by Robert Cormack

 

 

“The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.”

Frank Zappa

 

There was a time when the strains of Frank Zappa’s band (Mothers of Invention) floated through Laurel Canyon. Further up the road, Crosby, Stills and Nash practised in their driveway, Joni Mitchell strummed by the window, Janis Joplin jammed with Big Brother beside her pool and Shel Silverstein, her neighbour, made them Margueritas.

Down the hill on Sunset, at The Whiskey a Go-Go, you could hear The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf and Them. One night Jim Morrison and Van Morrison discussed ancestral ties (both believing they were related).

All of the above were iconoclasts in their own way, trying different things, different harmonies, different wording. If the Left Bank in Paris inspired and conscripted the more famous and experimental writings of the 20s, it could be said Laurel Canyon did the same for music in the 60s.

It was there that Frank Zappa wrote brilliant and often difficult orchestrals while railing against conservative notions. Critics at the time liked to call him “a bit of a flake.” A panelist on some debating show once said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, Frank. Either you’re over my head or out of yours.”

Upon his death, Rolling Stone wrote: “Frank Zappa dabbled in virtually all kinds of music — and, whether guised as a satirical rocker, jazz-rock fusionist, guitar virtuoso, electronics wizard, or orchestral innovator, his eccentric genius was undeniable.” Anyone thinking he was “a bit of a flake” soon discovered (perhaps too late) there wasn’t a flaky bone in his body.

Zappa saw things more clearly than most. What stood for populist notion he found ridiculous. He lashed out at convention — even technology — with words, lyrics and music. The one invention he truly loved was the Synclavier, an instrument he used almost exclusively during his final years.

When Zappa said “The computer can’t tell you the emotional story,” he was speaking to the many inventors and futurists, the Jobs and Gates, all talking about computers replacing people one day. It was already occurring in type, templates and graphics. Soon even words would be synthesized and syndicated through a form of artificial intelligence.

For Zappa, it was another ridiculous joke. When he said “…but what’s missing is the eyebrows,” everyone thought he was being flaky again. What did he mean by eyebrows? How did they affect thought or creativity?

Eyebrows were the emotional story. Shock and surprise, disbelief and then believing. This is where AI will always fail — not by design — but lack of it.

For all the advances in technology and intelligence, there is no emotion. Maybe a computer can be programmed to make you cry. Maybe there’s enough information about crying, but that still isn’t emotion — nor will it raise eyebrows or body temperature.

Zappa wasn’t a real tearjerker artist. His idea of emotion probably differed from lovesick pop or downcast blues. But he knew that no form of emotion, lyrical or otherwise, could be formed into an algorithm or put on a chip.

Emotion is like a opposable thumb. It’s advanced from prehistoric times, becoming more flexible and more capable. Emotions are the same. To say they can be replicated is part of Zappa’s joke. Even an advanced artificial hand doesn’t have the dexterity of a real human one.

By Zappa’s reasoning, artificial intelligence will never have the dexterity to be truly emotional. At best, it’ll try and ape; at worst, it’ll come across as what Paul McCartney called “A silly little love song.”

For those of us in the writing game, AI should also come across as a joke. For words to have true meaning, they can’t be ordered. It’s the whimsical openness, the catchphrase arriving in the night, that make words original and moving.

Any artist who remembers Laurel Canyon would agree. As they experimented in those houses and driveways, what they discovered wasn’t a type of music — it was a type of expression. The hills around them, the community — maybe even the Santa Ana winds — all contributed or conspired to make something original. Divergence was key. As Zappa once said “Without deviation, progress is not possible.”

Joni Mitchell was once asked how she managed in a male-dominated music scene. Linda Ronstadt was asked the same thing. They both agreed the lines of gender didn’t matter. “I was different,” Joni explained. “People listened because I had something to say.” In some respects, she makes Zappa’s point. We won’t progress beyond where we are now — especially in terms of gender equality — until we show we have something different to offer.

In the late 60s, Jim Morrison wrote a song behind The Laurel Canyon Country Store called “Love Street.” He wrote it in the afternoon after a night at the Whiskey a Go-Go. In the second verse, he says “She has robes and she has monkeys, Lazy diamond studded flunkies, She has wisdom and knows what to do, She has me and she has you.”

For Morrison, an iconoclast in his own right, his words may seem odd and out of place, but for the time, eccentricities were everywhere. Possibly he captured a morning pit stop by one of the rich and ‘luxuried’, her wisdom being that she captivated through outrageous-ness.

What could possibly be fed into a computer to replicate that? Absolutely nothing. Technology can only replace what doesn’t raise eyebrows. It needs platitudes, what William Zinsser once described as “the common currency of newspapers and magazines like Time — the cheap words, made-up word and clichés which have become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them automatically.”

Today it runs like blood through the media. Here’s an example from The Huffington Post showing how automatically we grab the obvious:

“But the problem for Trump and congressional Republicans is that they’re still far off from “winning” on any number of legislative fronts. If anything, Trump’s desire to achieve a flurry of victories next week risks several high-profile setbacks.”

These aren’t bad words. They explain things well enough. What they don’t do is rise above the programmable. They don’t think the unthinkable.

Compare the above to something Hunter S. Thompson wrote back in 1986 under the title “Dealing with pigs”:

“The Meese report went to press last week, but nobody seemed to know what it said. The whole question of “pornography” was lost, once again, in a maze of blind dumbness and bitterly conflicting rumors that meant nothing at all and was put together on a budget about half the size of what the Mitchell Brothers spent for postage stamps last year.”

Scientists now believe animals become extinct through their own flaws. They don’t know how to adapt. They follow old paths. If we’re to survive as writers, we can’t make the same mistake. Our one point of difference — besides opposable thumbs — is our emotion, our ability to raise eyebrows.

If we ignore that, then we deserve to be replaced. Like any extinct animal, we did nothing to stop it. We followed old paths.

 

 


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