Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kill Your Computer -- Why the Luddites Were Right


I was out with a friend the other day, a very dedicated activist and highly effective organizer who I happen to know is on Facebook fairly regularly. When I asked her how she thought Facebook had affected her life, her emotions, her brain functions, her response was, “hm, I never thought about it.”

I don't know how many other people haven't given this subject much thought, but for me, the influence of all kinds of technologies on society, and on my individual psyche, is something I've been thinking about a lot. Especially since the internet came along, which happened when I was well into adulthood, and had lived without it successfully for a long time already. And then after having a child seven years ago, around the same time that Facebook and internet-capable (“smart”) phones became commonplace, more thoughts on this whole phenomenon were inspired. Probably none of these thoughts are new – thoughts rarely are – but I thought I'd lay out my thinking here, in case it might be of interest to anyone else. It occurred to me that it might be, specifically because I think it's fair to say that I am a good example of someone who has benefitted tremendously from the internet, as a professional independent artist. And yet, I still think we humans would be far better off without any of this stuff.

The advantages of interactive technologies for DIY culture

First, let me lay out the good sides, because that itself is controversial. Some of you reading this remember when artists like me would send out postcards every so often, announcing a new CD or an upcoming concert tour. Some of you remember making copies of recordings onto cassette tapes and sharing them with friends. The internet has made this sort of thing immeasurably easier and cheaper, and as a result of taking advantage of this medium – by giving away my music online – well over 2 million of my songs have been downloaded by many thousands of people who, I'm guessing, would otherwise never have come across my music.

The brilliant thing about the internet is it's an interactive technology that tends toward democracy -- although it's far from immune to the efforts of big corporations and governments to influence how it works and what happens on it. The fact that most Tweets are apparently related to what's on TV is an obvious case in point. Despite that, the phenomenon of free downloads has changed things in a significant way for independent musicians who take advantage of it. The music industry tries to convince us all that free music is theft, because it benefits them to do that. Many independent musicians believe this hogwash, to their own detriment. Those who see through the lies reap the benefits of this interactive technology that allows us to circumvent, to some extent, a broken and decrepit music industry.

In a nutshell, it goes like this: you put up your music for free. People like it, they share it. You gain fans. A small percentage of your new fans come to your shows. A much smaller percentage of them organize paying gigs for you all around the world. So if enough people like your music, you make a living, if you know how to communicate with people effectively. Is this an ideal way to do things? Maybe, maybe not – most of us DIY musicians doing it this way might happily take a major record deal and gain much more of an audience that way, but for the vast majority of us this will never happen and we are completely locked out of corporate airplay, so we make do with what's available to us, which is the internet.

OK, so you might say I like the internet, the democratic nature of it, and I've benefitted from it professionally. But every day I wish to live in a world free of screens, speakers, and everything else you plug into the wall.

How it was – the Luddites

The brief, historical movement of the Luddites in 1812-13 provide us with an interesting example. It was the early days of the industrial revolution in England, when most people in England worked the land, or made things with their hands. When some people started building factories to mass-produce the things people had, for millenia, been making in small workshops in little market towns, the artisans revolted, and set about to burn down the new factories in the middle of the night, when no one was looking. After a lot of people were hanged and the factories kept springing up everywhere, they gave up, and ultimately changed strategies, admitting the inevitability of mass production and the loss of their lifestyles and livelihoods, and the movement to destroy the factories eventually, you could say, transformed into the labor movement – a movement to make the best of the new situation, and at least get paid a living wage for this alienating, repetitive factory work people were being forced to do.

The movement was crushed violently by the state, as movements usually are, but it also fell victim to the idea that “there is no alternative.” The Luddites proclaimed they would destroy technology that was destructive to community, but ultimately had to accept this community-destroying technology, because the artisans couldn't compete with it – especially when the state was systematically forcing peasants off their land and essentially giving them no option but to work for starvation wages in smog-filled cities, where for the most part they died at a very young age of disease and overwork. For those who could afford to buy the mass-produced products created in the new factories, there were great benefits to be reaped, and as long as you only visited certain towns, you might think England was becoming a more prosperous place. But for the majority of the people, the industrial age brought only misery, alienation, and death, which can be illustrated through lots of statistics which I'm not going to bother with.

Kill your TV – and your radio, CD player, and record player, too

For the first decades of the industrial age – and for millenia before then – it was still the case that if anybody wanted to listen to music, they had to play it. There were some notable exceptions, but for the most part, there was far less of a division between “performer” and “audience.” Most people filled both roles. Still today, even in some of the more remote parts of Europe and North America – and to a much larger degree in many other parts of the world – you can find communities where it is the norm, not the exception, to be a stellar musician. It is the norm for someone to play multiple instruments, sing well, and have at their fingertips a thousand different songs and tunes. And then came the phonograph, and later, radio. And with it, the professional musicians.

One story I heard about (on the radio, of course – illustrating how life is full of endless contradictions) involved a farming village somewhere in the south Pacific. Every evening after a day in the fields, the people of the village would sit together and sing songs for a couple hours – everyone would sing. Then came their first local radio station. After that, every evening the villagers would sit together after their day of working in the fields – and listen to professionals sing the songs they used to all sing together.

Now multiply that story by a million, and you can probably see where I'm going with this. Eventually those villagers, and all of the villagers and city folk everywhere else, stop sitting in a circle to listen to the radio. Eventually they all get radios, and listen to the songs in smaller groups, or individually. Eventually they stop singing at all. Whereas before they all knew how to sing, just as they knew how to talk, after a while most of them forget how to sing. Those few people who are obsessed with music -- those few strange people who continue singing despite the ubiquitous radios and boom boxes that people now think of as a hallmark of their newfound “development” -- now become the “professionals.” Or at least, some of them do – in the new age of recording technology there's only room for a very few “professionals.” Some very few of them become “stars.” They get “big.” Everybody else sits around, listening to them sing, and wonder why they're so depressed all the time.

And then comes TV, and people not only forget how to sing, but they forget how to talk, too. They forget how to tell a story. If they try to tell a story, people tune out, and tell them they're talking too much. Or they talk while the storytellers are trying to tell a story, because people have not only forgotten how to talk, but they've forgotten how to listen, too. Because when music and stories – radio and TV – are no longer participatory, and they're constant, ubiquitous, 24/7, it naturally becomes “background.” So then those few people who continue trying to sing and tell stories have to attempt to teach other people what they used to know naturally – how to listen.

The more I work as a musician, doing hundreds of gigs every year, the more I find that the most difficult gigs are the children's gigs. But not because of the children. The children, for the most part, haven't yet learned what “background music” is. For them, everything is still so interesting. When the birds chirp, they look, and listen, and they're fascinated (the young children at least). When people speak, or sing, they find that fascinating, too. They haven't been turned off yet. So when I show up at a library to do a gig for kids, I don't need to tell them to sit quietly – they do that automatically, because it's what they want to do. They're ready for a story, or a song, they want to be transported to wherever I'm going to take them.

It's their parents who are the problem. It's the parents who are standing around on the periphery of the room, chatting, ignoring the music, ruining the gig for the kids. It's the parents who think the appropriate thing to do with a visiting performer is to “multitask” -- paint the faces of the kids while the performer is singing background music. This doesn't come naturally to the kids – it's forced behavior. The kids who learn to tune out live performance are the ones who always have the TV on at home, and even for them, it takes years of constant background noise before they learn how to ignore it.

People ask me what kind of music I listen to. I never know how to answer that question. It's like asking me what kind of people do I know. How do I answer that? Hard to put them in a box – thankfully, the people I know are a fairly diverse bunch. When people ask what kind of music I listen to, what they mean is, which CDs do you have in the background as you're doing other things. My truthful answer – none – is not the answer they're expecting, and also doesn't quite answer their question, really. Because it's not that I don't listen to music – I do – but not that way. I rarely listen to recorded music, and when I do, I rarely listen to the same CD twice. There aren't many people like me, I've found. But the few out there who are like me in that way are other musicians, those who somehow haven't learned to stop singing, despite the radios and TVs constantly, implicitly telling them to shut up.

The “golden age” of radio

Radio had a golden age, they say, at least in the United States, in the 1960's and 1970's. This is probably true, but only in comparison to what came afterwards. When the hopelessly corrupt Reagan administration – and every government in power since then – deregulated the media and allowed a few massive corporations to almost completely take over the airwaves, fire most local journalists and DJ's, and play the same 300 songs over and over again throughout the entire country and much of the world, ignoring the millions of other great songs out there, this certainly represented a low point. A low point which has been alleviated, you could say, by the existence of the internet.

And to be sure, in the “golden age,” when most radio stations were independently owned -- and, although commercial and profit-driven by nature, programmers had infinitely more leeway to play local music, and much more variety, etc. -- what they were replacing by the very existence of their independent radio stations, was live music. People lament all the radio programmers and journalists who lost their jobs in the 1980's because this happened within living memory for many of us. But what of all the musicians who lost their jobs when the radio stations figured out how to play records, and all the musicians before then who lost their jobs when the phonograph became a status symbol in most homes and businesses in the industrialized world? This was an infinitely greater loss. And greater still, the loss of community – the loss of all those “amateur” musicians who used to play music together in the pubs, cafes, barber shops, and sidewalks. Even in much of the “developing world” today, this is a thing of the past. Good luck finding the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba today – all I found when I went there were people blasting Mexican salsa through shitty little boom boxes. During the three weeks I spent bicycling around the island, I didn't once see anyone sitting on their front porch playing an actual musical instrument.

Social media – connecting and disconnecting

They say now with Facebook and Twitter we're more interconnected than ever. In a sense, this may be true. That is, it is now more possible than ever to have superficial relationships with more people than you ever imagined being able to have superficial relationships with, all over the world, as long as they speak your language and own a computer or a “smart” phone. But what this “connectedness” has done has disconnected us from each other – from our real friends, our neighbors, people in the cafes next to us, our classmates, our coworkers – more than ever. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, with the impact on our brains and our societies of TV and radio, then came the internet. The interactive nature of the medium is what is so attractive about it – same attraction that game shows and “reality TV” has for so many people, but multiplied – but the impact it's having on our society is to make us less connected with each other than ever before.

In the circles I travel in, a recent study reported in some media has made a lot of waves. Although the internet may have been helpful for those organizing the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, it was only when the Mubarak regime turned off the internet that the streets started to really fill up with people. They couldn't see Tahrir Square on Facebook anymore – they had to go participate at that point. And for all of you technological optimists who think social media or the internet is essential for organizing mass uprisings, you are profoundly ignorant (sorry). Long before even books and magazines became widespread, in 1848, peasant uprisings spread across borders throughout Europe and overthrew every monarchy on the continent, with the exception of England and Russia.

I know, you're staring at your computer screen or your phone reading this, so in a sense I'm just contributing to the problem with every blog post, with each new song I upload to my YouTube channel. I doubt the solution for most of us is to stop using this technology completely. But we can at least be aware that its influence, like the influence of other technologies – radio, TV, record players, the telephone, the private car, nuclear power plants, even central heating and central air conditioning – is mostly negative. Mostly destructive of community, of society, and of our psyches. We can be aware of this, we can be aware of the fallacy of “multitasking,” the fallacy of “connecting,” of “friends,” and of the idea that the internet or the existence of other forms of media is bringing us together in any significant way. And we can consciously try to limit our engagement with it, and consciously try to increase our engagement with each other, in the real world. Because for the most part, our “connected” world is very, very disconnected.

3 comments:

Amadeu Garcia said...

so ... where are the bad news?!!

my case:
thanks to the Net (Facebook) I got a wonderful wife :); I work online in a remote part of my country, without the net would be impossible for me to work there since I am not a farmer, but do like nature.
There has never been such BIG library and the knowledge available to all as easy as it is. keep it free and let people share their knowledge.

Dale Jackson said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly when it comes to social media sites. It seems like the longer Facedouche and Twatter are around, the more disconnected my friends become. I wonder sometimes if we really are mates any more. We never talk any more unless it's in a comment on Facedouche. It's even worse because I don't do text messaging. I find it juvenile and too distracting, not to mention impersonal.

The ancient art of email seems foreign to them, as does the antiquated telephone call. A hand-written letter? I might as well as for a centaur wearing Spiderman pyjamas. (Do they still make those? Those were awesome when I was a kid.)

I do love the internet in that it has made the exchange of information almost instantaneous. Online encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and other reference sites are a godsend! I dreamed of such a system when I was a child; now it's real.

On the other hand, there's also a lot of MISinformation running rampant on the web. Some individuals - and certainly groups, corporations, and governments - will do whatever it takes to keep fallacies alive on the web, encouraging them for their own personal agendas, be they for profit or just jollies. Unless you are certain that a site is reputable and has consistent factual information, you can't trust it.

And don't even get me started on trolls and cyber-bullying.

I know this much - when time travel becomes a thing, I'm running away to the 1970s. I prefer vinyl albums and love shirts with big collars anyway.

Unknown said...

You are the first person I have come across who is a musician and doesn't play music in the background. I sing and don't play background music either. If I have music on I have to join in and sing, or if it's orchestral, I have to sit, close my eyes and actively listen. I think your comments are spot on!