From Emo to Indie

Such is art to be introspective, but how much is too much?

The Emo Diaries: The Digital Generation and How They Express Themselves

Zach Braff’s would-be mistress in The Last Kiss first seduces him with the bittersweet truth that: "The world is moving so fast now that we start freaking long before our parents did because we don't ever stop to breathe anymore."

Mid-life crises make for less trendy material, and so it’s the quarter-life crises of hipster working professionals that have the digital generation all a buzz. Proving to the world they have their fingers on the pulse, the creative team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick – also behind My So-Called Life and the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond – are set to release Quarterlife, an online internet series about twentysomethings "coming of age in the digital generation," on November 11th.

Quarterlife will be distributed through Myspace in eight-minute video clips. Shortly after, episodes will also be available for download off quarterlife.com – a new social networking site targeted at media-types and creative-wannabes with promises to help them "get discovered". The show itself follows a group of young writers and artists who are searching for their "big break".

Internet series have been made before, such as YouTube’s infamous http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/19376/”>lonelygirl15. In 2006 Imogen Heap used MySpace to choose supporting acts for a UK tour. And more recently Film4 and Vertigo Films used MySpace to audition actors for Faintheart, a romantic comedy set for summer 2008.

But Quarterlife has been hailed by some in the media industry as "the first ‘network quality’ show to be produced specifically for the Web."

Harry Potter and Crises of Identity: Who do you belong to?

Last week, Harry Potter as a left-wing intellectual hero who triumphs over the middle-class petit bourgeoisie. The cover story, "Why Harry Potter is of the Left" identified the non-magical Muggles as the Thatcherite middle-class, and the magical population at Hogwarts as the intellectual aristocracy of the Left.

But this isn’t the first time someone has claimed Potter as one of their own. And this isn’t the first time that reader subjectivity clashes with current debates on identity politics.

Previously, parallels had been drawn between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, not to mention the suggestion that Rowling’s books are none other than Looking for God in Harry Pottermodern-day adaptations of biblical parable. Some had suggested using Harry Potter’s popularity as a way to spread Christianity, and the Church of England even published a guide to evangelism using Rowling’s books.

Meanwhile, Rowling set cyberspace ablaze last week with her revelation that Dumbledore is gay.

London Gets a Big Dose of Canadian Indie

Canada has proved to be an Canada’s rock’n’roll renaissance unlikely hotbed of musical talent in recent years with indie-rock bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist. Some of the country's best bands are hitting the UK this month.

The crash-course in Canadian indie began on 26 October when the Montreal-based Arcade Fire brought their emotionally-charged live show to Glasgow. The band - on tour until 19 November – are busy promoting their second album, Neon Bible, while issuing witty and incisive rebuttals to the New Yorker’s music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who recently called today’s indie music too white and too polite. They responded last week by compiling an mp3 of clips that prove he’s wrong. Their 2004 debut album, Funeral, was called one of "the decade’s most remarkable rock albums".

And that's not all. November sees an invasion of jittery dance-punk and introspective vocals from the northern bit of North America. The energetic British Columbian group Hot Hot Heat will be in the country from the 10th – 21st. Soon after Hot Hot Heat get started, the Ontario-based Alexisonfire will hit London on November 13. Finishing it off are The Weakerthans, the smart and introspective indie folk band with punk rock roots from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They land in the UK on November 23 and are promoting their new album, Reunion Tour.

Food-Obsessed: If we are what we eat, how self-absorbed can we get?

In what should have been an ironic joke – though probably just a result of poor planning – this week was both British Sausage Week and National Vegan Week. But in general this year has seen a deluge of debate and discussion on the things people eat.

Over the months we’ve seen piece after piece of quasi-anthropological "why do we eat what we eat?" writing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral – in which she documents a year lived as a locavore (one who only eats food grown locally) – to The Omnivore’s Dilemma – the book by Michael Pollan which looks at how our food is grown and asks (for reasons of both health and ethics) "what should we have for dinner?" For the more historically inclined, we have the natural and social History of Food coming in December.

Meanwhile, Milk-n-Honey, a play based on interviews with farmers, cooks, dumpster divers, and others involved in production and consumption of edibles is currently on in New York.

Also taking advantage of the fusion of food and ideas, the London Review Cake Shop opens 7 November, as the London Review of Books expands its property and mandate to include the sale and consumption of baked goods, hoping the move will not be seen as an emulation of the fusion of big-time coffee chains with equally big-time bookstores, but rather the "London coffeehouse of restoration times."

FRED TOMASELLI/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times