Analogy becomes Reality: Lucretius, Code, and the Future of Music

The Roman poet Lucretius believed all things to be comprised of invisible particles, atoms. In his monumental On the Nature of Things he describes these building blocks as letters making up words and sentences:

“Nay, even in my verses everywhere thou wilt discover letters manifold common to many words, and yet perforce thou must admit that words and verses both are formed at different letters each from each.”

As language establishes limits on repetition and use, atoms form matter in the same way. They create what Stephen Greenblatt calls “a discrete set capable of being combined in an infinite number of sentences.”

Digitally, music is made of such a discrete set capable of being combined in an infinite number of possibilities. Even the links for songs on Youtube share in the variation. Lucretius analogized the building blocks of the universe as code. But now music is just that, made of alphanumeric atoms. Analogy becomes reality.

That is the pace technology puts on music. It transforms analogy into reality. Paul Valéry analogized music as one day transmitting through homes like water, gas, and electricity. Now music is a public utility. At the grocery store, jazz hums quietly alongside air conditioning.

Whose to say when music will actually be stuck in our heads? An ear worm could actually be a song on an internal hard-drive implanted in the brain. All we would have to do is think up the tune to listen on repeat. This could happen sooner than we think. It won’t be a comfy analogy distanced from the present. How can we deal with this?

“Lucretius”, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The Swerve, “did not claim to know the hidden code of matter. But, he argued, it is important to grasp that there is a code and that, in principle, it could be investigated and understood…” If music is following technology at a rapid pace, truth will not be stranger than fiction. Fiction will in fact become truth. We may not know the hidden future of music. Instead, we can grasp that analogies are closer to music reality than we think. Once this is realized, the implications of technology upon music can be investigated and understood on a deeper level.

I leave you with a similar thought uttered by writer George Dyson in an interview with Edge:

“What we’re missing now, on another level, is not just biology, but cosmology. People treat the digital universe as some sort of metaphor, just a cute word for all these products. The universe of Apple, the universe of Google, the universe of Facebook, that these collectively constitute the digital universe, and we can only see it in human terms and what does this do for us?

We’re missing a tremendous opportunity. We’re asleep at the switch because it’s not a metaphor. In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own…”


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