Sam Barker, a Berlin-based music producer, and David Pearce, philosopher and author of The Hedonistic Imperative, join us on a special episode of the FLI Podcast to spread some existential hope. Sam is the author of euphoric sound landscapes inspired by the writings of David Pearce, largely exemplified in his latest album — aptly named “Utility.” Sam’s artistic excellence, motivated by blissful visions of the future, and David’s philosophical and technological writings on the potential for the biological domestication of heaven are a perfect match made for the fusion of artistic, moral, and intellectual excellence. This podcast explores what significance Sam found in David’s work, how it informed his music production, and Sam and David’s optimistic visions of the future; it also features a guest mix by Sam and plenty of musical content.
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- The relationship between Sam’s music and David’s writing
- Existential hope
- Ideas from the Hedonistic Imperative
- Sam’s albums
- The future of art and music
Where to follow Sam Barker :
Where to follow Sam’s label, Ostgut Ton:
5:40 The inspiration around Sam’s music
17:38 Barker- Maximum Utility
20:03 David and Sam on their work
23:45 Do any of the tracks evoke specific visions or hopes?
24:40 Barker- Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order
28:15 Barker – Paradise Engineering
31:20 Barker – Hedonic Treadmill
33:05 The future and evolution of art
54:03 David on how good the future can be
58:36 Guest mix by Barker
Delta Rain Dance – 1
John Beltran – A Different Dream
Rrose – Horizon
Alexandroid – lvpt3
Datassette – Drizzle Fort
Conrad Sprenger – Opening
JakoJako – Wavetable#1
Barker & David Goldberg – #3
Barker & Baumecker – Organik (Intro)
Anthony Linell – Fractal Vision
Ametsub – Skydroppin’
Ladyfish\Mewark – Comfortable
JakoJako & Barker –
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David Pearce: I would encourage people to conjure up their vision of paradise. and the future can potentially be like that only much, much better.
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today we have a particularly unique episode with Berlin based DJ and producer Sam Barker as well as with David Pearce, and right now, you’re listening to Sam’s track Paradise Engineering on his album Utility. We focus centrally on the FLI Podcast on existential risk. The other side of existential risk is existential hope. This hope reflects all of our dreams, aspirations, and wishes for a better future. For me, this means a future where we’re able to create material abundance, eliminate global poverty, end factory farming and address animal suffering, evolve our social and political systems to bring greater wellbeing to everyone, and more optimistically, create powerful aligned artificial intelligence that can bring about the end involuntary suffering, and help us to idealize the quality of our minds and ethics. If we don’t go extinct, we have plenty of time to figure these things out and that brings me a lot of joy and optimism. Whatever future seems most appealing to you, these visions are a key component to why mitigating existential risk is so important. So, in the context of COVID-19, we’d like to revitalize existential hope and this podcast is aimed at doing that.
As a part of this podcast, Sam was kind enough to create a guest mix for us. You can find that after the interview portion of this podcast and can find where it starts by checking the timestamps. I’ll also release the mix separately a few days after this podcast goes live. Some of my favorite tracks of Sam’s not highlighted in this podcast are Look How Hard I’ve Tried, and Neuron Collider. If you enjoy Sam’s work and music featured here, you can support or follow him at the links in the description. He has a Bandcamp shop where you can purchase his albums. I grabbed a vinyl copy of his album Debiasing from there.
As for a little bit of background on this podcast, Sam Barker, who produces electronic music under the name Barker, has albums with titles such as Debiasing” and Utility. I was recommended to listen to these, and discovered his album “Utility” is centrally inspired by David Pearce’s work, specifically The Hedonistic Imperative. Utility has track titles like Paradise Engineering, Experience Machines, Gradients Of Bliss, Hedonic Treadmill, and Wireheading. So, being a big fan of Sam’s music production and David’s philosophy and writing, I wanted to bring them together to explore the theme of existential hope and Sam’s inspiration for his albums and how David fits into all of it.
Many of you will already be familiar with David Pearce. He is a friend of this podcast and a multiple time guest. David is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, rebranded Humanity+, and is a prominent figure within the transhumanism movement in general. You might know him from his work on the Hedonistic Imperative, a book which explores our moral obligation to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life through technological intervention.
Finally, I want to highlight the 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin. If you like the content on this show, I think you’ll really enjoy the topics and guests on Rob’s podcast. His is also motivated by and contextualized in an effective altruism framework and covers a broad range of topics related to the world’s most pressing issues and what we can do about them. If that sounds of interest to you, I suggest checking out episode #71 with Ben Todd on the ideas of 80,000 Hours, and episode #72 with Toby Ord on existential risk.
And with that, here’s my conversation with Dave and Sam, as well as Sam’s guest mix.
Lucas Perry: For this first section, I’m basically interested in probing the releases that you already have done, Sam, and exploring them and your inspiration for the track titles and the soundscapes that you’ve produced. Some of the background and context for this is that much of this seems to be inspired by and related to David’s work, in particular the Hedonistic Imperative. I’m at first curious to know, Sam, how did you encounter David’s work, and what does it mean for you?
Sam Barker: David’s work was sort of arriving in the middle of a sort of a series of realizations, and kind of coming from a starting point of being quite disillusioned with music, and a little bit disenchanted with the vagueness, and the terminology, and the imprecision of the whole thing. I think part of me has always wanted to be some kind of scientist, but I’ve ended up at perhaps not the opposite end, but quite far away from it.
Lucas Perry: Could explain what you mean by vagueness and imprecision?
Sam Barker: I suppose the classical idea of what making music is about is a lot to do with the sort of western idea of individualism and about self expression. I don’t know. There’s this romantic idea of artists having these frenzied creative bursts that give birth to the wonderful things, that it’s some kind of struggle. I just was feeling super disillusioned with all of that. Around that time, 2014 or 15, I was also reading a lot about social media, reading about behavioral science, trying to figure what was going on in this arena and how people are being pushed in different directions by this algorithmic system of information distribution. That kind of got me into this sort of behavioral science side of things, like the addictive part of the variable-ratio reward schedule with likes. It’s a free dopamine dispenser kind of thing. This was kind of getting me into reading about behavioral science and cognitive science. It was giving me a lot of clarity, but not much more sort of inspiration. It was basically like music.
Dance music especially is a sort of complex behavioral science. You do this and people do that. It’s all deeply ingrained. I sort of imagine the DJ as a sort Skinner box operator pulling puppet strings and making people behave in different ways. Music producers are kind of designing clever programs using punishment and reward or suspense and release, and controlling people’s behavior. The whole thing felt super pushy and not a very inspiring conclusion. Looking at the problem from a cognitive science point of view is just the framework that helped me to understand what the problem was in the first place, so this kind of problem of being manipulative. Behavioral science is kind of saying what we can make people do. Cognitive psychology is sort of figuring out why people do that. That was my entry point into cognitive psychology, and that was kind of the basis for Debiasing.
There’s always been sort of a parallel for me between what I make and my state of mind. When I’m in a more positive state, I tend to make things I’m happier with, and so on. Getting to the bottom of what tricks were, I suppose, with dance music. I kind of understood implicitly, but I just wanted to figure out why things worked. I sort of came to the conclusion it was to do with a collection of biases we have, like the confirmation bias, and the illusion of truth effect, and the mere exposure effect. These things are like the guardians of four four supremacy. Dance music can be pretty repetitive, and we describe it sometimes in really aggressive terminology. It’s a psychological kind of interaction.
Cognitive psychology was leading me to Kaplan’s law of the instrument. The law of the instrument says that if you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll find that everything he encounters requires pounding. I thought that was a good metaphor. The idea is that we get so used to using tools in a certain way that we lose sight of what it is we’re trying to do. We act in the way that the tool instructs us to do. I thought, what if you take away the hammer? That became a metaphor for me, in a sense, that David clarified in terms of pain reduction. We sort of put these painful elements into music in a way to give this kind of hedonic contrast, but we don’t really consider that that might not be necessary. What happens when we abolish these sort of negative elements? Are the results somehow released from this process? That was sort of the point, up until discovering the Hedonistic Imperative.
I think what I was needing at the time was a sort of framework, so I had the idea that music was decision making. To improve the results, you have to ask better questions, make better decisions. You can make some progress looking at the mechanics of that from a psychology point of view. What I was sort of lacking was a purpose to frame my decisions around. I sort of had the idea that music was a sort of a valence carrier, if you like, and that it could tooled towards a sort of a greater purpose than just making people dance, which was for Debiasing the goal, really. It was to make people dance, but don’t use the sort of deeply ingrained cues that people used to, and see if that works.
What was interesting was how broadly it was accepted, this first EP. There was all kinds of DJs playing it in techno, ambient, electro, all sorts of different styles. It reached a lot of people. It was as if taking out the most functional element made it more functional and more broadly appealing. That was the entry point to utilitarianism. There was sort of an accidentally utilitarian act, in a way, to sort of try and maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. I suppose after landing in utilitarianism and searching for some kind of a framework for a sense of purpose in my work, the Hedonistic Imperative was probably the most radical, optimistic take on the system. Firstly, it put me in a sort of mindset where it granted permission to explore sort of utopian ideals, because I think the idea of pleasure is a little bit frowned upon in the art world. I think the art world turns its nose up at such direct cause and effect. The idea that producers could sort of be paradise engineers of sorts, so the precursors to paradise engineers, that we almost certainly would have a role in a kind of sensory utopia of the future.
There was this kind of permission granted. You can be optimistic. You can enter into your work with good intentions. It’s okay to see music as a tool to increase overall wellbeing, in a way. That was kind of the guiding idea for my work in the studio. I’m trying, these days, to put more things into the system to make decisions in a more conscious way, at least where it’s appropriate to. This sort of notion of reducing pain and increasing pleasure was the sort of question I would ask at any stage of decision making. Did this thing that I did serve those ends? If not, take a step back and try a different approach.
There’s something else to be said about the way you sort of explore this utopian world without really being bogged down. You handle the objections in such a confident way. I called it a zero gravity world of ideas. I wanted to bring that zero gravity feeling to my work, and to see that technology can solve any problem in this sphere. Anything’s possible. All the obstacles are just imagined, because we fabricate these worlds ourselves. These are things that were really instructive for me, as an artist.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite an interesting journey. From the lens of understanding cognitive psychology and human biases, was it that you were seeing those biases in dance music itself? If so, what were those biases in particular?
Sam Barker: On both sides, on the way it’s produced and in the way it’s received. There’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. You’re playing a set and you take a kick drum out. That signals to people to perhaps be alert. The lighting engineer, they’ll maybe raise the lights a little bit, and everybody knows that the music is going into sort of a breakdown, which is going to end in some sort of climax. Then, at that point, the kick drum comes back in. We all know this pattern. It’s really difficult to understand why that works without referring to things like cognitive psychology or behavioral science.
Lucas Perry: What does the act of debiasing the reception and production of music look like and do to the music and its reception?
Sam Barker: The first part that I could control was what I put into it. The experiment was whether a debiased piece of dance music could perform the same functionality, or whether it really relies on these deeply ingrained cues. Without wanting to sort of pat myself on the back, it kind of succeeded in its purpose. It was sort of proof that this was a worthy concept.
Lucas Perry: You used the phrase, earlier, four four. For people who are not into dance music, that just means a kick on each beat, which is ubiquitous in much of house and techno music. You’ve removed that, for example, in your album Debiasing. What are other things that you changed from your end, in the production of Debiasing, to debias the music from normal dance music structure?
Sam Barker: It was informing the structure of what I was doing so much that I wasn’t so much on a grid where you have predictable things happening. It’s a very highly formulaic and structured thing, and that all keys into the expectation and this confirmation bias that people, I think, get some kind of kick from when the predictable happens. They say, yep. There you go. I knew that was going to happen. That’s a little dopamine rush, but I think it’s sort of a cheap trick. I guess I was trying to get the tricks out of it, in a way, so figuring out what they were, and trying to reduce or eliminate them was the process for Debiasing.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and meaningful, I think. Let’s just take trap music. I know exactly how trap music is going to go. It has this buildup and drop structure. It’s basically universal across all dance music. Progressive house in the 2010s was also exactly like this. What else? Dubstep, of course, same exact structure. Everything is totally predictable. I feel like I know exactly what’s going to happen, having listened to electronic music for over a decade.
Sam Barker: It works, I think. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it does the job, but when you’re trying to imagine states beyond just getting a little kick from knowing what was going to happen, that’s the place that I was trying to get to, really.
Lucas Perry: After the release of Debiasing in 2018, which was a successful attempt at serving this goal and mission, you then discovered the Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, and kind of leaned into consequentialism, it seems. Then, in 2019, you had two releases. You had BARKER 001 and you had Utility. Now, Utility is the album which most explicitly adopts David Pearce’s work, specifically in the Hedonistic Imperative. You mentioned electronic dance producers and artists in general can be sort of the first wave of, or can perhaps assist in paradise engineering, insofar as that will be possible in the near to short terms future, given advancements in technology. Is that sort of the explicit motivation and framing around those two releases of BARKER 001 and Utility?
Sam Barker: BARKER 001 was a few tracks that were taken out of the running for the album, because they didn’t sort of fit the concept. Really, I knew the last track was kind of alluding to the album. Otherwise, it was perhaps not sort of thematically linked. Hopefully, if people are interested in looking more into what’s behind the music, you can lead people into topics with the concept. With Utility, I didn’t want to just keep exploring cognitive biases and unpicking dance music structurally. It’s sort of a paradox, because I guess the Hedonistic Imperative argues that pleasure can exist without purpose, but I really was striving for some kind of purpose with the pleasure that I was getting from music. That sort of emerged from reading the Hedonistic Imperative, really, that you can apply music to this problem of raising the general level of happiness up a notch. I did sort of worry that by trying to please, it wouldn’t work, that it would be something that’s too sickly sweet. I mean, I’m pretty turned off by pop music, and there was this sort of risk that it would end up somewhere like that. That’s it, really. Just looking for a higher purpose with my work in music.
Lucas Perry: David, do you have any reactions?
David Pearce: Well, when I encountered Utility, yes, I was thrilled. As you know, essentially I’m a writer writing in quite heavy sub-academic prose. Sam’s work, I felt, helps give people a glimpse of our glorious future, paradise engineering. As you know, the reviews were extremely favorable. I’m not an expert critic or anything like that. I was just essentially happy and thrilled at the thought. It deserves to be mainstream. It’s really difficult, I think, to actually evoke the glorious future we are talking about. I mean, I can write prose, but in some sense music can evoke paradise better, at least for many people, than prose.
Sam Barker: I think it’s something you can appreciate without cognitive effort which, your prose, at least you need to be able to read. It’s a bit more of a passive way of receiving, music, which I think is an intrinsic advantage it has. That’s actually really a relief to hear, because there was just a small fear in my mind that I was grabbing these concepts with clumsy hands and discrediting them.
David Pearce: Not at all.
Sam Barker: It all came from a place of sincere appreciation for this sort of world that you are trying to entice people with. When I’ve tried to put into words what it was that was so inspiring, I think it’s that there was also a sort of very practical, kind of making lots of notes. I’ve got lots of amazing one liners. Will we ever leave the biological dark ages or the biological domestication of heaven? There was just so many things that conjure up such vividly, heavenly sensations. It sort of brings me back to the fuzziness of art and inspiration, but I hope I’ve tried to adopt the same spirit of optimism that you approached the Hedonistic Imperative with. I actually don’t know what state of mind your approach was at the time, even, but it must’ve come in a bout of extreme hopefulness.
David Pearce: Yes, actually. I started taking Selegiline, and six weeks later I wrote the Hedonistic Imperative. It just gave me just enough optimism to embark on. I mean, I have, fundamentally, a very dark view of Darwinian life, but for mainly technical reasons I think the future is going to be super humanly glorious. How do you evoke this for our dark, Darwinian minds?
Sam Barker: Yeah. How do we get people excited about it? I think you did a great job.
David Pearce: It deserves to go mainstream, really, the core idea. I mean, forget the details, the neurobabble of genetics. Yeah, of course it’s incredibly important, but this vision of just how sublimely wonderful life could be. How do we achieve full spectrum, multimedia dominance? I mean, I can write it.
Lucas Perry: Sounds like you guys need to team up.
Sam Barker: It’s very primitive. I’m excited where it could head, definitely.
Lucas Perry: All right. I really like this idea about music showing how good the future can be. I think that many of the ways that people can understand how good the future can be comes from the best experiences they’ve had in their life. Now, that’s just a physical state of your brain. If something isn’t physically impossible, then the only barrier to achieving and realizing that thing is knowledge. Take all the best experiences in your life. If we could just understand computation, and biology in the brain, and consciousness well enough. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real limits to how good and beautiful things can get. Do any of the tracks that you’ve done evoke very specific visions, dreams, desires, or hopes?
Sam Barker: I would be sort of hesitant to make direct links between tracks and particular mindsets, because when I’m sitting down to make music, I’m not really thinking about any one particular thing. Rather, I’m trying to look past things and look more about what sort of mood I want to put into the work. Any of the tracks on the record, perhaps, could’ve been called paradise engineering, is what I’m saying. The names from the tracks are sort of a collection of the ideas that were feeding the overall process. The application of the names was kind of retroactive connection making. That’s probably a disappointment to some people, but the meaning of all of the track names is in the whole of the record. I think the last track on the record, Die-Hards of the Darwinian Order, that was a phrase that you used, David, to describe people clinging to the need for pain in life to experience pleasure.
David Pearce: Yes.
Sam Barker: That track was not made for the record. It was made some time ago, and it was just a technical experiment to see if I could kind of recreate a realistic sounding band with my synthesizers. The label manager, Alex, was really keen to have this on the record. I was kind of like, well, it doesn’t fit conceptually. It has a kick drum. It’s this kind of somber mood, and the rest of the record is really uplifting, or trying to be. Alex was saying he liked the contrast to the positivity of the rest of the album. He felt like it needed this dose of realism or something.
David Pearce: That makes sense, yes.
Sam Barker: I sort of conceded in the end. We called it Die-Hards of the Darwinian Order, because that was what I felt like he was.
David Pearce: Have you told him this?
Sam Barker: I told him. He definitely took the criticism. As I said, it’s the actual joining up of these ideas that I make notes on. The tracks themselves, in the end, had to be done in a creative way sort of retroactively. That doesn’t mean to say that all of these concepts were not crucial to the process of making the record. When you’re starting a project, you call it something like new track, happy two, mix one, or something. Then, eventually, the sort of meaning emerges from the end result, in a way.
Lucas Perry: It’s just like what I’ve heard from authors of best selling books. They say you have no idea what the book is going to be called until the end.
Sam Barker: Right, yeah.
David Pearce: One of the reasons I think it’s so important to stress life based on gradients of bliss ratcheting up hedonic set points is that, instead of me or anyone else trying to impose their distinctive vision of paradise, it just allows, with complications, everyone to keep most of their existing values and preferences, but just ratchets up hedonic tone and hedonic range. I mean, this is the problem with so many traditional paradises. They involve the imposition of someone else’s values and preferences on you. I’m being overly cerebral about it now, but I think my favorite track on the album is the first. I would encourage people to conjure up their vision of paradise and the future can potentially be like that and be much, much better.
Sam Barker: This, I think, relates to the sort of pushiness that I was feeling at odds with. The music does take people to these kind of euphoric states, sometimes chemically underwritten, but it’s being done in a dogmatic and singular way. There’s not much room for personal interpretation. It’s sort of everybody’s experiencing one thing, which I think there’s something in these kind of communal experiences that I’m going to hopefully understand one day.
Lucas Perry: All right. I think some of my favorite tracks are Look How Hard I’ve Tried on Debiasing. I also really like Maximum Utility and Neuron Collider. I mean, all of it is quite good and palatable.
Sam Barker: Thank you. The ones that you said are some of my personal favorites. It’s also funny how some of the least favorite tracks, or not least favorite, but the ones that I felt like didn’t really do what they set out to do, were other people’s favorites. Hedonic Treadmill, for example. I’d put that on the pile of didn’t work, but people are always playing it, too, finding things in it that I didn’t intentionally put there. Really, that track felt to me like stuck on the hedonic treadmill, and not sort of managing to push the speed up, or push the level up. This is, I suppose, the problem with art, that there isn’t a universal pleasure sense, that there isn’t a one size fits all way to these higher states.
David Pearce: You correctly called it the hedonic treadmill. Some people say the hedonistic treadmill. Even one professor I know calls it the hedonistic treadmill.
Lucas Perry: I want to get on that thing.
David Pearce: I wouldn’t mind spending all day on a hedonistic treadmill.
Sam Barker: That’s my kind of exercise, for sure.
Lucas Perry: All right, so let’s pivot here into section two of our conversation, then. For this section, I’d just like to focus on the future, in particular, and exploring the state of dance music culture, how it should evolve, and how science and technology, along with art and music, can evolve into the future. This question comes from you in particular, Sam, addressed to Dave. I think you were curious about his experiences in life and if he’s ever lost himself on a dance floor or has any special music or records that put him in a state of bliss?
Sam Barker: Very curious.
David Pearce: My musical autobiography. Well, some of my earliest memories is of a wind up gramophone. I’m showing my age here. Apparently, as a five year old child, I used to sing on the buses. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, due. I’m so crazy over love of you. Then, graduating via the military brass band play, apparently I used to enjoy as a small child to pop music. Essentially, for me, very, very unanswerable about music. I like to use it as a backdrop, you know. At its best, there’s this tingle up one’s spine one gets, but it doesn’t happen very often. The only thing I would say is that it’s really important for me that music should be happy. I know some people get into sad music. I know it’s complicated. Music, for me, has to elicit something that’s purely good.
Sam Barker: I definitely have no problem with exploring the sort of darker side of human nature, but I also have come to the realization that there’s better ways to explore the dark sides than aesthetic stimulation through, perhaps, words and ideas. Aesthetics is really at its optimum function when it’s working towards more positive goals of happiness and joy, and these sort of swear words in the art world.
Lucas Perry: Dave, you’re not trying to hide your rave warehouse days from us, are you?
David Pearce: Well, yeah. Let’s just say I might not have been entirely drug naïve with friends. Let’s just say I was high on life or something, but it’s a long time since I have explored that scene. Part of me still misses it. When it comes to anything in the art world, just as I think visual art should be beautiful. Which, I mean, not all serious artists would agree.
Sam Barker: I think the whole notion is just people find it repulsive somehow, especially in the art world. Somebody that painted a picture and then the description reads I just wanted it to be pretty is getting thrown out the gallery. What greater purpose could it really take on?
David Pearce: Yeah.
Lucas Perry: Maybe there’s some feeling of insecurity, and a feeling and a need to justify the work as having meaning beyond the sensual or something. Then there may also be this fact contributing to it. Seeking happiness and sensual pleasure directly, in and of itself, is often counterproductive towards that goal. Seeking wellbeing and happiness directly usually subverts that mission, and I guess that’s just a curse of Darwinian life. Perhaps those, I’m just speculating here, contribute to this cultural distaste, as you were pointing out, to enjoy pleasure as the goals of art.
Sam Barker: Yeah, we’re sort of intellectually allergic to these kinds of ideas, I think. They just seem sort of really shallow and superficial. I suppose that was kind of my existential fear before the album came out, that the idea that I was just trying to make people happy would just be seen as this shallow thing, which I don’t see it as, but I think the sentiment is quite strong in the art world.
Lucas Perry: If that’s quite shallow, then I guess those people are also going to have problems with the Buddha in people like that. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I think you’re on the same intentional ground as the Buddha. Moving a little bit along here. Do you guys have thoughts or opinions on the future of aesthetics, art, music, and joy, and how science and technology can contribute to that?
David Pearce: Oh, good heavens. One possibility will be that, as neuroscience advances, it’ll be possible to isolate the molecular experience of visual beauty, musical bliss, spiritual excellence, and scientifically amplify them so that one can essentially enjoy musical experiences that are orders of magnitude richer than anything that’s even physiologically feasible today. I mean, I can use all this fancy language, but what actually this will involve, in terms of true trans-human and post-human artists. The gradients of bliss is important here, in such that I think we will retain information sensitive gradients, so we don’t lose critical sharpness, discernment, critical appreciation. Nonetheless, this base point for aesthetic excellence. All experience can be superhumanly beautiful. I mean, I religiously star my music collection from one to five, but what would a six be like? What would 100 be like?
Sam Barker: I like these questions. I guess the role of the artist in the long term future in creating these kinds of states maybe gets pushed out at some point by people who are in the labs and reprogram the way music is, or the way that any sort of sensory experience is received. I wonder whether there’s a place in techno utopia for music made by humans, or whether artists sort of just become redundant in some way. I’m not going to get offended if the answer is bye, bye.
Lucas Perry: I’d be interested in just making a few points about the evolutionary perspective before we get into the future of ape artists or mammalian artists. It just seems like some kind of happy cosmic accident that, for the vibration of air, human beings have developed a sensory appreciation of information and structure embedded in that medium. I think we’re quite lucky, as a species, that music and musical appreciation is embedded in the software of human genetics, as such that we can appreciate, and create, and share musical moments. Now, with genetic engineering and more ambitious paradise engineering, I think it would be beautiful to expand the modalities for which artistic, or aesthetic, or the appreciation of beauty can be experienced.
Music is one clear way of having aesthetic appreciation and joy. Visual art is another one. People do derive a lot of satisfaction from touch. Perhaps that could be more information structured in the ways that music and art are. There might be a way of changing what it means to be an intelligent thing, such there can be just an expansion of art appreciation across all of our essential modalities, and even into essential modalities which don’t exist yet.
David Pearce: The nature of trans-human and post-human art just leaves me floundering.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. It seems useful here just to reflect on how happy of an accident art is. As we begin to evolve, we can get into, say, A.I. here. A.I. and machine learning is likely to be able to have very, very good models of, say, our musical preferences within the next few years. I mean, they’re somewhat already very good at it. They’ll continue to get better. Then, we have fairly rudimental algorithms which can produce music. If we just extrapolate out into the future, eventually artificial intelligent systems will be able to produce music better than any human. In that world, what is the role of the human artist? I guess I’m not sure.
Sam Barker: I’m also completely not sure, but I feel like it’s probably going to happen in my lifetime, that these technologies get to a point that they actually do serve the purpose. At the moment, there is A.I. software that can create unique compositions, but it does so by looking at an archive of music with Ava. It’s Bach, and Beethoven, and Mozart. Then it reinterprets all of the codes that are embedded in that, and uses that to make new stuff. It sounds just like a composing quoting, and it’s convincing. Considering this is going to get better and better, I’m pretty confident that we’ll have a system that will be able to create music to a person’s specific taste, having not experienced music, that would say look at my music library, and then start making things that I might like. I can’t say how I feel about that.
Let’s say if it worked, and it did actually surprise me, and I was feeling like humans can’t make this kind of sensation in me. This is a level above. In a way, yeah, somebody that doesn’t like the vagueness of the creative process, this really appeals, somehow. The way that things are used, and the way that our attention is sort of a resource that gets manipulated, I don’t know whether we have an incredible technology, once again, in the wrong hands. It’s just going to be turned into a mind control. These kind of things would be put to use for nefarious purposes. I don’t fear the technology. I fear what we, in our unmodified state, might do with it.
David Pearce: Yes. I wonder when the last professional musician will retire, having been eclipsed by A.I. I mean, in some sense, we are, I think, stepping stones to something better. I don’t know when the last philosophers will be pensioned off. Hard problem of mind solved, announced in nature, Nobel Prize beckons. Distinguished philosophers of mind announce their intention to retire. Hard to imagine, but one does suppose that A.I. will be creating work of ever greater excellence tailored to the individual. I think the evolutionary roots of aesthetic appreciation are very, very deep. It kind of does sound very disrespectful to artists, saying that A.I. could replace artists, but mathematicians and scientists are probably going to be-
Lucas Perry: Everyone’s getting replaced.
Sam Barker: It’s maybe a similar step to when portrait painters when the camera was threatening their line of work. You can press a button and, in an instant, do what would’ve taken several days. I sort of am cautiously looking forward to more intelligent assistance in the production of music. If we did live in a world where there wasn’t any struggles to express, or any wrongs to right, any flaws in our character to unpick, then I would struggle to find anything other than the sort of basic pleasure of the action of making music. I wouldn’t really feel any reason to share what I made, in a sense. I think there’s a sort of moral, social purpose that’s embedded within music, if you want to grasp it. I think, if A.I. is implemented with that same moral, ethical purpose, then, in a way, we should treat it as any other task that comes to be automated or extremely simplified. In some way, we should sort of embrace the relaxation of our workload, in a way.
There’s nothing to say that we couldn’t just continue to make music if it brought us pleasure. I think distinguishing between these two things of making music and sharing it was an important discovery for me. The process of making a piece of music, if it was entirely pleasurable, but then you treat the experience like it was a failure because it didn’t reach enough people, or you didn’t get the response or the boost to your ego that you were searching from it, then it’s your remembering self overriding your experiencing self, in a way, or your expectations getting in the way of your enjoyment of the process. If there was no purpose to it anymore, I might still make it for my own pleasure, but I like to think I would be happy that a world that didn’t require music was already a better place. I like to think that I wouldn’t be upset with my redundancy with my P45 from David Pearce.
David Pearce: Oh, no. With a neuro chip, you see, your creative capacities could be massively augmented. You’d have narrow super intelligence on a chip. Now, in one sense, I don’t think classical digital computers are going to wake up and become conscious. They’re never actually going to be able to experience music or art or anything like this. In that sense, they will remain tools, but tools that one can actually incorporate within oneself, so that they become part of you.
Lucas Perry: A friendly flag there that many people who have been on this podcast disagree with that point. Yeah, fair enough, David. I mean, it seems that there are maybe three options. One is, as you mentioned, Sam, to find joy and beauty in more things, and to sort of let go of the need for meaning and joy to come from not being something that is redundant. Once human beings are made obsolete or redundant, it’s quite sad for us, because we derive much of our meaning, thanks a lot, evolution, from accomplishing things and being relevant. The two paths here seems like reaching some kind of spiritual evolution such that we’re okay with being redundant, or being okay with passing away as a species and allowing our descendants to proliferate. The last one would be to change what it means to be human, such that by merging or bi-evolution we somehow remain relevant to the progress of civilization. I don’t know which one it will be, but we’ll see.
David Pearce: I think the exciting one, for me, is where we can harness the advances in technology in a conscious way to positive ends, to greater net wellbeing in society. Maybe I’m hooked on the old ideals, but I do think a sense of purpose in your pleasure elevates the sensation somewhat.
Lucas Perry: I think human brains on MDMA would disagree with that.
Sam Barker: Yeah. You’ve obviously also reflected on an experience like that after the event, and come to the conclusion that there wasn’t, perhaps, much concrete meaning to your experience, but it was joyful, and real, and vivid. You don’t want to focus too much on the fact that it was mostly just you jumping up and down on a dance floor. I’m definitely familiar with the pleasure of essentially meaningless euphoria. I’ll say, at the very least, it’s interesting to think about. Reading a lot about the nature of happiness and the general consensus there being that happiness is sort of a balance of pleasure a purpose. The idea that maybe you don’t need the purpose is worth exploring, I think, at least.
David Pearce: We do have this term empty hedonism. One thing that’s striking is that one, for whatever reason or explanation, gets happier and happier. Everything seems more intensely meaningful. There are pathological forms like mania or hypermania, where it leads to grandiosity, masonic delusions, even theomania, and thinking one is God. It’s possible to have much more benign versions. In practice, I think when life is based on gradients of bliss, eventually, superhuman bliss, this will entail superhuman meaning and significance. Essentially, we’ve got a choice. I mean, we can either have pure bliss, or one could have a combination of miss and hyper-motivation, and one will be able to tweak the dials.
Sam Barker: This is all such deliciously appealing language as someone who’s spending a lot of their time tweaking dials.
David Pearce: This may or may not be the appropriate time to ask, but tell me about what future projects have you planned?
Sam Barker: I’m still very much exploring the potential of music as an increaser of wellbeing, and I think it’s sort of leading me in interesting directions. At present, I’m sort of in another crossroads, I feel. The general drive to realize these sort of higher functions of music is still a driving force. I’m starting to look at what is natural in music and what is learned. Like you say, there is this long history of the way that we appreciate sound. There’s link to all kinds of repetitive experiences that our ancestors had. There’s other aspects to sound production that are also very old. Use of reverb is connected to our experience as sort of cavemen dwelling in these kind of reverberant spaces. These were kind of sacred spaces for early humans, so this feeling of when you walk into a cathedral, for example, this otherworldly experience that comes from the acoustics is, I think, somehow deeply tied to this historical situation of seeking shelter in caves, and the caves having a bigger significance in the lives of early humans.
There’s a realization, I suppose, that what we’re experiencing that relates to music is rhythm, tone, and timbre noise. If you just sort of pay attention to your background noise, the things that you’re most familiar with are actually not very musical. You don’t really find harmony in nature very much. I’m sort of forming some ideas around what parts of music and our response to music are cultural, and what are natural. It’s sort of a strange word to apply. Our sort of harmonic language is a technical construction. Rhythm is something we have a much deeper connection with through our lives as defined by rhythms of planets and that dividing our time into smaller and smaller ratios down to heartbeats and breathing. We’re sort of experiencing really complex poly-rhythmic silence form of music, I suppose. I’m separating these two concepts of rhythm and harmony and trying to get to the bottom of their function and the goal of elevating bliss and happiness. I guess, looking at what the tools I’m using are and what their role could be, if that makes any sense.
David Pearce: In some sense, this sounds weird. I think, insofar as it’s possible, one does have a duty to take care of oneself, and if one can give happiness to others, not least by music, in that sense, one can be a more effective altruist. In some sense, perhaps one feels, ethically, ought one to be working 12, 14 hours a day to make the world a better place. Equally, we all have our design limitations, and just being able to relax and, either as a consumer of music, or if one is a creator of music, that has a valuable role, too. It really does. One needs to take care of one’s own mental health to be able to help others.
Sam Barker: I feel like the kind of under the bonnet tinkering that, in some way, needs to happen for us to really make use of the new technologies. We need to do something about human nature. I feel like we’re a bit further away from those sort of realities than we are with the technological side. I think there needs to be sort of emergency measures, in some way, to improve human nature through the old fashioned social, cultural nudges, perhaps, as a stopgap until we can really roll our sleeves up and change human nature on a molecular level.
David Pearce: Yeah. I think we might need both. All the kind of environmental, social, political form together, whether biological, genetic, by a happiness revolution. I would love to be able to. A 100 year plan blueprint to get rid of suffering. Replace it with gradients of bliss, paradise engineering. In practice, I feel the story of Darwinian life still has several centuries to go. I hope I’m too pessimistic. Some of my trans-humanist colleagues, intelligence explosion, or a complete cut via the infusion of humans and our machines, but we shall see.
Lucas Perry: David, Sam and I, and everyone else, loves your prose so much. Could you just kind of go off here and muster your best prose to give us some thoughts as beautiful as sunsets for how good the future of music, and art, and gradients of intelligent bliss will be?
David Pearce: I’m afraid. Put eloquence on hold, but yeah. Just try for a moment to remember your most precious, beautiful, sublime experience in your life, whatever it was. It may or may not be suitable for public consumption. Just try to hold it briefly. Imagine if life could be like that, only far, far better, all the time, and with no nasty side effects, no adverse social consequences. It is going to be possible to build this kind of super civilization based on gradients of bliss. Be over ambitious. Needless to say, if anything I have written, unfortunately you’d need to wade through all matter of fluff. I just want to say, I’m really thrilled and chuffed with utility, so anything else is just vegan icing on the cake.
Sam Barker: Beautiful. I’m really, like I say, super relieved that it was taken as such. It was really a reconfiguring of my approach and my involvement with the thing that I’ve sort of given my life to thus far, and a sort of a clarification of the purpose. Aside from anything else, it just put me in a really perfect mindset for addressing mental obstacles in the way of my own happiness. Then, once you get that, you sort of feel like sharing it with other people. I think it started off a very positive process in my thoughts, which sort of manifested in the work I was doing. Extremely grateful for your generosity in lending these ideas. I hope, actually, just that people scratched the surface a little bit, and maybe plug some of the terms into a search engine and got kind of lost in the world of utopia a little bit. That was really the main reason for putting these references in and pushing people in that direction.
David Pearce: Well, you’ve given people a lot of pleasure, which is fantastic. Certainly, I’d personally rather be thought of as associated with paradise engineering and gradients of bliss, rather than the depressive, gloomy, negative utilitarian.
Sam Barker: Yeah. There’s a real dark side to the idea. I think the thing I read after the Hedonistic Imperative was some of Les Knight’s writing about the voluntary human extinction movement. I honestly don’t know if he’d be classified as a utilitarian, but this sort of egocentric utilitarianism, which you sort of endorse through including the animal kingdom in your manifesto. There’s sort of a growing appreciation for this kind of antinatal sentiment.
David Pearce: Yes, antinatalism seems to be growing, but I don’t think it’s every going to be dominant. The only way to get rid of suffering and ensure high quality of life for all sentient beings is going to be, essentially, get to the heart of the problem to rewrite ourselves. I did actually do an antinatalist podcast the other week, but I’m only a soft antinatalist, because there’s always going to be selection pressure in favor of a predisposition to go forth and multiply. One needs to build alliances with fanatical life lovers, even if when one contemplates the state of the world, one has some rather dark thoughts.
Sam Barker: Yeah.
Lucas Perry: All right. So, is there any questions or things we haven’t touched on that you guys would like to talk about?
David Pearce: No. I just really want to just thank you to Lucas for organizing this. You’ve got quite a diverse range of podcasts now. Sam, I’m honored. Thank you very much. Really happy this has gone well.
Sam Barker: Yeah. David, really, it’s been my pleasure. Really appreciate your time and acceptance of how I’ve sort of handled your ideas.
Lucas Perry: I feel really happy that I was able to connect you guys, and I also think that both of you guys make the world more beautiful by your work and presence. For that, I am grateful and appreciative. Also, very much enjoy and take inspiration from both of your work, so keep on doing what you’re doing.
Sam Barker: Thanks, Lucas. Same to you. Really.
David Pearce: Thank you, Lucas. Very much appreciated.
Lucas Perry: I hope that you’ve enjoyed the conversation portion of this podcast. Now, I’m happy to introduce the guest mix by Barker.