What can applause tell us about communication?
Feedback is a concept proposed by Norbert Wiener in The Human Use of Human Beings. In his words it is “the property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance.” This is key because an organism, be it biological or mechanical, “moves ahead from a known past into an unknown future…” Feedback is crucial in assisting with these future challenges. It is how experience is put to memory and use.
To adjust to changes, there needs to be a two-way form of communication. A signal is sent and received. Acknowledged by the sender, it is stored as past experience. Then adjustment can happen, then feedback can occur.
Because of this, Wiener finds applause to be a form of feedback. It is there “to establish in the performer’s mind some modicum of two-way communication.” Once established, a musician can respond to the crowd: know that she is doing a good job, know that she has to regain lost ground.
Feedback becomes interesting when we bring it into the realm of the Internet. Many would argue that two-way communication occurs on Youtube and Soundcloud. A song is put up; people can like and share the song accordingly. There is the applause. One cannot argue with that.
The question then would be where the feedback occurs. Naturally it would be in the artist. If a song was popular, viewed and liked and shared, he would find a way to write another song in a similar fashion. If it tanked he would try something different.
We could end right there, but this is swimming around and avoiding one thing: the song itself. Can a digital song perform feedback? Could it adjust to dismal ratings by finding more popular songs and mutate itself to share traits of those tunes? And what if it were a popular song? Could it find a way to lead people to other songs of the artist?
This speculation is not as far-fetched as one might think. The work of Nils Barricelli, performed more than fifty years ago, tells us that code can reproduce and evolve accordingly. Fast-forward to now. It will not be long until digital songs, via feedback, adapt for survival on the Internet. That is, if they are not already.