Emergence: in which Jad and Robert give me way too much credit

It is not really me whom Jad and Robert give too much credit, but conductors in general–or, rather, conducting in general.

In the third-ever episode of Radiolab, first broadcast nearly five years ago, Jad and Robert discuss emergence, the intelligence that results from an interconnected community of many relatively stupid entities.  Or to summarize: one ant is useless; an ant colony can build a dam.  One neuron is useless; millions of them make up your magnificent brain. Listen here:

In the second half of they show they repeatedly use the metaphor of a conductor as the leader who makes things happen, who organizes the entities into cooperating towards a single purpose.  They even talk about a choir singing examples as having been “told what to do” by their conductor.


No.  No, that’s not what conductors do at all.

Their metaphor doesn’t work for a few reasons, which are representative of widespread misunderstanding of what a conductor does:

First, of course, ensembles are not made up of ants or single cells; they are made up of human beings who are each, themselves, complex systems capable of their own independent activity towards the same goal.

Second, a conductor is not in charge of giving instructions of what to do, nor even really of how to do it.  She does not have absolute control of the end result, and is participating in the progress of the performance, responding to the moment of creation with just as much spontaneity as any member of the ensemble.  She can and should help shape the end result, but any other member of the group can and should also.

Third, the conductor is not coming up with things to do; he is following instructions, just like the members of the ensemble, doing what he thinks the composer is telling him to do.  But the composer isn’t really in charge either, because the composer isn’t there, explaining what all those lines and dots mean, or what the editor did right or wrong in transcribing them.

So, who’s in charge?

The music.

The music is what tells the conductor what to do, and the conductor acts as part of the machinery in making it happen.  The composer comes up with it, then releases it into the world and must let it do its own thing, to be examined and analysed by conductors who then hand it to their ensembles to bring to life.  The music is a medium for their humanity, and their humanity is a tool for making the music.

Look back now at Jad and Robert’s metaphor.  They are searching for the thing that organizes your many useless neurons to create magnificent you.  They call it “the conductor.”  Try imagining it’s “the music.”  Much more mystical now, isn’t it?  Seems like a much higher purpose, a better and more inspiring source–not some guy with a magic wand, but a force greater than something we can grasp as individuals.

(Yes, individuals make music all the time, but the vast, vast majority of music is performed by ensembles or at least a single performer playing someone else’s music, which is still the work of two people.  Or folk music, which is the work of populations and history…)

So, sorry to disappoint you, Jad and Robert.  I, the conductor, am not the decider; I just participate in the process.  I participate a lot, and in a specific way that involves leadership, but I don’t actually decide what the process is or what the result will be.  The great giver of instructions is much bigger, and way more interesting.

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3 Responses to Emergence: in which Jad and Robert give me way too much credit

  1. Pingback: love letter | Thoughtful Gestures

  2. Pingback: mediocre (and it feels so good) | Thoughtful Gestures

  3. Pingback: The Neuroscience of Well-Being, Mindfulness, & Love (and conducting) 2 | Thoughtful Gestures

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