Monday, August 27, 2012

Why Machines Will Always Suck More Than You Want Them To, or The Cyberclunk of Bad Technology

Adaptation in nature is slow, but the whole species is its own test and control group. It naturally favors the most effective way to function. Still, it doesn’t function perfectly, and you have numerous competitive species working at cross purposes. Nature never achieves complete equilibrium. Species have to survive both in conjunction with, and in spite of other species, always in flux, constantly in a state of resonance and dissonance. Evolution is not progressive by nature. Even if it has to chuck everything and start again, it continues to function, and many effective species are able to survive for millions of years. They’re not better or worse. They’re simply effective at survival. It’s not nature’s purpose but its tendency. Sometimes it leans towards greater complexity, sometimes towards greater simplicity.

The idea of progressiveness is a human invention. The idea that we must move forward, that technology is an improvement, that industrialization is an improvement. The idea of improvement itself is an invention of societies of industry. Industrial societies are destructive on a mass scale. Pre-industrial societies tend to achieve greater equilibrium with their environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not in their own way destructive, but the ones that endure—and many aboriginal cultures have endured for centuries with little change— have tended to be more effective at survival than industrial societies, not in terms of individual life spans, but in terms of the survival of the society as a whole. Industrial societies, the societies that are eclipsing these smaller communities, are young by comparison. Again: this does not mean that survival is progressive, or of greater or lesser value. Outside of humanities measurement of progress, a species that survives is not a better species, it’s just more effective at surviving. A species that is equally effective at dying has its own function, sometimes to facilitate a more effective species, one with greater equilibrium with other species. In this definition, effective survival is about time, with the assumption that a species that survives over a longer span of time is more effective. A species that achieves greater complexity over a shorter period of time and is more destructive could be considered more effective by a different measurement. These are arbitrary judgments, but the difference between effective survival and short term complexity is that survival effectiveness is about a smooth running machine, a system that has evolved to do whatever has allowed it to survive better than those that have failed to survive. In this way, nature is the most successful inventor and manufacturer.

Technology models itself after nature, but can’t compete with nature’s effectiveness at either survival or the functions of survival. Hearts are very effective at pumping blood. It’s what they do best because it is a trait that has had millions of years to evolve. Technology develops at a rapid pace, and because of this, cannot mimic the slow gradual evolution that allows nature to effectively adapt. Our technological development can’t pinpoint the path of least resistance in such a short period of evolution. Instead it constantly meets with resistance on every front, and with each new imagined innovation, a new set of obstacles present themselves. But at such a rapid pace of development, the consequences are huge. Nature is a constant process of destruction and adaptation, and the rapid pace of technology amplifies both. The more it adapts, the more its destructive power.

Technology and Science Fiction

Because of this speedy evolution, the flaws in this process are more visible and prevalent. This is why technology never quite works how you want it to. This is why your computer, instead of running with the crystalline efficiency of the technology in a science fiction story, is constantly screwing up or on the verge of screwing up. Your car breaks down. A drug meant to treat your heart makes your face puff up. A house rots at its foundation.

In other words: technology will never work the way we want it to. It’s the nature of machines. But most science fiction ignores this. Science fiction presents the big moral and practical problems suggested by technology while ignoring the everyday messiness of it. Instead, it often romanticizes technology that works. If a dystopian future is presented as lacking, it’s because of the lack of better technology, or because of the consequences of technology poorly employed. But in science fiction, technology maintains its essential logical positivism: technology works. It’s all in how you use it, not the technology itself. It’s about human hubris, not the nature of technology as a whole.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as Cyberclunk.

The theme of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is about not tempting fate or nature or god by trying to emulate what nature does best. It is, as its subtitle suggests, a modern Prometheus story. This moral has become a very essential aspect of many science fiction stories, the acknowledgement of this problem, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is in many ways, a lesson in Cyberclunk. Technology doesn’t work the way Doctor Frankenstein wants it to because technology can’t be anything but flawed.

But the way technology is typically portrayed in contemporary science fiction contradicts this idea. It’s about the perfection of innovation, the romance of discovery. Everything about the technology as it’s presented sends a profoundly mixed message—technology may lead to hubris, but it’s the most beautiful and fantastic thing in all creation, smooth as glass, and miraculous as magic. It’s a powerful and seductive idea. Technology isn’t inherently bad anymore than it’s inherently good, but it is inherently inelegant. It doesn’t work very well. It is always, always flawed. Not only the most high tech and progressive technology, but all of it.

This is the aesthetic of Cyberclunk. Cyberclunk presents a world of flawed and inelegant technology that betrays us because of its nature. Because a toaster doesn’t work, my burnt toast pisses me off. But more importantly, the toaster doesn’t work because it’s a machine and machines don’t do what they’re supposed to do. No toaster will always make the toast you want it to. Nature is just as flawed, but nowhere near as inconsistent. Technology is like the caveman in a cartoon, carving a square wheel out of stone. He’s got the general idea, but the execution is obviously shitty. And this is what we do. This is technology. We carve hearts out of stone and expect them to work like hearts in nature. We expect that we can get to that point of perfection where we will be able to make a heart that works just like a natural heart. But artifice itself, by definition, will always fall short of nature.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Computers in New Guinea or Cyberclunk as Cultural Mash-Up

Central to the theme of Cyberclunk is the recontextualization and repurposing of technology. It's people using technology to suit their needs, and  shaping that technology through the lens of their own culture. When Apple designs an Ipod, it may have an intended use, but as soon as that technology enters the stream of world culture, that intended use instantly becomes reshaped. The identity of the technology is very much tied in with the identity of the user.

In the beginning of Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond describes a conversation that is the premise for the entire book. A politician from New Guinea asks Diamond, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" by "cargo" he meant what his culture called imported manufactured goods. The point Diamond makes in the book, is that industrial manufacturing can only occur when the culture has access to the resources needed for manufacturing, a condition that is very much determined by geography. But now that "cargo" is available to the indigenous population of New Guinea, how does this shape the culture? What impact would widespread internet access have on the culture of New Guinea, and how would the ideas presented by the technology be incorporated into the culture? 

Not too long ago, just such an experiment was made through the  One Laptop Per Child project. in 2007 inexpensive laptops were introduced to a number of small indigenous communities, beginning with Uruguay. The computers required little power, and could be charged manually with a hand crank. Eventually, Papua New Guinea, too, became a part of the program. 

New Guinea children Participating in the "One Laptop Per Child" program

One unintended use of these computers was minor, by notable: the families of children who lived in homes that did not have electricity could use the laptop screens as a light source. But more importantly: these kids had access to world culture in a way that they never did before, and now it's their culture, but theirs in a way that is uniquely theirs. They will always interpret the "cargo" they consume through the eyes of their unique culture, and will use Western technology in ways we can't imagine or anticipate. To some degree their native culture will inevitably be usurped. Technology changes us as much as we change it. It's compelling stuff, and some of what currently makes New Guineans, New Guineans will inevitably and sadly be lost. At the same time, technology empowers us. And what happens when you empower a country that the rest of the world considers powerless? When they take the tools we give them, reshape them, and make something new and remarkable out of them? This is one of the questions that Cyberclunk asks. 

The Cyberclunk of Die Antwoord

The South African group Die Antwoord popularized the word “Zef,” derived from the Ford Zephyr, a car manufactured exclusively in South Africa and the U.K. from a period that extended from the 50s to the 70s. Later models resembled the classic 1960s Ford Fairlane. Like the Fairlane, the car is a muscle car with its long nosed front end, unapologetic in its sheer balls-out flashiness. It’s the car that a blue collar kid buys to show off. This is what the lead vocalists of Die antwoord, Ninja and Yolandi, call "Zef", what they describe as  “full flex"--"flex" in the Hip Hop sense of flash or peacocking.

“Zef,” incorporates the fashion of  Hip-hop, without the conspicuous display of wealth. It's bold, cheap and loud, and though it’s not about money, it’s not about the lack of it, either. It doesn’t carry the same shame of the word “ghetto” or the more colorful, “ghetto fabulous” and the judgment that the term implies. “Ghetto fabulous” is about the necessity for practical improvisation in ghetto life, and may suggest a lack of taste or class. It ostensibly embraces this improvised trashy aesthetic in an ironic way, but underneath this irony lies the shame of poverty. But there’s no shame in Zef. Zef is baroque in its deliberate excess, a celebration of the cheap and the gaudy. There’s a fuck-it-all quality to the excess of something that knows it’s cheap. In an indirect way, it resembles the deliberate crudeness of Punk.

Punk has much in common with Hip hop, this idea that anyone can become a musician, that craft is not something that needs to be taught, or apprenticed, but something you can develop on your own and on your own terms. It’s the idea that you can craft something of quality without relying on traditional formal skill. Punk and Rap have their roots in Folk, Rock, and Blues, but diverge from these roots in the way that they reject the idea that you have to be able to sing melodically, or play instruments with proficiency to make art. It’s the essential idea that nobody can tell me that I can’t because I don’t know how.

And this, too, is the essential idea behind Zef (though the music of Die Antwoord is anything but formally unskilled, with layered mixes by DJ Hi-Tek). It comes from this same attitude in your face, fuck it all, nobody can tell me that I can’t because I don’t know how. No one can tell me what good taste is, or what beauty is. It’s an attitude that’s not simply contrarian, but one that embraces the richness found in Die Antwoord’s own working class environment. Unlike the fashion of punk, it doesn’t wear its rebellion like a uniform. It’s more than dyed hair and Dr. Martens, and even if this wasn’t what punk once was, it’s what punk became--kids from the suburbs emulating the fashions of rebellion established by the working class. Not that Zef doesn’t have its own derivative side—it borrows its fashion heavily from the Rap and Rave culture it embraces, but these cultures are appropriated in a uniquely South African way that is pure Zef.

But Zef, or at least the essential aesthetic and ideas behind Zef aren’t exclusive to South Africa. A similar aesthetic has emerged from Hip hop and R and B in the U.S. as well. You see it in artists like Nicki Minaj who are moving away from ostentatious displays wealth for their own sake and focussing more on generating their own unique look. But Zef still has a decidedly South African flavor, which is what makes it Zef, and which will always distinguish it as unique to South Africa.


The Cyberclunk of Zef

At first this may seem a tangential connection, but I see Zef fitting comfortably under the blanket of Cyberclunk. Zef is a style based firmly in the world of mass-production. Zef repurposes these mass-produced products and puts them in a new context, turns the mundane into the baroque. It’s not a practical repurpose, but an aesthetic one. But all of these repurposed objects are the products of technology, die cast, or sewn or injection-molded by machines and on assembly lines. These cookie cutter products take on a life of their own after they enter the world. The manufacturers of plastic watches or loud pink bras don’t care about Zef. What makes Zef, Cyberclunk in part, is its all inclusiveness. It’s not vintage. It’s not contemporary. It’s anything and everything that fits in with the Zef aesthetic, whether it’s something you've  purchased off the rack yesterday from Wallmart, or a Ford Zephyr. And it’s how these objects are recontextualized that make them Zef.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

MST 3000: Cyberclunk at its Clunkiest!

The long running Mystery Science Theatre 3000 on Comedy Central gloriously embodies the Cyberclunk aesthetic, taking place in the year, next sunday A.D.!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Cyberclunk of Battlestar Galactica

The recent Battlestar Galactica “reimagining” (is it so hard to say, "remake?") at least for the first two seasons, was pure cyberclunk. Intercoms, nuclear warheads, guns that fired actual bullets. Computers with low-tech and monochrome displays. No digital handheld devices of any kind. Aesthetically there was a clear effort to give the technology a low tech look, making the ship resemble and actual battleship on its interior  more than a spaceship. Star Trek, even in it’s later incarnations, tended to eschew digital devices and displays as well, but it was more of an earnest attempt at futurism, while Battlestar Galactica made no pretenses to being about our future. BSG took place on a different world with different rules, and it was clear that technology had evolved in its own way. The choices made here were also purely aesthetic, low-tech mixed with high-tech, like spaceships with biological nervous systems. But BSG, like Star Wars, took place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, letting us know that the world we saw had nothing to do with technology as it had evolved on our world.

There were  other aesthetic choices made in the series that denoted a kind of naturalism. The shaky documentary-style cinematography. The dialog and acting style was more contemporary, less formal than Star Trek, or whimsical like Star Wars. Though there were inconsistencies, there was a general sense of intention behind the whole series for those first two seasons, until season three when they lost their way.

Season three was notable for expanding on the metaphysical theme presented in the previous seasons, but this direction seemed more aimless than purposeful. We went from speculation and ambiguity in the first series—does Gaius Baltar, the resident scientist have a chip in his head that allows him to see this ghost version of the Cyclon number six, or is he hallucinating? What is the significance of these shared dreams that some of the characters are having? What is the motivation or “plan” (as the opening is continually alluding to) that the Cylon’s have concocted? There’s a particularly great scene in the first season where Starbuck interrogates one of the Cylons who claims there’s a connection between the two of them. Unfortunately by season three and four, all of these mysteries are given quasi-mystical explanations, and more and more we get the sense that they never had a plan at all, that they were making it up as they went along Lost-style, and all that pseudo-mystical shit amounted to was an elaborate deus ex machina to wrap up loose ends.

By season three, concepts that veer more towards a kind of futurism are introduced. We already knew that the Cylons can download into new bodies, and the lack of practical explanation for this does nothing to detract from the potency of the concept. It’s completely consistent with the mash-up of technology introduced in the beginning. But then they casually add another computer metaphor in season two, what the Cylons call, “projecting.” Cylons can project their own imagined environment on on the bare metal walls of their ships, generating their own, personal virtual reality "skin" wherever they go. It’s not inconceivable that the Cyclons would have this kind of computer-related technology, but this brings us further into a world of virtual environments and the kind of computers that we haven’t been seeing in the series, and like many decisions at this point, seems arbitrary and random. This is the same season that “the final 5” idea is introduced, an obviously improvised placeholder to explain why we only see 7 of the earlier mentioned 12 Cylon models. More quasi-mystical rationales are introduced to fill in the gaps, and the internal consistency of the show starts to fall apart.

The prequel, Caprica, meant to represent a back story for the series, is pure traditional science fiction futurism. Virtual reality factors in heavily, and since computers, aside from a navigational tool, hardly factor into the original BSG series at all, this introduction of computer technology in the prequel is not only inconsistent with the later series, but it has an entirely different intention and feel than the retro technology of those original two seasons. Here are computers as we know them, and the technology is as recognizable as the technology in most contemporary sci-fi. At times, there's a noirish feel, but it's more in the Bladerunner tradition, an affectation of style rather than the deliberate and integral choices made in the early seasons of the first series.

The first series is still notable for the intentions of its early beginnings. For a while it was unique to dramatized sci-fi in both TV and film, with the show’s willful disregard for contemporary technology and naturalistic feel. For a while, itwas true Cyberclunk.

I hear a new series is coming out, Blood and Chrome, that’s meant to fill in the gap between the two series, which seems like a completely unnecessary exercise in the vein of the Star Wars prequels. But maybe this time they’ll get it right. Maybe this time they’ll focus on the clunky, contemporary technology subverting approach of the first series. But probably not.