud music with a heavy beat poured out
of a nearby speaker as they ate.
It’s a vicious circle, Sabina said. People are going deaf because music is played louder
and louder. But because they’re going deaf, it has to be played louder still.
Don’t you like music? Franz asked.

No, said Sabina, and then added, though in a different era… She was thinking of the
days of Johann Sebastian Bach, when music was like a rose blooming on a boundless snow-covered plain of silence.
Noise masked as music had pursued her since early childhood. During her years at the
Academy of Fine Arts, students had been required to spend whole summer vacations at
a youth camp. They lived in common quarters and worked together on a steelworks
construction site. Music roared out of loudspeakers on the site from five in the morning
to nine at night. She felt like crying, but the music was cheerful, and there was nowhere
to hide, not in the latrine or under the bedclothes: everything was in range of the
speakers. The music was like a pack of hounds that had been sicked on her.
At the time, she had thought that only in the Communist world could such musical
barbarism reign supreme. Abroad, she discovered that the transformation of music into
noise was a planetary process by which mankind was entering the historical phase of
total ugliness. The total ugliness to come had made itself felt first as omnipresent
acoustical ugliness: cars, motorcycles, electric guitars, drills, loudspeakers, sirens. The
omnipresence of visual ugliness would soon follow.

Music for the masses

There is absolutely no purpose in reading Kundera without welcoming his prompts to reflection and self-humour. This excerpt, resonating with my appraising of the impression generated in my mind by that website, prodded me into a reflection on our ability, as contemporary humans, not so much to appreciate beauty, but rather to even recognize it as such.
The statement about Bach’s times, when listening to music was a rare event, a rose blooming on a boundless snow-covered plain of silence, is a hard lash against our inurement to the constant presence of music in our lives: we all know perfectly well, if we are honest, that most of the time we do not pay close attention to what we listen to and, if we do it, we are so used to pop rhythms we don’t even ponder -in 99,99% of cases- their melodies, notwithstanding if it is worth any effort at all.

I surmise the key problem is our chronic habit to the lack of silence. We desperately miss silence. In nature, silence is a natural state. In our society, so full of jingles and all kinds of noises, it is a condition to be willfully searched for.
The mother of the kind of ugliness Kundera speaks about is to be searched in the excessive availability of sounds way before than in the degradation of their quality.

This is important, nay say supremely important to understand: it is not the degradation in the quality of music that leads to its standardization, it is rather music becoming democratic that foreordains the dilution of its quality: not the disappearance, the dramatic dilution…which is a first degree cousin of disappearance, as I shall argue below!

Historically, the average qualitative downfall of musical pieces did not come before the disappearance of symphonic orchestras composers; no, it was the progressive standardization of music to make its way into our lives, through the spreading of musical instruments available, from the operational point of view, to more people and through the arrival of radio communication.
The irony in all of this is that, if the killer of silence has been, partially, the spreading of electrical guitars and the like, this was in cahoots with a mostly desirable and utterly positive phenomenon: the arrival of mass education.
It just takes a little thinking: the raising in the cultural level of the average individual, the lowering of the entry level skills to play a musical instrument with respect to classical music, the easiness to broadcast music on the radio, the latter having bestowed upon the new generations of aspiring artists the possibility to reach a public quantitatively unimaginable for musicians from previous centuries, these are all innovations which contributed to closing the gap between music and daily life; at the same time, the growing of the musical public has, as a matter of course, very much diluted its expectations over time, making it better and better poised to content itself with simple and elementary melodies.

The boundless, snow-covered plain of silence has turned into the grassy chatting of guitars, basses and drums, over which what remains of the blooming rose, of excellent music, struggles as ever to stick out. And it’s not a constant struggle: it is a fatigue growing by the day, slowly but surely…
Why does it grow? Because we are, on one hand, constantly more distracted, on the other hand because mediocrity enjoys the cosmetics of a technological snowfall that can even bid up the price of weed. And our attention, which could make us realize it, is nowhere to be found…when listening to music or enjoying any other form of art, from sophisticated rituals as they used to be -even more so in the case of music than it was for visual arts- becomes a cursory and, at the same time, forced background of our existence, it encounters the same fate of a religion deprived of its temple.

But it is even worse: not only our ability to enjoy beauty dies out; even our ability do tell ugliness from mere simplicity dims.

The point of my argument, where I want to expand upon Kundera’s thoughts, is precisely this one. Never in history has music been propped up by so much technology…synthesizers, electronic filters enhancing the power of specific frequencies, state-of-the art computers to edit studio recordings, from the singer’s voice to the lowest octave of the bass, where before there was simply the ability of the orchestra director and of his musicians, to be rehearsed manually before performing in front of living humans…and yet music has never looked as poor and insignificant as it looks today.

Thinking more deeply, having mulled over the primitive graphics of the website above does not say anything about the website in itself; it says much more about me, about my mind’s addiction to the pre-packaged aesthetics of contemporary websites, which are the equivalent of digitally-generated music: the latter can admittedly great, no doubt….but too many people can produce some of it, so it is too hard to spot the gems!

I’ll say it again: music can be great even in the present time. This is not a post against technology, it is a reflection on its long-term effects, after it lowers the entry level for creation all the way down to the masses.

In what sense does silence exist ?

Thanks to Dr. Stéphane Pigeon, the creator of a wonderful website myNoise® (more about it later), I have had the opportunity to edit this blog post after consulting him about its first draft. While agreeing with the general point I am making, Dr. Pigeon points out that silence, in itself, is just an ideal. In a state of perfect absence of external noises, we would start to hear the noise of our tinnitus, of our heart pumping and of our blood running.

Silence is a relative concept, which ought to be made more precise for the sake of conveying a precise message. I will therefore define silence, for the purpose of this post, as absence of mad-made entertainment designed to elicit an emotional stimulus, in which I will include television programs, music of every kind, propaganda, even magazines, in paper or online, and news outlets, whether to be listened to or to be read. Silence is thus defined not just in terms of sounds in the sense of vibrations propagating in the form of waves in the air, but as a matter of stimulus demanding emotional attention.

In this very sense, silence is better understood as mental silence, which is a state more understandable than the ideal, unattainable complete absence of noise, which can exist only in outer space.
In fact, almost everybody may have lost or even never possessed the concept of acoustic silence, but more people than that keep the memory, somewhere inside of them, of a the much lighter, easier state of mind we used to experience when we were very young children; this is true for all except the unluckiest of us, in any case for more people than those who have vivid memories of acoustic silence.

Internet for the masses

Exposure to “silence”, in a broader sense than the purely acoustic one, i.e. as absence of a constant stimulus, has the indirect effect to heighten our sensitivity, to ugliness as to beauty. We do not quite realize it because the effects of silence have compounded slowly on the human mind, so they are evolutionarily trivial, so to speak.
What’s more, today the constant stimulus varies within an ever narrower range. The killing of silence numbs our sensitivity and even has us mix sobriety with ugliness. Ugly, indeed, seems everything lying outside of the usual parameter ranges, as a child with a poor food education who is unable to enjoy anything else but French fries and the like.

This hasn’t had an impact just on music, but on the most varied fields of human creativity. Also on web development, for which the transition from almost complete silence to standardized noise has appeared over temporal scales much shorter than in the case of music.
The equivalent of this modern lack of silence at the web level is the growing homogeneity of websites, more and more often built through the same tool. I am thinking of WordPress, the platform allowing the out-of-the-box creation of websites through the combination of a set of predefined and prepackaged aesthetic elements, customizable within specific limits with colours and images that can be selected at will, through which 40% of the websites out there is built at the time of writing (December 2022)…including the website hosting this very blog, which was created by our marketing agency!
The results -nothing to complain- are potentially equally satisfying as those an experienced programmer can obtain (and here is the key of my argument), but it’s an indisputable fact that the effort demanded to come up with something decent is much lower than it used to be in the past, when mastering sufficiently html and Javascript was a precondition to create something, a much more demanding task than using WordPress to create your own website after a two-hours video tutorial.

That is actually, the only doubt I still harbour about the potential of NFTs, something I briefly discussed with Andrea Marec from ReasonedArt when he gave his talk about the subject at the first R+ meeting ever, which I have recounted elsewhere on this blog: how many circulating NFTs is too many, when anyone can make their own and where there is no selection (and vetting) mechanism in place? Digital technology is awesome and tirelle, whereas human attention is just awesome.

What is the final side effect of this easiness? The never ending proliferation of websites and of the information available on them: the first constantly more uniform aesthetically, the latter constantly less relevant. Yes, there may still be excellent products, but how much harder has it become to spot them?
Incidentally, graphics becomes secondary w.r.t. our constant need to consume information almost without pausing to think, just like musical melodies have become secondary w.r.t. our constant need to use music not to think and not to listen at all!

As the amount of available information, either musical or verbal, grows bigger, attention inevitably experiences fatigue, falters…until it capitulates, exhausted.

Technology has toppled the necessary efforts to embark in many an enterprise, from composing and playing music to creating a website. These has at least two implications:

  1. The best consequence for some, which is also the most visible, is the possibility for almost all of them to try these adventures for themselves.
  2. The worst consequence for everybody, which is -by its very universality- the least visible, is that high-quality creativity is ever more diluted in a river of irrelevance, whose tide grows constantly bigger, leaving our ability of fine discernment lost at sea.

Humans are not genetically designed to blossom within excessive abundance. Our growing blindness to beauty and our inability to tell ugliness apart from simplicity are inextricably tied to the lowering of the entry level to aesthetic creation.
This is not unlike the way a slender and robust physical shape, belonging with no effort to any inhabitant of a traditional human society living on hunting and gathering, is lost by the very same individuals plunged into a modern industrial society, where the opposite problem to insufficient food production arises.

If it were not the case that our default behaviours are optimized by millennia of evolution to have us thrive in environments which are scarce in resources, there would exist no such problem. But this is not our design: we are designed to eat plenty of food every time there is availability, to make up for scarcity or fasting stints. Evolution does not change its own course in the span of a few generations, with all related consequences, among which is a dulled sensitivity to the taste of foods. Not surprisingly, people have become ever increasingly accustomed, even affectionate, to the taste of industrial food.

The listeners’ loss of aesthetic taste due to excessive exposure to standardized music is not dissimilar, at its root.
In order to reverse such tendencies and win back the lost sensitivity, it might be argued that a conscious effort is demanded. But conscious efforts cost attention and energy and this is not a self-help blog. I do not expect to tell history or evolution where they should go, the know it all too well themselves…but reflecting on such matters helps me cultivate the illusion that there is a meaning to them, which proves useful to living well.

Back to the future by Via Negativa: from distraction to lost sensitivity by means of simple sounds

I would like to mention the way I have managed to come to terms with this condition.

We have recognized that acoustic silence is an ideal that exists only as a limit condition; we have also agreed that it is more useful, in our context, to think of silence as the absence of constant aesthetic, emotionally demanding stimuli, in the sense of inner experience; finally, we have agreed that, despite technology has opened wonderful creation possibilities, it has -at the same time- dramatically lowered the entry level for creation, leading to a swath of senseless content which obscures the still-existing and ever-produced gems, cluttering our attention with mediocre stuff on one hand and, as a consequence, lowering our sensitivity because of attention fatigue.

I would like to ask one last question, by promoting a free service that I find of amazing quality and incredibly useful. The question is: how to try to turn the table on this situation? In other words: can technology save use from the addictions it creates?

Belgian sound engineer Dr. Stéphane Pigeon, who has made my desk working hours so much better in the last year or so, has a practical and positive answer to this question. his website myNoise®.

Dr. Pigeon has unleashed his creativity through the very same technology which has plunged us into abundance and mess, but with one noble purpose: recreating a natural listening experience of the simplest, basic sounds in nature as well as in traditional and electronic music, from ethnic rhythms to Gregorian chants and the like; all of it is recorded live, either in nature or in whatever the original context of the sound is and, subsequently, curated electronically to the point of producing the impression of being within the environment that generates them. Most of all, all is devoid of senseless jingles.

I very much love the concept of Via Negativa (meaning Negative Path, from latin), effectively popularized by former trader and author Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. This latin expression is borrowed from imperial Rome stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca and means, in a nutshell, pursuing virtue and good life by dint of removing unnecessary stuff such as excessive luxury.
Framed in the context of present life, where it is our attention to be so often strained by excessive demands, Via Negativa can be intended in the sense of reducing the complexity of the stimuli we are exposed to.

In this sense, with its wondrous recreation and enhancement of simple, relaxing sounds patterns, myNoise® serves such a purpose in the context of acoustic life, with plenty of beneficial effects on mental well-being. I have been having it on in my headphones or earphones for one year now, almost every time I do solo desk work and I cannot put into words how much calmer and focused I feel, when I am cuddled by the repetitive white noises assembled by Dr. Pigeon.
Using myNoise® while reading blog posts, working at writing a document, answering emails, studying new materials or even meditating a bit has an undisputedly calming and focusing effect, as testified by the hundreds of accounts written on the website by its users, among whom is Yours and all of whom agree on this point.
I speak as a person who used to listen to ordinary kind of music during work, with devastating effects on my attention, as I see now in retrospect.
As listening to such sounds becomes a habit, the listening sensitivity slowly sharpens again and details which had never been heard become perceivable, like the modulations of the falling water I can now hear in the generator I am listening to while writing this post (screenshot of its webpage at the top f the article)…a world opens and, together with it, from time to time, a spark of joy is lit, of that kind of joy man experiences when he feels that his capabilities are expanding in a harmonious way.
That is an offshoot of sensitivity to beauty, to the beauty of simple things.

To be clear: despite becoming a huge fan, neither I nor our company have any affiliation whatsoever with myNoise®, which features a voluntary support business model and does not require donations to be enjoyed. Supporters get so-called patron accounts which can benefit from additional features, none of which is necessary to experience the aforementioned beneficial effects. For the latter, a bit of trust and perseverance are required, but these cannot be bought with money, fortunately.

Conclusions

It’s been such a pleasure to share such existential and kind of philosophical reflections with you readers. If you made it this far and you feel that there’s a grain of truth to what we have said, the all that is left for you is to try for yourself our recommendation.

Waiting the next post, we take a chance to wish you all a merry Christmas.

Mirko and Franz

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