Wayne Hsiung
Published on
July 18, 2014

The Mystical Song

by Wayne Hsiung

I blogged a while back on the science of musical inspiration -- and what we can learn from it as social justice activists. What we can learn about the importance of contrast. Tension. And disruption. 

But in listening to hundreds of potential songs in anticipation of our next video release, it really struck me that so much of what makes a powerful song is mystical. There are plenty of songs with contrast, tension, and disruption that are boring, annoying, or just plain ridiculous. What makes for a powerful song takes a mixture of creativity, insight, and flat out luck that is impossible to measure or predict. Science can tell us what makes a song great. But it can't make a great song. 

 Songwriters such as Pete Seeger have always been a powerful force for social justice. 
Songwriters such as Pete Seeger have always been a powerful force for social justice.

This is in line with a broader strand of research that shows the limits of algorithms and data. One of my former professors at MIT recently wrote, for example, about how computers are now surprisingly good at comparing the viral potential of two separate tweets -- but terrible at generating them. One of the fundamental problems? Computers, in general, are bad at novelty. Yet novelty is part of what moves us to inspiration... and action. 

Rarity and novelty often contribute to interestingness — or at the least to drawing attention. But once an algorithm finds those things that draw attention and starts exploiting them, their value erodes. When few people do something, it catches the eye; when everyone does it, it is ho-hum. 

There are lessons for us as activists. We can describe some of the general elements of moving and inspirational activism. Contrast. Tension. Disruption. But the magic of a powerful movement is something that will never be captured -- or predicted -- by data. So be creative. Take risks. And don't be afraid to fail. It is only through such creative risk-taking that we will be able to move the masses for animals. 

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