Post scriptum (2022, week 34) — The case for/against ‘longtermism,’ preparing for tomorrow’s moral norms, and what Big History misses
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum, the first after a long and hot holiday and three abbreviated Summer editions: Understanding ‘longtermism’; how axiological open-mindedness can help bridge the gap between moral frameworks; why we should be wary about sweeping the human story into a cosmic tale; two distinguished scientists on how to rescue humanity; does the rise of the Metaverse mean the decline of cities?; Simone de Beauvoir and the art of authentic living; Oedipus’ thirst and capacity for knowledge; ancient sculpture in colour; and, finally, Bob Dylan at twenty-three.
The case for/against ‘longtermism’
“Longtermism is about taking seriously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it. If humanity survives to even a fraction of its potential life span, then, strange as it may seem, we are the ancients: we live at the very beginning of history, in its most distant past. What we do now will affect untold numbers of future people. We need to act wisely,” William MacAskill writes in The Case for Longtermism, an essay adapted from his book What We Owe the Future.
When MacAskill began thinking about longtermism, his biggest reservation was practical. Even if future generations matter, what can we actually do to benefit them? But as he learned more about the history-shaping events that could occur in the near future, he realized that we might soon be approaching a critical juncture in the human story. “Technological development is creating new threats and opportunities, putting the lives of future people on the line. Whether we get a future that’s beautiful and just, or flawed and dystopian, or whether civilization ends and we get no future at all — that depends, in significant part, on what we do today,” MacAskill writes.
“Some of the ways we affect the long-term future are familiar. We drive. We fly. We emit greenhouse gases that can remain in the atmosphere and impact the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. But reducing fossil fuel use is not the only way to improve the long term. Other challenges are at least as important, and often radically more neglected.
Chief among these is the development of advanced artificial intelligence. According to leading economic models, advanced A.I. could greatly accelerate economic growth and technological progress. But equipped with A.I.-enabled capabilities, bad political actors could potentially increase and entrench their power. Our future could be a perpetual totalitarian dystopia.
Or we could lose control over the A.I. systems we’ve created. Once artificial intelligence far exceeds human intelligence, we could find ourselves with as little power over our future as chimpanzees have over theirs. Civilization could be governed by the A.I.’s aims and goals, which could be utterly alien and valueless from our perspective.
And we may not even make it to the development of advanced A.I. We still live under the shadow of 9,000 nuclear warheads, each far more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some experts put the chances of a third world war by 2070 at over 20 percent. An all-out nuclear war could cause the collapse of civilization, and we might never recover.
Advances in biotechnology could create weapons of even greater destructive power. Engineered viruses could be much more deadly than natural diseases because they could, in theory, be modified to have dangerous new properties: the lethality of Ebola and the contagiousness of measles. In the worst-case scenario, the release of an engineered bioweapon could kill billions, possibly beyond the point where humanity could recover. Our future would be permanently destroyed.
These are daunting challenges. In his book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, […] Toby Ord puts the probability of an existential catastrophe in the next century at one in six — roughly equivalent to playing Russian roulette. This is an unacceptable level of risk.
We aren’t helpless in the face of these challenges. Longtermism can inspire concrete actions, here and now. […]
If we are careful and farsighted, we have the power to help build a better future for our great-grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren in turn — down through hundreds of generations. But positive change is not inevitable. It’s the result of long, hard work by thinkers and activists. No outside force will prevent civilization from stumbling into dystopia or oblivion. It’s on us.”
Émile P Torres is critical, though. “[L]ongtermism might be one of the most influential ideologies that few people outside of elite universities and Silicon Valley have ever heard about. I believe this needs to change because, as a former longtermist who published an entire book four years ago in defence of the general idea, I have come to see this worldview as quite possibly the most dangerous secular belief system in the world today,” he writes in Against longtermism.
“The initial thing to notice is that longtermism, as proposed by Bostrom and Beckstead ‡, is not equivalent to ‘caring about the long term’ or ‘valuing the wellbeing of future generations.’ It goes way beyond this. At its core is a simple [albeit flawed, in Torres’s opinion] analogy between individual persons and humanity as a whole, [resulting in the idea that] humanity has a ‘potential’ of its own, one that transcends the potentials of each individual person, and failing to realise this potential would be […] a moral catastrophe of literally cosmic proportions.”
In his lengthy essay, Torres argues that longtermism might be self-defeating. “Not only could its ‘fanatical’ emphasis on fulfilling our longterm potential lead people to, eg, neglect non-existential climate change, prioritise the rich over the poor and perhaps even ‘justify’ pre-emptive violence and atrocities for the ‘greater cosmic good’ but it also contains within it the very tendencies — Baconianism, capitalism and value-neutrality — that have driven humanity inches away from the precipice of destruction. Longtermism tells us to maximise economic productivity, our control over nature, our presence in the Universe, the number of (simulated) people who exist in the future, the total amount of impersonal ‘value’ and so on. But to maximise, we must develop increasingly powerful — and dangerous — technologies; failing to do this would itself be an existential catastrophe. Not to worry, though, because technology is not responsible for our worsening predicament, and hence the fact that most risks stem directly from technology is no reason to stop creating more technology. Rather, the problem lies with us, which means only that we must create even more technology to transform ourselves into cognitively and morally enhanced posthumans.”
This looks like a recipe for disaster, says Torres. “Creating a new race of ‘wise and responsible’ posthumans is implausible and, if advanced technologies continue to be developed at the current rate, a global-scale catastrophe is almost certainly a matter of when rather than if. Yes, we will need advanced technologies if we wish to escape Earth before it’s sterilised by the Sun in a billion years or so. But the crucial fact that longtermists miss is that technology is far more likely to cause our extinction before this distant future event than to save us from it. If you, like me, value the continued survival and flourishing of humanity, you should care about the long term but reject the ideology of longtermism, which is not only dangerous and flawed but might be contributing to, and reinforcing, the risks that now threaten every person on the planet.”
‡ “[O]ver the past two decades, a small group of theorists mostly based in Oxford have been busy working out the details of a new moral worldview called longtermism, which emphasizes how our actions affect the very long-term future of the universe — thousands, millions, billions, and even trillions of years from now. This has roots in the work of Nick Bostrom, who founded the grandiosely named Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in 2005, and Nick Beckstead, a research associate at FHI and a programme officer at Open Philanthropy. It has been defended most publicly by the FHI philosopher Toby Ord, author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (2020). Longtermism is the primary research focus of both the Global Priorities Institute (GPI), an FHI-linked organisation directed by Hilary Greaves, and the Forethought Foundation, run by William MacAskill, who also holds positions at FHI and GPI. Adding to the tangle of titles, names, institutes and acronyms, longtermism is one of the main ’cause areas’ of the so-called effective altruism (EA) movement, which was introduced by Ord in around 2011 and now boasts of having a mind-boggling $46 billion in committed funding.” (Émile P Torres in Against longtermism)
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How can society prepare for tomorrow’s moral norms?
The moral framework of future generations may be a radical departure from the past — and the present. Axiological open-mindedness could help bridge that gap, John Danaher writes in How Can Society Prepare for the Moral Norms of Tomorrow?
“The history of moral change — change in what is, and is not, considered morally acceptable — encourages greater skepticism about our current moral beliefs and practices. We might like to think we have arrived at a state of great moral enlightenment, but there is reason to believe that further moral revolutions await. Our great-great-grandchildren may well look back at us in the same way that we look back at our great-great-grandparents: with a mixture of shock and disappointment. Could they really have believed and done that?
Taking this possibility seriously leads to two inquiries. First, we should investigate the mechanisms of moral change and revolution. Second, we must consider the ramifications of future moral revolutions for those of us alive today, Danaher writes.
“Most of us care about the world we are leaving to our children. This is the central moral message of the ecological and environmental movements. This message has found a home among proponents of ‘longtermism,’ a philosophy espoused by various Silicon Valley gurus and members of the effective altruist movement, such as Nick Beckstead and William MacAskill. Longtermism maintains that positively influencing the long-term future of humanity is a key moral priority for our present era.
Some people argue that longtermism is a dangerous idea because it can encourage us to prioritize speculative futures over the actual present, but you don’t have to embrace the most extreme versions of this philosophy to agree that future generations are a source of present moral concern. If we concede this, we should also agree that what matters is not just the physical world they will inhabit, but the moral world too. If their moral framework will be radically different from our own, we need to factor that into how we plan for the future and which actions to take now.”
There are two clear ways of doing this, says Danaher. The first is to take a assume that future generations will inhabit a better moral world — at least according to some current values — than our own (progressivist view). The second option is to assume that future morality is likely to be worse than present morality (conservative or precautionary view).
“The conservative perspective is tempting: There seem to be more ways to get values wrong than right. This is a point often made by those worried about the risks of superintelligent AI, such as Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky. They argue that the set of value systems that are ‘friendly’ to humans is narrow and fragile. It is all too easy to fall outside that range of values and do things that are contrary to human flourishing. […]
Progressivism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive, at least not across the full range of moral concerns. We might take a progressive attitude toward certain values, thinking that we need to expand them or cast them off, and a conservative approach to others that seem too precious to risk any loss. But both progressivism and conservatism tend to imply a great deal of certainty about future morality. They assume that we can predict whether the future will get things right or wrong. Such certainty is not warranted. If morality does change radically over time, perhaps we should be humbler about our present moral beliefs and attitudes.”
One way of embracing this uncertainty is to adopt a stance of axiological open-mindedness toward the future. Two strategies present themselves, according to Danaher.
“First, we can bear in mind the oft-quoted line from William Gibson: ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.’ Scattered around our world today, perhaps in emerging subcultures and the imaginations of science fiction authors, are the seeds of future moralities. If we are willing to explore them, we can get a sense of where we might be headed. Second, we can design our social institutions so that they enable greater normative flexibility. One way to do this would be to use abstract standards — rather than precise rules — when legislating for the future.”
But more importantly, we can adopt a more experimentalist approach to social morality, Danaher says.
“Instead of just waiting to see what will happen, we should actively create spaces (perhaps we could call them ‘moral sandboxes’) for subcultures to test the moral waters without committing an entire society to a new moral code. For instance, there are emerging technological developments in brain-to-brain communication that might allow people to feel what other people feel, see what they can see, or share their thoughts. To some, this nascent technology is terrifying, an attack on our ethic of individualism, and a step toward a Borg-like society. To others, it is exciting, holding up the possibility of greater intimacy, empathy, and collaborative problem-solving. Instead of committing to either of these views right now, we could facilitate controlled and carefully observed experimentation to explore the effects of this technology on existing values, such as autonomy, self-control, intimacy, and empathy.
There are, of course, limits to what we should experiment with. The Nazis were moral revolutionaries, but not in a good way. We cannot be so open-minded that we lose all sense of right and wrong. There are, perhaps, some values that should remain foundational, but there is a balance to be struck between the extremes of progressivism and conservatism.”
What Big History misses
“Big History burst on to the scene 30 years ago, promising to reinvigorate a stale and overspecialised academic discipline by situating the human past within a holistic account at a cosmic scale. The goal was to produce a story of life that could be discerned by synthesising cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology. […] Three decades later, it’s time to take a look at how Big History has fared,” Ian Hesketh writes in What Big History misses.
“The Big History narrative itself is given shape by the interplay between the forces of entropy and complexity that are represented, respectively, by the second law of thermodynamics and evolution. The second law of thermodynamics postulates that there is a finite amount of energy in the Universe that is slowly dissipating, but evolution shows that there are moments when a particular threshold is reached and overcomes entropy by the creation of new forms of complexity. Big History proposes there are eight ‘threshold moments,’ when profoundly new forms of complexity appear in the past: (1) the Big Bang; (2) stars and galaxies; (3) new chemical elements; (4) the Earth and solar system; (5) life on Earth; (6) the human species; (7) agriculture; and, our currently proposed geological epoch, (8) the Anthropocene.
These eight threshold moments structure the Big History narrative. What makes these threshold moments scientific, apparently, is that they are all derived from recent advances in relevant areas of science. Second, thanks to the discovery of advanced chronometric techniques such as radiocarbon and genetic dating, it is possible to assign fairly specific dates to these thresholds and establish an accurate and continuous timeline. Each new threshold is not completely disconnected from the previous, however, in the sense that the competing forces of entropy and complexity remain active, represented by the notion of ‘energy flows.’ Energy flows are a process that connects all things, from the cosmic dust in space to the worms in the ground. This is the specialised architecture and language of Big History. There is also a fair amount of speculation,” according to Hesketh.
“The Big History approach is particularly unsatisfactory when it comes to humans. Because we are a product of nature and also capable of understanding and shaping nature’s processes, humans possess a dual aspect that does not easily fit into the Big History framework. The challenge is further complicated by the moralising dimension of Big History that requires the reader to accept a certain amount of responsibility in shaping the future story of life. Yet when humans enter the story in Threshold 6 as a unique species whose linguistic capabilities lead to what [David Christian in an article in the Journal of World History in 1991] calls ‘collective learning’ (the ability to share knowledge over space and time), humans are presented as largely passive vehicles for the incessant demands of energy flows.
This perspective continues into all the subsequent thresholds. Big History describes the shift from a hunter-gatherer way of life to one of intensive agriculture that is represented by Threshold 7 as the product of three Goldilocks conditions. These are ‘new technologies (and increasing understanding of environments generated through collective learning), increasing population pressure, and the warmer climates of the Holocene epoch’. So, what role did humans play in this shift? One wonders. Aside from the new technologies, it seems that developing large-scale farming was largely unavoidable due to an increase in population and warmer climate, a view that ignores findings that show that the transition to agrarian life involved a lengthy and often violent process that some resisted. In other words, a host of contingent factors led to and shaped the advent of agriculture, based on human relationships and power struggles, and they are far more complex than Big History’s deterministic formula suggests,” Hesketh writes.
“[T]hanks in part to Big History, large-scale accounts of the past have moved from the periphery to the centre of historical thinking and writing. What Big History has done well is challenge the long-held assumption that has limited the discipline of history to the era of written records. As it is clear that we live at a moment when, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the previously relatively separate processes of human and geological timescales are now colliding, so we need new ways to think historically in order to grasp what is happening and how to respond. Big History provides one possible answer to this problem by producing a holistic, singular and universal story that seeks ultimate knowledge in the overarching laws of science.
But, much like the Judeo-Christian conception of history from which it derives, Big History reduces the vicissitudes of human history to processes that are ultimately beyond human control. What this means is that Big History necessarily privileges the cosmic at the expense of the human, the natural at the expense of the political. This is, unfortunately, a necessity that follows from Big History’s goal of uniting the human species under the framework of a story that is supposedly for everyone. It may make for a popular just-so story that appeals to billionaires looking to empty history of politics and divisions, but it offers little for those hoping to understand how we go about thinking through the problems and possibilities of writing history in the age of the Anthropocene.”
In the margins
“Our response to imminent threats is rooted in how human minds think. Human beings have hearts and minds, ids and egos, an unconscious and a conscious. This is not a new idea. Ancient Greek philosophers, Shakespeare, and Freud understood that emotion and rationality compete for human attention. The dual nature of human thought has found institutional expression in Western societies in bi-cameral legislatures and the separate authorities of church and state. What is new is that modern research in psychology and neuroscience has established a species-wide basis for this ancient insight. Every human on Earth has two systems of neural circuitry; psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls them systems 1 and 2. System 1 processes the wants, fears, and perceptions of the present, while system 2 organizes them into concepts that guide future actions. It takes psychological energy to raise percepts in system 1 into concepts in system 2, and consonance of systems 1 and 2 to overcome the inertia to act.
Harmony of heart and mind is the precursor to action. People generally focus on the short-term, and their immediate experience; this makes it particularly difficult to overcome sustainability’s inherent time displacement disincentive: We resist risking present well-being to protect people we don’t know living in a future shrouded in uncertainty. We educate children, provide for grandchildren, give to charity, and preserve artifacts that we value in the here and now. Personal altruism goes that far, but not far enough to provide for some foreign family’s descendants two centuries from now. Why risk present prosperity to offset risks that materialize in the future? We only live once; our hearts are not in the game.”
From; Two Distinguished Scientists on How to Rescue Humanity, by Charles F. Kennel and Martin Rees (Nautilus)
“Like online spaces, the flourishing of physical cities depends on virtuous cycles. We are attracted to areas that are lively and interesting. Places become lively and interesting when others are attracted to them. We avoid places that feel dangerous. But what keeps cities safe? Not the police — in a healthy city, you rarely see law enforcement. As [Jane Jacobs] explained, it is the presence of strangers — local shopkeepers, passersby, idlers and diners — that keep city streets safe. By contrast, an empty street is a scary street.
This is why virtual worlds compete with the physical world. Like city streets, online social spaces are appealing because other people are there. The more of our time and money we spend online, the less attractive our high streets will be. Flourishing cities need high-frequency public transit. Remote working starves transit systems of paying riders, leading to service reductions. Cities are fuelled by their culture and nightlife. Zuckerberg sees concerts and parties relocating to the metaverse.
These patterns are self-reinforcing. Some people move online, leading to fewer trains, empty streets and shuttered venues, prompting even more people to move online. The logic of following the crowd means that the transformation can occur even if most people would prefer a flourishing physical world to a flourishing metaverse. And no matter how benign their intentions, once private corporations start to sell virtual reality it will be in their interests for the physical world to become less alluring, increasing the comparative appeal of their products.
What can be done? When Zuckerberg speaks, he does so with the visionary’s assurance that the rise of the metaverse is not only good, but inevitable, a manifestation of the unstoppable march of progress. This confidence is hard to challenge — no one wants to find themselves on the wrong side of history. But it should be questioned.
Jacob’s book [The Death and Life of Great American Cities] was a rebuke to the messianic utopianism of modernist urban planners, who were so certain that the automobile had made city streets defunct, and that dense urban districts were primitive, that they were prepared to bulldoze whole neighbourhoods in the name of progress. (Le Corbusier even proposed the demolition of central Paris, to be replaced with 18 great concrete tower blocks, ringed by parking lots and highways.) But the modernists were wrong, and their vision has been rejected. The new utopians may be wrong too. We shouldn’t let the claim of inevitability become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
From: Does the rise of the Metaverse mean the decline of cities?, by Max K Hayward (The New Statesman)
In the final chapter, Rebellion, of her recent book, How To Be You: Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living, writer and philosopher Skye Cleary writes:
“An authentically meaningful life is one that opens out into an endless and immense cosmos. Beauvoir wrote, ‘The spirit with all its riches must project itself in an empty sky that is its to fill.’ Existentialism empowers us to leap out and fill our skies with our projects. But many people are bound in thousands of big and small ways that hold them back from becoming authentic creators of their lives. For Beauvoir, bonds that constrain our freedom are a moral emergency. These bonds constitute oppression.
As long as oppression exists, as long as our wings are clipped, none of us can genuinely fulfill ourselves in a morally authentic sense because, for Beauvoir, our freedom depends on the freedom of others. The goal of existential ethics is to eradicate oppression because, Beauvoir proposed, ‘Justice can never be created within injustice.’
The authentic response to oppression must be rebellion, meaning social and political struggle against unfair structures. Together we must work to create a new foundation of the world: on freedom instead of domination. Recreating the foundations of the world is in our power. Beauvoir came to believe that this transformation is the ‘real task of feminism.’
In an ideal world, we would see what Beauvoir called a ‘collective conversion’ where oppressed people would rebel, oppressors would stop oppressing, and all freedoms would reconcile. Rebellion would become unnecessary when all our freedoms are oriented toward efflorescing into an open sky.
But it’s not quite so simple. When we rebel, we risk interfering with others’ freedom, even when we don’t intend to. How can we rebel ethically? And how can we act authentically and ethically, when our own cherished projects might not have anything to do with alleviating oppression?
There are even important objections to the idea of taking rebellion to be our goal: for many people, surviving, developing resilience, and being cautious are more crucial than rebelling. Yet, tolerating awfulness perpetuates awfulness. And while many people are stuck in awful situations, unhappiness and suffering are not virtues in themselves.
Beauvoir realized that, as yet, humanity has not created a perfect political framework that solves all societal issues. Oppression can exist, and does exist, in all systems. So what do we do? Beauvoir’s answer epitomizes the heart of existentialism: We can’t wait until someone comes up with a perfect solution because there is no such thing. We need to start chipping away — sometimes sledgehammering — at changing our systems for the better despite not having all the answers at hand. In The Mandarins, one of Beauvoir’s characters says, ‘If you wait until you meet absolute perfection before getting involved, you’ll never love anyone and never do anything.’ We need to jump in, act, do.”
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“Fate. Tragedy. Irony. Inevitability. All the woes that mark the human condition are inseparable from Oedipus’ thirst and capacity for knowledge. His victory over the Sphinx had set him apart as a superiorly reasoning man. He is a Platonist before Plato as he reveals what is one and immutable, Man himself, amidst an efflorescence of changing attributes (legs: two, three, four). And he is Aristotle before Aristotle — the philosopher who fixed for the following two thousand years or so, the rules of logical inference. For Oedipus will launch into a sequence of logical deductions which will lead him to the necessary conclusions that the murderer of Laïos, whom he is searching for, is no one other than himself and that Laïos is his father.
Oedipus is Plato and Aristotle in one, before they even existed — but we can see how tragedy leads to philosophy. Oedipus is the embodiment of philosophical enquiry: the reflective, dialectical, reasonable and earnest quest for truth and knowledge. But he is also the embodiment of the vanity of such an enterprise. The real answer, which he failed to give to the Sphinx is not universal Man, but the most particular, corrupt, twisted, vicious, helpless creature on the planet, namely himself, Oedipus, whose physical lameness makes him a man who never quite walks on two feet, wavering since childhood between two, three and four legs, and whose terrible actions make him all at once child, husband and old father at one and the same time. There is no Platonic universal man distinct from the messy contradictory description of a man’s life. And when Oedipus finally, logically deduces the truth, in contrast to Aristotle’s promise of the pleasure of knowledge, he cannot bear to look at it, but blinds himself.”
From: The Tragedy of Ignorance, by Ada Bronowski (3QD)
“‘The Brinkmann reconstructions are so exciting and interesting because they push the envelope,’ said Seán Hemingway, the Met’s curator of Greek and Roman art, who organized Chroma with the associate curator Sarah Lepinski. ‘Antiquity has a role in expanding our understanding of contemporary society.’
However, some historians worry that the Met Museum has elevated the increasingly ubiquitous Brinkmann replicas ‡ to an iconic status that is becoming the default representation of ancient polychromy, when the couple’s research is just one among dozens of competing theories. The debate now encompasses more than a disagreement about pigments and scientific method; some academics see the reconstructions as a larger discussion on who gets to define the past.
‘All reconstructions engage in uncertainty,’ said Sarah E. Bond, a historian at the University of Iowa who has written extensively on the polychrome debate. ‘Why not allow people a choice of reconstruction to show them that uncertainty is part of the historical method?’
Uncertainty is a scary word in academia. Some scholars are concerned that admitting their limitations could alienate the public and compromise the authority of their institutions. But complete confidence is unavailable to polychrome experts who extrapolate data from only a few surviving examples of painted artifacts. Human interpretation is required to fill knowledge gaps and build the replicas.”
‡ Chroma is the vision of ancient sculpture (2700 B.C. to the third century A.D.) pioneered by the German archaeologists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who have devoted their careers to reconstructing the lost colors of antiquity through scientific inquiry. “Their project also dovetails with recent scholarly efforts to undo the misunderstanding that classical sculpture was typically made of unpainted white marble, a myth of whiteness that some far-right organizations have embraced as symbols of white supremacy, while more moderate conservative groups assert that they are protecting the cultural heritage of Western civilization.”
From: That Painted Greek Maiden at the Met: Just Whose Vision Is She?, by Zachary Small (The New York Times)
All photographs by Vincent Tullo for The New York Times.
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“Musically, Dylan has transcended most of his early influences and developed an incisively personal style. His vocal sound is most often characterized by flaying harshness. Mitch Jayne, a member of The Dillards, a folk group from Missouri, has described Dylan’s sound as ‘very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.’ Yet Dylan’s admirers come to accept and even delight in the harshness, because of the vitality and wit at its core. And they point out that in intimate ballads he is capable of a fragile lyricism that does not slip into bathos. It is Dylan’s work as a composer, however, that has won him a wider audience than his singing alone might have. Whether concerned with cosmic spectres or personal conundrums, Dylan’s lyrics are pungently idiomatic. He has a superb ear for speech rhythms, a generally astute sense of selective detail, and a natural storyteller’s command of narrative pacing. His songs sound as if they were being created out of oral street history rather than carefully written in tranquillity.” — Nat Hentoff in What Bob Dylan Wanted at Twenty-three (The New Yorker, October 16, 1964)