The song The Sound of Silence has been on my mind, and ... what if they actually meant the lyrics? What if in lots of popular songs, people were actually trying to tell people a thing?
I know that "popular music contains messages for me" is a typical crazy-person thing to say. But, to be fair, they are literally messages! They are arrangements of words that convey content! And, if you're hearing it, it's for you - they're designed to appeal to as many people as possible.
Of course, I don't mean a secret coded messages - I mean the explicit content of the lyrics. (Occasionally broadcast media will still warn viewers that they are about to hear or see explicit content, but I don't notice that the things that follow are any more or less clear than usual.)
If I wanted to transmit a short verbal string to as many people as possible, and get them to listen to it enough to know all the words, I can't imagine much of a better medium for that than a popular song. People sing along to them, after all.
But, what if our society is such that you can get people to mimic the word-patterns, but not engage with the content of the message? Maybe you'd want to complain about that, warn people about it. And, maybe instead you'd watch your horror as they sang along to your warning of our society's diminished ability to process verbal content, without processing the verbal content. As your song climbed the charts, there was no public deliberation about the issues you'd raised, no visible evidence that people were moving the work forward, building on your progress.
Well, that already happened. The song is called The Sound of Silence. The lyrics are fairly explicit:
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by
The flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said:
"The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence."
So, yes, I think that popular songs contain hidden messages for me. Of course, I'm not the only one to hear them. At the time, I'm sure many made local efforts to fix the problems, some more promising than others. Though of course if they'd broadly succeeded, the world would look very different than it does.
But today, I'm going to try acting like a sane person. I'm not really going to engage with the content of the song in this post, and am instead just going to treat the melody and words as an art object.
Recently, my friend Light posted about a cool deep sea creature:
Munnopsid isopods are often found walking along the abyssal plain.
These “Daddy Long Legs” of the deep have long walking legs and antennae making them well-suited for this habitat, but they can also swim by paddling their legs.
This species, Paropsurus giganteus, can get quite large. Lasers mounted on the ROV’s camera housing (the red dots you see) measure 29 centimeters (11.4 inches). This species lives deep on the seafloor, over 3,000 meters, but there are other species of munnopsids that live in the water column with feathery legs that are well adapted for pelagic life.
Munnopsids are a type of crustacean, in a totally different class than the sea spiders (Pycnogonids) with which you may be more familiar.
Learn about this and other munnopsid isopods at our Deep-Sea Guide: http://ow.ly/n1OT30gJEMh
HELLO GANGLY OCEAN FRIEND
I couldn't help but read Light's comment - "HELLO GANGLY OCEAN FRIEND" - to the tune of the first line in the song. So I continued in the same vein:
Hello, gangly ocean friend.
I've come to talk with you again
Because I see you softly creeping,
On a seafloor of great deepening.
And by paddling your legs you’ve learned to swim
In oceans dim,
You isopod Munnopsid.
Abyssal plains you walk all day
Finding your path with antennae.
'Neath three thousand meters of water
This crustacean found its own quarter,
When your length was marked by the light of two laser beams
That bracket this isopod Munnopsid.
Between the laser lights I saw
Six spindly legs, but maybe more.
Like eggs of Turdus Migratorius,
This Paropsurus Giganteus
Has a body of palest robin blue,
And none dare to
Disturb this isopod Munnopsid
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Thank you for writing this.
The rewrite of the ode to an isopod is excellent, and a genre I really want to see more of. I've seen plenty of poems about how someone feels romantic when they see a rose, or awe when they see a lion, but I also feel freaked the hell out when I see a sea pig, or a little uncomfortable when I see an amoeba, and those emotions are just as important. (Maybe we just stopped writing as many popular poems about critters around the time we started looking at amoebas and sea pigs more?)
On the rest, if the song was a warning or a call to action, it doesn't seem very good at it. It's pretty broad and metaphorical. I can't tell if the warning is directed at me, and if so, I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong or should be doing differently.
Like, I have a sense of listening when people talk, and I don't bow and pray to anything, so taking it very literally doesn't work. Should I be sharing more of my work with people? Reading more graffiti? Treating what other people say as prophetic? Making more noise in general, perhaps by banging pots and pans in the street?
The most important thing I'd recommend to people as listeners, is more often on the margin asking the question "what if this were true?" Too often, we instead just notice than an opinion is interesting, and tag it as true enough to repeat. This is actually just expressing affiliation, not learning at all! This is a really easy habit to fall into - treating actual descriptions of reality as loose statements of mood.
As talkers, there's a need for more openness about what one really has at stake, or - if one doesn't feel safe doing that (since people often avoid vulnerability for good reason), being open about that to people one trusts.
An example of something I wrote that should have seemed especially insightful or nonobvious to anyone actually paying attention to content is this.
I have the best example of this for you!
How many of us sang along with this frickin' thing for years without thinking about the content, only to realize we were accidentally making fun of ourselves? 🙂
Thanks. After reading this, and the "Poets are Intelligence Assets" post, I've been trying to respond to things as if they were meant literally more often, and it's been good. This podcast's transcript was also helpful. In it, Eric Schwitzgebel points out a problem with using the principle of charity so much: you might not realize that someone really believes the stuff they're saying.
One argument against taking people literally all the time is that you might end up getting a lot of false beliefs, if people are saying wrong things. This doesn't seem like a great counterargument -- taking people literally doesn't mean you have to believe what they say.
This can be refined, though. If you are trying to systematize your understanding of the world, and taking people at their word, you'll want to see if their words can be integrated into your thought. If they can't be, you can respond to their statement S with "that contradicts T, which I know". This could lead to a productive conversation. It could also lead to a damaging fight. If the situation is bad enough, you might be reluctant to even generate such contradictions in your own head, let alone say them.
Anyway, that's a bit of a tangent from the refinement. The other counterargument to "constant literalism is good for your world model" is that words often are vague, and asking for clarification is often impossible and in any case is never a free action. So I guess the principle of charity says "interpret words however makes most sense to your current world model".
The principle of charity is a balm if you tend to instead interpret words in the way that makes the least sense to your current model, in a world where people make sense. If people often say things whose intended interpretation doesn't make sense to you, because it is false, the principle of charity is bad for you. But if people often say things whose intended interpretation doesn't make sense to you, because it is weird, and should cause an update, the principle of charity is also doing harm. In this case, it's probably a better strategy to interpret their words as what they are most likely to straightforwardly mean, without adding any bias for charity.
I think the strongest thing I'm prepared to recommend unreservedly is that you should have [Action: Seriously entertain the hypothesis that the other person's words are meant literally] ready at hand as an affordance unless you have deliberately decided to disregard it out of epistemic self-defense.
This is interesting (and I've finished crawling your blog!).
I don't have much to say; I try to take what most people say at face value. But thinking about this kind of thing seems important (and maybe I trend a little far the other way, and am too unwilling to consider interpretations other than the literal symbolic content of someone's speech.)
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The YouTube video is broken (removed due to copyright complaint), but there's a different YouTube video of the same thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fWyzwo1xg0 .
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