Cyborgs, Dubstep, and Human Evolution

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robotAre robots "cool?" Do we want to be like them? While Jaron Lanier argues that digital technologies are de-humanizing us, Kevin Kelly disagrees. In a recent article, You are a Robot, Kelly writes that the strange world of dub-step demonstrates a human desire to be more like robots. If you are an artist, you want to move like a gadget:

Everywhere we look in pop culture today, some of the coolest expressions are created by humans imitating machines. Exhibit A would be the surging popularity of popping, tutting, and dub step dancing.

Dubstep is a form of electronic dance music which originated in London in 1999, but emerged as a popular form of music around 2002. It's new to the music scene and has been growing more popular each year. You'll recognize it by its use of heavy bass and syncopation. In particular, the whirring engine (which reminds me of a space ship) and industrial sounds are a trademark of the style. Maybe it's appropriate that dubstep was born right where the industrial revolution began.

In addition to the mechanical sounds, the music has inspired dancers to move like machines. It's quite impressive! We move our fleshy bodies in the fashion of robots:

battlestar galactica

So we like robots, we think they're cool and we want to sing and dance and move like them - better than them (for now), but still like them. Does this prove that machines are becoming cooler, hipper, and more incorporated into human art and culture? I'd say yes, but not in the way Kelly thinks. It "clicked" or "synced" when I read what Kelly observed about auto-tuning:

It catches that same strange loop of a human imitating a machine imitating a human. It is not a mechanical voice. It is a mechanical voice that tries to be human.

I believe this is the key point that flips the discussion on its head. Humans have always had a tentative attitude towards the machine. Just take a quick look at the classic novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, or films like Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and T.V. shows like Battlestar Galactica. If films, like novels, are a way for our cultural unconscious to dream, the machine has been a tentative nightmare.

bladerunnerArt is always a good signifier for how we are internalizing some new change in our cultural landscape. Sure, there were happier robot movies like Short Circuit (Johnny 5), but overall we have been cautious about the looming surge of the techno-sphere, and worried about A.I. replacing us as the dominant intelligent species on this planet. Scientists are even speculating that if we do encounter extra-terrestrials, they will be machines.

So something has definitely changed. It's been a decade since the Matrix, and a couple years since the Battlestar Galactica re-make. iPods and mp3 players proliferate our daily shuffle (pun intended) to work, wifi and 3G networks beam about and envelop the globe in an ever-increasing digital cloud. Digital technologies are here to stay for this civilization, short of a catastrophe. The machine has shifted in our cultural imagination from something to be feared to something we are going to have to learn to be in symbiosis with, and that is exactly why our attitude has changed. Rather than being engulfed by the machine, human consciousness has responded by engulfing the machine and embuing it with humanity. The mechanical voice that is "trying to be human," is case in point. We're taking these animatrons and automatons and making them dance, sing and swing to electric beats. As technology invades our bodies and floods our environments, human imagination engulfs technology. Even the dystopic films are part of this creative engagement with the machine.

robots kissingNow it may be that one day, our robots will sing, dance and imagine more than human beings can now. I question how clear cut such an evolution will be, however. As we are learning about in biology, sometimes an invading species enters a co-dependent relationship with the invaded, and the two create a symbiotic balance such as exemplified by the mitochondria in our cells.

As technology floods the world, the lines between where humanity ends and technology begins will be blurrier. It's not surprising that music is the art form, the vibration, first to respond to the techno-flood, transforming mechanical noise into dubstep music and entering humanity into a new era where body and machine both move and groove to the larger emerging imagination of an electric planetary era. Perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right, but not about the television--the global village sings electric in the digital evolution.

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This piece was originally posted at Evolutionary Landscapes

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4 comments

  • Comment Link Duff Monday, 23 January 2012 18:44 posted by Duff

    Technically the dance style isn't "dubstep" but a combination of things originating from 1960's funk including popping, locking, waving, etc. A person can dance in numerous ways to dubstep, not just like a robot.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popping

    But the overall point holds because these dance styles emerged and became most popular to electronic music of which dubstep is one genre.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 27 January 2012 02:24 posted by TJ Dawe

    I just saw William Gibson do an interview and reading last night, and in the Q & A he made the comment that we aren't robots, but many of us have a digital device on us at all times.

    We use it frequently to listen to music, to communicate, for directions, to find out when a movie's on, to find a restaurant. These things are becoming part of us, even though they aren't physically part of our bodies. But how often does a person feel strangely naked and disoriented if they have to do without their iPhone or their laptop for whatever reason?

    Gibson was promoting his new (and first) book of essays "Distrust That Particular Flavor" and in one piece, titled Will We Have Computer Chips In Our Heads (his answer is maybe), he says "If I were to lose my eyes, I would quite eagerly submit to some sort of surgery promising a video link to the optic nerves (and once there, why not insist on full channel cable and a Web browser?)."

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Monday, 30 January 2012 06:35 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hey Duff! Yeah technically it's not called dub-step as dance style. I'm glad we're in agreement that this all has a relationship to the emergence of the robot and the electronic machine into our cultural consciousness. For me it's really a way our collective psyche has been able to metabolize the stuff. Our imagination, like nature, is pretty resilient, so we've got our work cut out for us like "extremophiles," or types of life that thrives in extreme environments like outer space or toxic chemical pools.

    Hi TJ! Yes this is a great point that William Gibson makes and, I think, has become quite popular in some circles at MIT and inspired "cyborg culture." There's a great TED talk about this by a "cyborg anthropologist," Amber Case:

    We're all Cyborg's Now

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1KJAXM3xYA

    The general idea is pretty much what you've stated: we are all cyborgs because we have these technological extensions of ourselves. Some don't even limit it to digital technologies, but also glasses, belts, clothes, hammers, cars, and so forth.

    Amber Case has an excellent talk where she compares what we're doing to some previous life forms like the trilobites.

    Amber Case - Prosthetic Culture
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=253TkE2OpCc

    The trilobites constantly shed their outer skin, including their eyes, in which newer and sometimes more complex eyes were created. Like the trilobites, we also are capable of shedding our exoskeletons – cars, clothes, etc. are constantly shed. If we consider our viewing screens, like HDTV's, cell phones, and laptops, extensions of our eyes, then we are also constantly shedding them for fresher, newer ones. We are also like astronauts in that we take on these digital technologies in order to navigate the "ether" in our digital avatars.

    Just some really interesting comparisons.

    Seems like Gibson really foreshadowed some of what digital/cyborg culture is saying today. Michael Chorost just came out with a book latest year titled "World Wide Mind." In it he presents an interesting, if not startling hypothesis for how we might create a global brain by directly linking our nervous system to a real "web" of connected people. Rather than a network of computers, each node will actually be a human being. Our thoughts, our feelings, our intuitions might be shared with everyone else in a collective consciousness (or maybe unconsciousness) which we might all then participate in. It's a bit scary thinking about it, but he posits some interesting possibile technologies that would enable this. His basic thrust (and a good one) is that there is an increasing disparity between humans and machines. The way to solve this is to create a venerable "corpus callosum" between the two by interfacing our minds directly with the web. This would eliminate the clumsy, increasingly distracting and inefficient use of needing to physically navigate the web with our hands and fingers.

    I'm on the fence about this. It sounds like a technologized version of Jung's collective unconscious and Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere. What do you think?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 30 January 2012 19:56 posted by TJ Dawe

    If that were to happen, one extrapolation is what William Gibson describes in Neuromancer, in which people become so habituated - even addicted - to moving in the digital realm that the physical world becomes a denigrated thing, disdained, avoided. All pleasures of the flesh - sex, drugs, dancing, athleticism - are dismissed at meat toys.

    Another possibility is that increasing immersion in the digital world creates a counter-desire. In another piece on this site, I explain the mammoth popularity of very long books and series' of books in the last decade (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) being prompted by how much of our lives involves very short bits of information. What a refreshing thing to dive into a world it takes thousands of pages and days or weeks or months of reading to appreciate.

    Also, last night I watched an episode of the PBS series American in Primetime, which features series creators and lead actors from many legendary TV shows. This episode was about the figure of The Crusader, and looks at Jack Bauer from 24, Hawkeye from MASH, House, Omar from The Wire, etc. One creator postulated that one of the reasons these shows are so popular these days is that we live our lives in front of our computers and cell phones. The characters on these shows DO things. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it: “When you watch television, you never see people watching television. We love television because it brings us a world in which television does not exist.” Characters on TV shows also don't sit in a room with other people, noses pointed toward the phone whose buttons they're thumbing, or compulsive check their Facebook newsfeed.

    So if the World Wide Mind manifests, it'll be up to us to configure a healthy relationship to it. But that's the case with any kind of technology. I read somewhere that when books were first becoming widely available there was concern that it would diminish the general intelligence, because we wouldn't have to remember things anymore, since we could just look them up.

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