Are 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:
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.
Art 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.
Now 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.
This piece was originally posted at Evolutionary Landscapes.