A cautionary tale

In one spasm of my recurrent Anglophilia, I read most of a long, two-volume history of Britain in the ’60s, by Dominic Sandbrook

In the first volume, Never Had it So Good (which runs from the Suez crisis in 1956 to the rise of the Beatles) there’s an episode that’s worth recounting here. It’s about the growth of British suburbs. 

In the ’50s, suburbs became a phenomenon in Britain, just as they did in the US. They’d grown tremendously, and seemed not just to be a new place to live, but to create a new way of living. 

And in Britain, that was widely deplored. Intellectuals furrowed their brows, and wrote trenchant essays about the rise of alienation. In the new suburbs, people were atomized. Social life was breaking down. A sense of community was nonexistent. I wish I had Sandbrook’s book with me, to quote some of this. (Right now  I’m on an Amtrak train to Washington.) You’d think civilization had been doomed.

And you’d also think these writers knew what they were talking about. But they didn’t. When sociologists studied the new suburbs, they found vibrant community life — people taking care of each other, forming civic groups, spending time together, visiting each others’ homes. 

The intellectuals, in other words, were wrong. But not just wrong. There was no factual basis, no evidence at all for what they said.  They’d made it all up. Or, to be more kind, they were speculating. They truly believed that what they wrote had come to pass, or would come to pass. But they hadn’t gone the extra mile, and noted that the jury wasn’t out yet, and that the fears they were expressing were really nothing more than fears. 

Why am I telling this cautionary tale here? Because I think something similar can happen when people — smart people, good people, concerned people, deeply musical people — worry about changes in classical music. As, for instance, when they worry about Mike Lam’s idea for orchestra scoreboards. Maybe it’s a good idea, maybe it’s a bad one. (Or maybe, more likely, it’s good for some people in the current or potential orchestra audience, and not for others.) 

It’s completely reasonable to give reasons for thinking that something like this would be good or bad. But when we start to say that dire things will happen — see my post on reactions to Mike Lam for some examples — that concerts will be corrupted, for instance, or that the very act of listening will be diminished, we ought to add that we’re speculating. That there isn’t  yet evidence to support our worries, and in fact can’t be, until the thing we’re worrying about is both put in practice, and then studied. 

Because, after all, there’s always the possibility that we’re wrong. Like the British intellectuals. Or like people who worried, some years ago, about the Concert Companion project, which gave handheld devices to people at orchestra concerts, and on those devices sent them moment-to-moment program notes about the music. I read and heard plenty of worry about how this would undermine listening. And then at focus groups, some of which I attended, many people who used the device said they’d listened more attentively than they ever had before. 

I myself wouldn’t have predicted that. So there’s another cautionary tale, to add to the one about the British suburbs. When something new takes flight, we often just don’t know what’s going to happen. 

So let’s agree, when we speculate, to label our thoughts as speculation — speculation, that, in the nature of things, could easily be wrong. I’ll try to do this. How about everyone else?

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  1. Gary Panetta says

    An empirical study would be helpful, wouldn’t it?

    My hunch is that the scoreboard concept would be more appealing to a newcomer to classical music and less appealing to longtime fans.

    If I’m right, that means that the scoreboard idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand — that is, not if you want new listeners for classical music.

    I think many people create mental maps of the music they hear. A scoreboard would just aid in the process. It may even help people listen with more imagination.