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Friday, May 24, 2024

How Should You Cut Through the Noise of This Year’s Headlines?

In this month’s newsletter I talk about music—both literally and metaphorically. What are you hearing and listening to? Let me know in the comments.

Sturm und Drang

In Margin Call, the 2011 movie about the run-up to the 2008 financial crash, the reptilian bank CEO played by Jeremy Irons says to an underling: “Do you care to know why I’m in this chair with you all? … I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight, I’m afraid that I don’t hear a thing. Just … silence.”

Irons’ character was talking about the music of the financial markets, but it’s a good description of any leader’s job—including an editor in chief’s. So as another year draws to a close, what music am I hearing?

Certainly not silence. More like a massive orchestra in wild, dissonant cacophony. Over the past year and a half the crypto section has gone from Appalachian Spring to the Ride of the Valkyries before being briefly shocked into John Cage’s 4’33”, and now seems to be playing pizzicato in the hopes that we won’t notice. The Big Tech brass marching band is still marching but has put mufflers in all its instruments, except for Twitter, which is playing a funeral dirge way too loud and fast on a nasty, scratchy bugle. Over in the biotech section they were doing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at full blast last year, after the first mRNA vaccines were approved, but have since devolved into some kind of enigmatic Steve Reich–style multipart harmony that’s very gradually building to something we can’t quite see yet. The AI players, who for a while had gone so deep in on themselves that all you could discern was background percussion at gradually increasing tempo, are now throwing around massive end-of-the-world organ chords and riotous snatches of every composer they can think of all mashed together.

Maybe this is why I found myself browsing Indian classical music the other night in search of calm, and even so kept finding my nerves so jangled that I pared it down until all I was listening to was the tanpura, the background drone that lulls your mind into a kind of stoned stupidity. 

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Allegro Ma Non Troppo

Strained metaphors aside, what has struck me about the past year is how constantly the music has shifted; or, to be more prosaic about it, how frequently I’ve had to change my basic assumptions about where things are headed. 

AI really did feel like it was on its way to becoming like cloud computing, a boring, all-purpose, all-but-invisible utility—a tanpura of technology—but tools like DALL-E and Midjourney (for images) and ChatGPT (for text) have ushered in a new AI triumphalism, resurrecting all the old debates about whether machines will take over human jobs or just make them easier, or even achieve superintelligence and enslave us. (I’m biased, but I think this Kevin Kelly WIRED essay from 2017 is still the best thing you’ll read on why it won’t.) 

My prediction is that the AI music over the coming year is going to be a symphony by someone like a Bruckner or a Richard Strauss: quiet passages alternating with lots of Sturm und Drang. We’ll continue to be amazed by advances in AI-generated video while coming to realize how underwhelming AI-generated text is.

In crypto, my sense is that the spectacular collapse of FTX is actually encouraging those working on longer-term, thornier Web3 projects, who are glad to see the speculators and NFT hype merchants chased away. In years of asking people about their blockchain-based applications I have yet to discover one that really couldn’t be done without a blockchain, but I’m starting to come around to the idea that the culture of innovation and ferment of new ideas about things like governance and data ownership is more important than the technology itself. As Gilad Edelman wrote for us last May, “Whatever else Web3 is, it’s a realm where coders and technologists can reconnect with the joy of hacking, where they can feel good again about working in tech.” I hope the coming year brings less triumphalist tones and more thoughtful variations from the crypto community—less Beethoven, more Bach.

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The tech layoffs of the past year—150,000 and counting, according to one site that tracks them—seem to be shifting the sound of the industry, but it’s hard to tell in which way. Will we hear a rallentando as they scale back ambitions, or a dark, ruthless drumbeat as they shed people who aren’t core to the moneymaking business and demand more of those who stay? But this also means, as WIRED’s Steven Levy wrote recently, that a lot of people with engineering skills and severance pay are trying to decide their next move. Expect a forest full of bright little new contrapuntal melodies to emerge, many of them harmonizing with those coming out of the crypto and AI worlds.

Diminuendo

As for other music … I hear “metaverse” echoes lengthening and quieting, like ghostly reverberations in a giant hall from an instrument that has already stopped playing. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that in two years those echoes will have stopped and we won’t even be using the term “metaverse” any more. It was always an appropriated name for already existing technologies like VR, AR, spatial computing, and game worlds, and we’ll eventually realize it makes more sense to just talk about those things instead.

Twitter? I don’t know. The music keeps getting screechier and darker. Maybe Megadeth.

If you’ve even slightly enjoyed this strange attempt to cast end-of-year tech predictions in musical terms, you will probably like one of the books I most loved reading this year: Richard Powers’ Orfeo, which is a maestro-level exemplar of the art of musicological fiction, nothing like my atonal fumblings. It’ll make good holiday reading, and the playlists compiled from all the works he references, from Mahler Lieder to the Velvet Underground, will make good holiday listening. I hope you have a restful break.

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