Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pop Art Gets Proletarianized, or How Technology Will Enable Anyone to Play Guitar Like Eddie Van Halen

Technology changes how art is done and by whom. And it’s only going to get better. Not only will more and more people be able to afford the gadgetry of making art, but the intrinsic ability to create and perform art will be impacted as well.

Ever notice how jazz has suddenly become “high art?” Walk into any Starbucks and you’re likely to hear Miles Davis piped through the sound system as you guzzle your venti latte alongside your fellow sophisticates.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Like all new art forms, jazz was once was dismissed by a snobbish wave of the hand as being the cacophonous, subversive music of the working class.

It’s funny how art works. At first it’s rejected and regarded as a threat or antithetical version of the established and “credible” art forms. Then, after it gains popularity and becomes profitable, it becomes broadly accepted, refined, and institutionalized (like Miles Davis CDs for sale at your local Starbucks).

Music in the 20th century has experienced a revolution of sorts, particularly Western pop music. Prior to Bob Dylan, vocalists were all virtuosic in ability; you had to sound like Nat King Cole to get noticed. Dylan, on the other hand, was the everyman singer. He mumbled into the microphone and sounded no better than the guy next door.

But that was the revolution. By showing that good and profound music could be performed by just about anyone, Dylan cast popular music in a new light and gave it a new sense of relevancy for the masses. Music didn’t have to be uber-refined and stuffy – it could be out of tune, off tempo, and a little bit off the cuff and still have strong aesthetic worth. Moreover, performance stars no longer had to be inaccessible and unrelateable prodigies – they could be regular folk just like you and me.

Soon after the Dylan phenomenon, garage bands and caterwauling vocalists started to come out of the woodwork, and the rest of 60s rock music is history. Music had finally become proletarianized. Or, at least it appeared that way; not everyone could become rock stars – but the illusion that anyone could become rock stars had certainly taken root.

Like anything, there was reaction to this turn of musical events. Prog rock tried to buck the trend for a little while (hey, the common man does not play in 5/8 time, nor does he want to, okay?) but the punk and grunge scenes pierced through this unbecoming upper-class pretentiousness. Consequently, the Nirvana phenomenon resulted in an entire generation of young artists who could barely move beyond three chord patterns.

Hence, your “music for the masses.”

And this is part of the problem when popular music, or any kind of art form, can be performed by anybody. Not everyone is a super-talent, nor can everyone afford expensive lessons. So, as a result, the art form gets dumbed down a little. Okay, sometimes a lot. Like the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant today in Western culture (smart people are geeks, right?), the ability to actually play an instrument with precision and grace is considered pompous and showy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to achieving true music for the performing masses: technology.

In a former life I wanted desperately to get into the music industry. I went to college for 3 years learning how to be a record producer and engineer. I even worked in a studio for a year. I once recorded tracks in a million dollar facility, full of all the bells and whistles you could desire.

Yet, thanks to modern technology and the increasing strength of purchasing power, I actually have a fairly decent home recording studio. There’s very little I can’t do in the confines of my own home that I could do at a multi-million dollar facility. And I think lots of people are getting a hint of this. I have many friends who perform and record music as hobbies – something that would have been, for cost reasons, completely prohibitive as little as 20 years ago. (on a related note, blogs are impacting on how people like myself are able to write and self-publish)

Technology changes how art is done and by whom. And it’s only going to get better. Not only will more and more people be able to afford the gadgetry of making art, but the intrinsic ability to create and perform art will be impacted as well.

Thanks to the pending genomic revolution and the advent of enhancement technologies, the future will have more in store for the aspiring artist. Using genetic technologies, parents will endow their children with a whole gamut of skills and proclivities, including perfect pitch and the physical co-ordination required for virtuosic playing. Like the growing accessibility of musical instruments and recording technologies, musical talent will one day soon become equally attainable.

Once, the masses were merely a passive audience to art as it was dictated to them. Today, they have taken control of art and given it relevance. Tomorrow, they will claim their own art forms and master them with all the tools at their disposal.

And that will truly be music by the masses for the masses.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cyberculture

Cyberculture is a burgeoning youth subculture that is an intermixture of several scenes, including cyberpunk, goth, rivethead, rave, and clubbing. Individuals in cyberculture identify themselves as "cyber" or "cybergoth," and are as interested in fashion and dancing as they are in new and future technology. Primarily a cultural phenomenon of the United Kingdom, cybers can also be found in New York and other large metropolitan areas. There's even a Canadian cybergoth forum.

Cybers tend to listen to electronic music (of course), with subgenres that include EBM (electronic body music), futurepop, industrial, power noise, trance, techno, drum and bass, gabber, synthpop, and IDM (intelligent dance music). They listen to electro-industrial and EBM projects such as Front Line Assembly, Velvet Acid Christ and VNV Nation. Many cybergoths also enjoy rhythmic noise, or power noise, with bands that include Converter and early Noisex.

Fashionwise, cyber clothing resembles a combination of industrial, rave and goth styles. Think of goth, but with bright colours. Common themes include contrasts of black or white combined with luminous neon or UV-reactive colours and materials. Some wear LED lights on their clothing or in their hair. Cybers also tend to have brightly coloured and often stylised hair, large shoes or boots, various forms of body modification, the presence of superfluous goggles (especially aviator-style), androgyny and the influence of cyberpunk or anime themes.

As for the subculture itself, cybers have a fascination with such topics as computers, the internet, technology, cybernetic augmentation and artificial intelligence. Clearly, these are elements derived from the cyberpunk side of things. As for the more gothic elements, they include a sense of apathy (supposedly towards issues cyberpunks would be enraged about), a questioning of mortality especially with regards to enhancements and AI (in a way, taking the whole goth obsession with death and turning it on its head to question the very definition of life itself), along with a number of gothic fashion elements and related music.

According to Devi of the Take A Byte v1.0 site, here are the top 10 ways to spot a cybergoth:

10. They have their own REN value
9. They look like a goth, but in colour
8. They bleed caffine
7. They carry a raygun or lightsabre
6. You need sunglasses just to look at them
5. They have neural plugs in their neck and a barcode on their arm
4. Their limbs are silver and shiny
3. They have so many LEDs on them that in the dark airplanes often land on them
2. They have no real hair
1. They wear goggles even out of the pool

Be sure to visit the Take a Byte site and take the test to see if you're a potential cyber in the making.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My review of "Building Gods"

There is a rough-cut available on Google Video of the Four Door Films documentary, "Building Gods."

The video tackles the issue of pending greater-than-human artificial intelligence and the possible ramifications. Four key philosophers are interviewed in the documentary, including the IEET's Nick Bostrom, with the other three being Kevin Warwick, Hugo De Garis, and Anne Foerst. The tone is mostly grim and eerie, but a wide spectrum of topics are discussed, including transhumanism, mind-machine mergers, uploading, and artificial superintelligence.

The documentary itself is scheduled to be released later this summer. Based on the quality of the film I'd have to say it will receive limited attention (I can't see the final cut improving upon it too greatly).

Initial responses on the WTA-talk list were negative, but after watching the 90 minute film I didn't think it was so bad. In fact, I thought it was downright interesting and provocative. I actually started to take down notes while watching it, and it has given me a number of ideas for future blog entries.

Of the four philosophers interviewed, Anne Foerst was clearly the weakest. She was the token theologian {exasperated sigh}; whenever documentaries like these are put together, it often seems that producers feel compelled to put a religious representative on screen to offer some sort of twisted "balance." I've noticed, for example, that discussions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life often include the insight of a priest or rabbi -- as if they actually have anything interesting to say about the intricacies of astrobiology or the Drake Equation.

That said about Foerst's 'role' in "Building Gods", however, her work at MIT and her willingness to extend personhood beyond Homo sapiens, made her presence not altogether irrelevant.

Nick Bostrom was his usual eloquent self. He was very well spoken and he represented himself and transhumanism quite well. Some of the themes that Bostrom touched upon included consciousness uploading, the unlikelihood of cyborgs, and the SAI goal problem. I didn't feel that Bostrom played into the sensationalist feel of the documentary and his comments were fairly level headed.

Kevin Warwick, on the other hand, was a different story. Regrettably, of the four thinkers interviewed, Warwick was given the most attention. I say regrettably because he fed right into the alarmist tone of the video. At one point he compared the potential differences between humans and posthumans as those that currently differentiate humans from cows. He even said -- and I still can't believe he said this -- that when humans will talk to posthumans it will sound akin to mooing. Consequently, argued Warwick, there will be no social dichotomy between humans and posthumans as they won't even be on the same existential wavelength.

This is exactly the kind of thing that will scare the hell out of someone who is completely new to these concepts. The implication that posthumans and humans won't communicate with other, or that posthumans will treat humans as cows, is as ridiculous as it is false. I simply don't foresee there being posthuman indifference towards unaugmented humanity.

Hugo De Garis, like Warwick, was also a mixed bag. If Warwick didn't scare you in this documentary, De Garis most certainly did. He used his own jargon to describe the pending battle between 'terrans' and 'cosmists' (ie luddites vs. futurists). In Hegelian fashion, he compared this future struggle to the 19th and 20th century struggle about the ownership of capital. De Garis sees the future as one split by a conflict between those who are terrified of the rise of SAI versus those who wish to see humanity reach its true potential.

Thankfully, there was some sentiment expressed in the documentary that this scenario may not play itself out. Even De Garis admitted that humans and machines may evolve and merge in concert, thus avoiding this kind of sociological split. He referred to the adherents of this middle way as the 'cyborgians,' but seemed embarrassed to have to say it. A middle way, after all, would ruin his alarmist non-normative sci-fi action drama vision of the future.

Rather, the issue will be, in my opinion, not so much about the pending struggle between 'terrans' and 'cosmists' as it will be about the difficulty in ensuring safe and universal access to critical enhancement technologies. Most people in the next several generations will be early adopters of enhancement technologies. Our children will consider enhancements to be as matter of fact as iPods and text messaging are today. Consequently, predictions about the AI/human dichotomy are false; transhumanism will be in effect and we will grow both AI and SAI from the human brain, not from raw machines.

In regards to Warwick and De Garis, however, I don't want to paint an overly negative picture of their contribution to this film. Both thinkers have a lot to offer in this conversation, and their thoughts and insights were captured quite well. There's lots of food for thought here, and I'm still digesting it all.

Interspersed between the interviews was stock footage of old interviews and cheesy sci-fi films. There were a number of shots with Honda's ASIMO in it, played back in slow motion and set to spooky music in the background. ASIMO never looked so evil.

While “Building Gods” certainly painted the future in a gray and ambiguous light, it was not explicitly anti-transhumanist. At one point, a blurb on the screen noted that, "Transhumanists advocate the ethical advancements of technology." For those familiar with these concepts, the video will be interesting and provocative; for those new to these concepts, the video may come across as quite frightening and alarmist.

Interestingly, the documentary skirted around the issue of the Singularity. But now that I think about it, one could make a case that the entire film was about the Singularity -- just not exactly stated as such.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Ode to Immortality

I wanted to share a nice passage from Robert J. Sawyer's award-winning novel, The Terminal Experiment:

"But isn't immortality boring?"

The simulation laughed. "Forgive me, my friend, but that's one of the silliest ideas I've ever heard. Boring, when you've got the totality of creation to compredend? I've never read a play by Aristophanes. I've never studied any Asian language. I don't understand anything about ballet, or lacrosse, or meteorology. I can't read music. I can't play drums." Laughter again. "I want to write a novel and a sonnet and a song. Yes, they'll all stink, but eventually I'll learn to do them well. I want to learn to paint and to appreciate opera and to really understand quantum physics. I want to read all the great books, and the trashy ones, too. I want to learn about Buddhism and Judaism and Seventh Day Adventists. I want to visit Australia and Japan and the Galapagos. I want to go into space. I want to go the bottom of the ocean. I want to learn it all, do it all, live it all. Immortality boring? Impossible. Even the lifetime of the universe may not be enough to do all the things I want to do."