A Brave New World

Does that phrase inspire dread in you as you recall Aldous Huxley’s eerily relevant book of the same title? Or does it conjure up Disney-esque images of a princess and faux prince riding a magic carpet to a soaring soundtrack? It does a little bit of both for me. Mainly, it serves to describe the impression I have of the world in 2024 as I look around and see so many things changing. 

Since the global pandemic in 2020 we have collectively experienced dramatic changes in communication, technology, customer service, news sources, and the list goes on. This global change is affecting musicians in staggering ways, both positive and negative. The question I keep returning to is, what does this mean for humanity?

I took a Humanities course as an elective in high school, mostly as a way to hang with my choir friends, fill up the required number of courses in my schedule, and get an easy “A” from the choir director who taught the class. Ha! Little did I know, I would actually learn important things about the development of western music from Gregorian chant to modern day opera, oratorio, and the gamut of experimental music. Music history was covered in depth, and we were required to work out exercises in music theory and analysis, but the class covered far more than music. We explored the visual arts, ballet, scientific discoveries, world religions, and philosophy. It was a fascinating course; one I appreciate far more now as I look back as an adult!

One of our most important discussions began on the first day of class as our teacher asked us, “What makes us human?” Immediately we smarty-pants teenagers came up with answers like, “humans breathe, communicate, marry, form families,” and so forth. But we were challenged for several days, and indeed throughout the duration of the course, to consider the question more fully. Animals breathe, communicate, and form attachments, with some species mating for life. What makes humans different, unique?

Rather than make you agonize over an answer, I’ll give you a spoiler: it’s the humanities, the arts! It is those things like religion, philosophy, inquiry-based science, artistic expression…that give rise to questions like “Who is man and how did he get here? Why does man exist and what purpose should he accomplish? Where does order and design come from in nature and what purpose does it serve?” And it is the answer to these questions that drives artists, musicians, scientists, clergy, and philosophers in their work; their explorations produce the great writings, scientific discoveries, speeches, paintings, cathedrals, sculptures, and live performances that have nourished and perplexed humanity for thousands of years. It is all of this that we are in danger of losing to AI and this “brave new world” that is trying to force its way upon us.

We know this intuitively: technology does not, and cannot, ultimately satisfy the very human need for in-person connections. And yet, there is a real push to put everything online: recorded music, live concerts, piano lessons, choir rehearsals, phone calls, doctor visits, and education. The rising cost of everything drives some of this, of course, as it is more cost-effective to digitize and automate many aspects of work; but what is the human cost to all of this? What are we losing in terms of smiles, handshakes, chance meetings with new/old friends, breathing together as you make music in real time, engaging in face-to-face communication where you enjoy the sights and smells of the physical environment and the people you’re with, experiencing real-time conflict that begs resolution, and so many more human experiences that are integral to our growth and humanness?

I am afraid I have more questions than answers at this point. This I know for sure, though, that it is vital for creatives to be asking these questions and striving to provide real, tangible, physical, in-person experiences for our communities. We need to build bridges for relating to each other in person.

I don’t think our humanity is at stake; I have faith that God will preserve us for His will and in His way. But I do think that what is at stake is our dignity, respect for each other, and quality of life. As we increasingly interact in the digital world, we isolate ourselves from a physical reality and experience increasing levels of depression. Pretending that we can divorce ourselves from a physical reality is deceiving ourselves and a recipe for a very real loss of meaning and hope.

Don’t get me wrong - the benefits of technology - namely, saving time and money - give us more leisure time than ever before. I love my dishwasher, washer and dryer, smart phone, and Alexa. I can accomplish more tasks and find information faster than I could just a few years ago. But what technology cannot give me is the feel of a friend’s hug or the salty smell of the seashore. It cannot engage with me in a meaningful dialogue, complete with disagreements, about why suffering seems to be a necessary part of life. It cannot replace the physical presence of my piano teacher scooting beside me on the bench to show me exactly how to shape a phrase physically and aurally. And all these things that technology cannot give me are the moments that I cherish most, the things that give meaning and pleasure to what can seem a very ordinary, mundane life. 

The immediacy and appeal of the digital world is strong, but not impenetrable. It will take courage to create against the tide, to provide in-person experiences to help counteract the digital world’s tendency to consume. But it is necessary, to provide meaning and preserve human dignity both individually and corporately. 

What can we do today to turn off the tech (at least walk away for a time) and invest ourselves physically in our environment - our home, garden, neighborhood, gym, church, community center, church, choir, coffee shop - creating time and space for people to develop and flourish? Is it possible to create a brave new world in which technology can exist amicably beside well-rounded, respectful, purpose-driven human beings as a useful tool for, rather than the replacement of, a flourishing human society?

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