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 February 1999

This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 1 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.

An EDUCAUSE publication



Caravans and Mozart:
Raising the Post-human

Music and Camels

Do anchors of the past hold back our thinking?

by Christian Crews

Between Persepolis and Tehran an ancient caravanserai rises out of the desert.

Made of red earth, shrouded in windblown red dust, and surrounded by red sand, it seems from a distance to be a mirage, blinking in and out of existence. Up close its monochrome bulk imposes on the flatness around it. Even from the back of a camel I felt small looking up at its baked and pocked walls. Over 20 years ago my family stayed there on our way to visit the ruined capital of the Persian Empire. We were the only guests that night. My older brother and I spent hours exploring the dusty halls and echoing rooms. The place was a paradox, at once functional and yet truly belonging in history with the abandoned city we would see the next day. Centuries back, it sheltered thousands of caravans traveling on the traditional trade route. I felt the ghosts swirling around us, much to the joy of my brother, who kept scaring me all night long. While I barely recall the broken columns and friezes of Persepolis, the smells and sounds of that caravanserai, and the feelings they engendered, remain vividly in my memory. Why?

It represents change. The world shifted around it, judged it superfluous, and left it there to be swallowed by the sands. But there it stood, offering shelter and communion with the past. The pace of technological change has increased dramatically since then, and the industrial world that rendered the place useless is now itself being caught by the next great age. What are today's caravanserais to be left behind in the information economy's tomorrow? In previous shifts, people were the first casualty -- people who cannot wrap their minds around the new ways of thinking and doing.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot examines townspeople on the cusp of the railroad age. For the great modern poets such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, it is Dubliners and Londoners who have missed a cultural change and are left behind. Part of the greatness of Mark Twain's works are the shadows of change looming behind the imagery. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn get it -- those unable to become living ghosts.

As a prospective father, I have been bombarded with new studies suggesting ways to turn my child into a superstar quarterback and genius. Stuck in traffic one night listening to Prodigy, an electronica band, I realized that once the baby arrives the decibel level would have to be much lower. My ears are a lost cause, but hers will be shiny and new. This made me think of the recent study discovering that babies and young children who listened to classical music later have better math and science skills. The governor of Georgia has had the state manufacture CDs of classical music to give to every new mother. Pregnant women place headphones over their swollen bellies. The least I could do was replace Prodigy with Mozart.

Then I recalled my childhood visit to the caravanserai, and my subconscious notice of the ghosts and echoes of a lost time. And I asked a question: Would Mozart prepare my child for a world long gone? Classical music embodied all that was great about the beginning of the Rational Age. Everything was measured, controlled, exactingly rendered every time -- a perfect precursor to the burgeoning industrial paradigm: manufactured artifice ascended above agricultural staple, man elevated from nature, regulation over chaos. But the logical time and measure of Mozart's time has been forgotten in the ad hoc reality of the Web-connected desktop. Gone too is the concrete, predictive scientific method taught in schools. In its place lie the fuzzy indeterminates of chaos. The paradigms of the Information Age and the integral sciences have merged and suddenly we all have to learn to play by new rules. The industrial economy of scale is replaced by the network's rule of free distribution. The scientific method's concept of evolution is exchanged with complexity's assertion of autopoiesis -- life self-produced and recursively self-replicating. Prediction is thrown aside in the face of the Butterfly Effect. We live and work in a new world.

Which brings me back to my expected child, some day in the future riding in the carseat, dreaming to Mozart. As her auditory environment stimulates and cements myriad synaptic pathways, will Mozart build within her another caravanserai? Prodigy's music is a better metaphor of the world view within which she will live. Full of found riffs, improvised and transient melodies, electronica is a virtual construct, formed out of the Industrial Age's detritus of real things. She will be surrounded by wall-sized plasma screens, Web-browsers projected onto reading glasses, advertisements crafted just for her, and worldwide media content at her fingers. It will be a personalized, customized, interactive, ever-changing reality of products, entertainments, food and environments all connected in a ubiquitous global digital bath. Her childhood will be far different from mine. The skills she will need to succeed will be much different as well. Gathering information will be easier, but ranking and synthesizing it more difficult. Multi-tasking will be a necessity, as our workflow more closely approximates the information flow of networks and parallel processes. Whereas my generation insatiably devoured media, tomorrow's youth will pick, choose and channel the firehose feed of data. For me a short attention span was a liability; for my child it will be a matter of survival. So to expose her to music that blends disparate bits of digital streams into a song is to sonically teach her the future.

The conservative within me talks about the learning of traditional things in traditional ways. She can learn the new stuff later. It is important to have a foundation of common knowledge. But that is reactionary. When CDs began to hit the mainstream, vinyl briefly became fashionable. Devotees suggested the old 45s and 78s sounded better. But they were not better, just different -- warm velvety grooves vs. cool, clear 1s and 0s. While the sepia of analogue is comforting, teaching my child to operate a turntable instead of a DVD does her a disservice. Bases in fundamentals are beneficial unless they become anchors that weigh down a necessary shift of mind.

So we will drive around listening to electronica. Prodigy will help raise a prodigy for the next century, not this one. And the caravanserai, perhaps now totally buried in the desert, will still remain within me, a symbol driving my change as well as the future growth of my daughter.

Christian Crews is enrolled in the M.S. program in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. [email protected]

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