Two newspaper stories caught my eye last week.
The first one, which attracted quite a bit of attention on the Web, ran in the New York Times. Written by Nicholas Wade, it summarizes the results of recent academic research into the possible biological origins and continuing cultural significance of music. Why is it, Wade asks, that “[a]ll societies have music, all sing lullaby-like songs to their infants, and most produce tonal music, or music composed in subsets of the 12-tone chromatic scale, such as the diatonic or pentatonic scales”? The answer, it appears, is that human beings are naturally predisposed to respond to tonal music:
Dr. Sandra Trehub, of the University of Toronto, has developed methods of testing the musical preferences of infants as young as 2 to 6 months. She finds they prefer consonant sounds, like perfect fifths or perfect fourths, over dissonant ones. A reasonable conclusion is that “the rudiments of music listening are gifts of nature rather than products of culture,” she wrote in the July issue of Nature Neuroscience.
But although certain basic features of music, such as the octave, intervals with simple ratios like the perfect fifth, and tonality, seem to be innate, they are probably not genetic adaptations for music, “but rather appear to be side effects of general properties of the auditory system,” conclude two Cambridge scientists, Josh McDermott of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard, in an unpublished article.
The human auditory system is probably tuned to perceive the most important sounds in a person’s surroundings, which are those of the human voice. Three neuroscientists at Duke University, Dr. David A. Schwartz, Dr. Catherine Q. Howe and Dr. Dale Purves, say that on the basis of this cue they may have solved the longstanding mysteries of the structure of the chromatic scale and the reason why some harmonies are more pleasing than others.
Though every human voice, and maybe each utterance, is different, a certain commonality emerges when many different voices are analyzed. The human vocal tract shapes the vibrations of the vocal cords into a set of harmonics that are more intense at some frequencies than others relative to the fundamental note. The principal peaks of intensity occur at the fifth and the octave, with lesser peaks at other intervals that correspond to most of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the Duke researchers say in an article published last month in the Journal of
Neuroscience. Almost identical spectra were produced by speakers of English, Mandarin, Persian and Tamil.
The second story ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer (not a permalink, alas–the Inquirer clearly doesn’t believe in the efficacy of the blogosphere). Written by Markus Verbeet, it described the sad state of Philadelphia’s remaining camera stores. Most of the smaller ones have closed, and the survivors are seeing their profit margins slashed by the fast-growing popularity of digital cameras, which are expected to outsell traditional cameras this year for the first time ever:
“From my 15 major competitors in town, there is hardly anybody left,” Steve Serota said.
That would normally make him a happy businessman, except that he had to close Camera Care, his Center City store, last month.
After spending almost half his life selling cameras in his Arch Street shop, the 52-year-old merchant was instead stuffing lens filters and other unsold inventory into huge black garbage bags.
“It’s a tragedy,” he said….
The changes in the photo industry can be seen just a block away from Serota’s shuttered store. Quaker Photo is a state-of-the-art lab, but it could serve as a museum at the same time. The five-floor building contains several dozen essentially obsolete darkrooms.
“Back in the late ’80s, we used to work here around the clock,” Bob Marion, the vice president and general manager, said.
What he called the switch “from a labor-intensive market to a technology intensive market” is immediately visible. Most darkrooms are used for storage or stand empty. Instead of a bustling crowd of up to 120 workers in three shifts, 30 employees are working quietly on desktop computers and digital printers.
What do these two stories have in common? They show us two sharply contrasting sides of the uneasy relationship between technology and tradition.
On the one hand, science has in the long run an uncanny way of validating many of our most deeply-held beliefs about the nature of things. I’ve never doubted, for instance, that tonality is not merely an arbitrary preference but a natural law, to be disregarded at the price of aesthetic intelligibility, even though a generation of avant-gardists blithely denied what seemed to me so utterly self-evident as to require no further demonstration–and now it appears that I was objectively right and the avant-gardists objectively wrong. Score one for technology (though people with ears to hear needed no further proof).
Yet at the same time, cultural traditions are constantly being undermined by what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of unfettered minds operating under the aspect of freedom, and the price we pay for their creativity is the disruption of the lives of innocents who took it for granted that cameras would always need film.
Mind you, I feel no sentimental attachment to old technologies, merely to the things they did better than the new ones. I miss Technicolor, for instance, but I don’t really miss my old manual typewriter, fond though I was of the glorious clatter it made. The dull pid-pid-pid of the plastic keys of the iBook on which I am typing these words is a more than reasonable price to pay for the pleasure and convenience of electronic word processing…but where does that leave the aging typewriter repairman down the street? It’s too easy to say that he should go back to school and learn how to fix iBooks. Age brings wisdom and inflexibility in equal measure, and not all of us are up to the challenge ot changing with the times.
This site isn’t about politics (and thank God for that). Cultural matters have a way of cutting heedlessly across the cramped pigeonholes of idiotarianism. Very broadly speaking–with plenty of exceptions in either direction–the left has tended to be hostile to the miraculous transforming power of technology, while the right has tended to be indifferent to the plight of those who are incapable of riding its wave. Yet surely we can all agree that both sides must be more responsive if the postmodern world is to remain a fit place for humans. The word “tragedy” has a way of getting misused, but I think Steve Serota got it just about right when he described the closing of his camera store as a tragedy–a minor one, to be sure, but terrible nonetheless. What could be more tragic than a clash of competing goods that leaves most people better off while hurting a few?
Progress is a blunt instrument, equally well suited to driving nails and knocking people over the head. It’s the responsibility of those who wield the hammer to try to point it in the right direction–as well as to clean up the messes they make.