Machina Ex Deus: iPhone 5 & Why The Machines Are In Control

Planning to buy the new iPhone 5? Think carefully about the kind of future you're ushering in, cautions Ryan Diduck, as he examines a resurgence of cyberpunk themes in contemporary culture

On April 21st, 2011, something uncanny happened. I woke up with a clever idea. (Ok, that, in and of itself, wasn’t the uncanny bit, although I often fear it’s happening less frequently.)

I was going to change my Twitter profile picture to a Terminator, with half of my face Photoshopped in, in place of Dear Governator. I spent the better part of an afternoon getting the filters and touch-ups just right; I didn’t want it to look like a cheap cut-and-paste job; it had to appear as though my skin was actually peeling back to reveal the iconic cyborg’s skull. I sculpted it, honed it, crafted and uploaded it, and immediately began receiving piles of replies about it from my friends and followers. This, I thought, was highly unusual: most people barely notice anymore when someone changes their profile picture. (In the social media world, it’s up in the running for most banal of all operations, and likely why Twitter decided a long time ago that there was no need to "notify" people of it). What I didn’t know, however – and what not many outside the spotty, bespectacled comic con set knew – was that April 21st, 2011 was the day that Skynet, the fictional AI system of the Terminator franchise, was due to begin its attack on humans. And so, I got witty messages like, "became self-aware, did you?" Nyuk nyuk.

But there was surely something more sinister going on here. Yes, I saw the Terminator films as a lad, like most other lads my age. But I was by no stretch a fan, and not by even a further stretch obsessive enough to keep track of invented dates. So, why did I wake up that particular morning, with that specific idea? Had the machines indeed taken control? I found the nearest trash can and barfed in it: this job just doesn’t get easier.

In the year-and-a-half since, I’ve come to realize that it’s much worse than I’d originally imagined. That reality, the Terminator reality, has already come to pass. The entire place is computer controlled. Machines make decisions on our behalf every day. (For a simple example of this, look no further than autocorrect: no, iPhone, I did not mean to type "bullshot.") Earlier this year, a smart article on the French site S.I.Lex connected cyberpunk to the London Olympics. Unmanned (and unwomanned) drones are doing all kinds of dirty work, all over the world. The US military has already developed a cybernetic machine that can and one day will outrun you, and surprise surprise, it’s the fucking creepiest thing you’ve ever fucking seen in all your motherfucking puff.

Now, I desperately want to be mister sunshine and lollipops, but apparently I have to be that guy again: that bleak guy, that guy who says nevermind your silver lining, look at the size of that fucking cloud, that guy who tells you to wake the fuck up, and look the fuck around, and tell me that we’re not already living in a cyberpunk post-apocalyptic nightmare — and the apocalypse hasn’t even fucking well happened yet. How the fuck does that work?

At the root of the technotopian vs. techdystopian debate, I believe, is the fundamental opposition between humans using machines to do human things, and machines using humans to do machine things. Humans using machines for our purposes is what we designed machines for in the first place. A gross oversimplification in service of a point: we wanted to be able to communicate with each other from across the ocean, so we collectively decided to invent a series of technologies that would make that possible, faster, and easier. The thing is, though, it hasn’t become better, nor cheaper. Massive, machine-like telecommunications and consumer electronics corporations are reaping the benefits of epochs worth of human desire for contact, and hoovering up unprecedented profits like a teenager with a McDonalds straw up its hideous hooter. It has been suggested that sales of the newest iPhone will measurably impact the slumping American economy. I was recently re-reading Jaron Lanier’s excellent book You Are Not A Gadget, and was struck once again by the question of who, exactly, we were building this supposed technotopia for anyway: us, or the machines? Because if it’s for the machines, we’re doing a bloody bang-up job.

Concerning the music industry at large, there are two things which spurred my thinking about the likelihood that we are already living in a cyberpunk reality, where its the listening machine (and not the listener) who’s in control. Both of them have to do with reading Jonathan Sterne’s new book on the history of the mp3 format – the most widely used form of recorded music today. The first is the idea that the money we pay for music, and artworks more generally, is more and more skipping the hands of the artists who make it, and ending up in the pockets of the media in between – and even more-so into the coffers of the technology giants who make the devices that we most often use to create, listen to, and circulate digital music.

This is not new. We’ve been coming to understand for years that the object of music has no value, and that its scarcity had always been illusory; it just took a tweeny NPR intern to snap music lovers into retaliation mode. Still, the idea of producing and consuming physical artifacts as musical archives with any hope of longevity is ultimately untenable. Cassette deck heads will cease to recall how to read and write in their arcane magnetic codes; the final vinyl styli will grow dull with wear; emerging digital formats will come and go with alarming frequency. (Wouldn’t it be nice if a viable digital distribution alternative could take shape?)

Yet, the second, and I think more interesting, cyber-spectre is the way that mp3s actually work: the concept of perceptual coding.

Mp3s are so small because they remove bandwidths of frequency that we are unlikely to miss under less than ideal listening conditions, which is how most of us listen to music nowadays. According to Dr. Sterne, the process of compressing mp3s dates back to early 20th century research done at Bell labs, in order to cram ever more signal down smaller and smaller telephone lines. So, what we had was textbook capitalism hard at work: use the least amount of signal for the most amount of effect, and reap the highest amount of reward. (Incidentally, Bell’s corporate offspring is in the process of agressively becoming the largest media corporation my motherland has ever seen.)

The idea of stripping bandwidth from audio makes perfect sense when it comes to the strict functionality of being able to recognize a voice on the other end of a telephone receiver as the voice to whom it belongs. But when the object is music, which consists solely of highly subjective and intricately woven tapestries of bandwidth, mowing down vast swaths of it is not only robbing listeners of what they paid for, its actually getting the human to do the work of the machine. Think of it this way: you are a battery, putting your energy into filling in the gaps of frequency that your mp3 player thinks you don’t give a sod about. In fact, you are a gadget. To hijack an old Communist-era Yakov Smirnoff joke, it’s your iPod that listens to YOU.

Front Line Assembly – Mindphaser by oslo55

Cyberpunk means a lot of different things, to a lot of different people. And musically, in the mid-1990s, there were droves of bands trying to milk every last drop from the cybercash cow. (Anyone else remember Billy Idol’s deranged-cousin-of-Pinhead look? Yeah, with a rebel yell, I cried less, less, less!) Still, to me, growing up in Canada, there were two bands that were the very definition, the epitome, the aggregation, of all things cyberpunk: the idea that power would consolidate in corporate hands, technology would inevitably take over, and “anonymous” computer-toters would one day be the agents with the most, er, agency.

Those bands were Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. Specifically, there was one respective album from each (Skinny Puppy’s Last Rights, and FLA’s Tactical Neural Implant, which both happen to be 20 years old this year) that more than anything else represented the dirty technotopian/dystopian possible futures that proselytizing authors like William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson envisioned. These albums were raw, and dark, and filled with true dread for the prospects of a living in a world increasingly ordered by machines. They were antagonistic toward technology, but knew that the future wouldn’t arrive without more of it. Rivers and clouds and streams more.

I hear echoes of Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly in a large cross-section of human-machine music that’s being released today, from Skrillex on up to Carter Tutti Void, Drokk, VCMG, The Haxan Cloak, Silent Servant, Vatican Shadow, Roly Porter, Emptyset, Demdike Stare, Pete Swanson, Old Apparatus, not to mention the 2012 re-issues of Laurie Spiegel, Maggi Payne, Clock DVA, Black Rain, Lego Feet — the list goes on. If Jacques Attali was correct in believing that popular music is structurally homologous with, somehow presages – or at least simultaneously sages – popular culture, then it shan’t be long before the Millenium Falcon can no longer hear the Millenium Falconer.

Einstein famously predicted that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones; should that day ever come, the cohort above will be its collective soundtrack. There is something at once archaeological and yet so technically advanced about these works, like a team of elite hackers tapping out arcane code on wooden, hand-cranked laptops connected via tin can routers and shoestring fibre optics. Retro elements are apparent, no doubt, but they’re also pointing, with a decidedly human hand, toward the past futures that either didn’t come to pass and probably should have, or did, with disastrous consequences. Sure, it’s all kinds of fun to laugh along for awhile with Ariel Pink’s Brian-Wilson-meets-Frank-Zappa-on-acid-fist-bump-part-33-1/ But when you realize that this is ultimately still feeding that massive snorting machine of consumption-dependent production that makes new digital devices faster than we’re dumping them into landfills, it all gets a bit unsettling. Given that art is a discursive form of communication, I believe that the aforementioned cyberpunk-inflected music is extremely important, because it foretells us finally coming out of our comfy and safe and innocuous retromania phase, and realizing that this is the future!

As much as a dystopian version of the human-technology relationship has manifested, so has some of its flag-waving: artists routinely collaborate over otherwise insurmountable distances, for example, and the networks that form as a result of our virtual connections are undoubtedly integral to how they operate. So, there is a silver lining to this tale yet. And it’s embedded, ironically enough, in Apple’s advertising rhetoric. A few years ago, I wrote an article for the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, which proposed that iPhones are, indeed, magical devices. Of course, I was pummeled by my fellow academics like a pack of schoolyard bullies with socks-full of soap for suggesting such a thing. But my point was that if Steve Jobs said they’re magic, then make them deliver on that promise: make them perform magic! Which is why I was overjoyed to read Warren Ellis’ keynote speech for the recent Improving Reality conference, wherein he points out so simply, so beautifully, so perfectly: "To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better."

So when you’re deciding whether or not to buy that new iPhone, or download that leaked album for free – or even which leaked album to download – remember that you’re also deciding which future you want to live in: the future in which Bell, Apple et al. usurp the dosh that could and should be remunerating artists, or a future where there is a more human form of communication amongst engineers, artists and audiences – a future where, when you actually need a new device, there’s one there that will perform feats of pure fantasy. Personally, I don’t want to live in a post-apocalyptic, cyperpunk, Terminator nightmare past, present, or future any longer. Let’s us humans use machines to do human things again, shall we?

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