The Null Device
We Can Marry You Off Wholesale, a hypothetical piece set in an alternate universe where Facebook is evil and uses its power to monitor and manipulate human relationships to keep its users optimally unhappy for profits:
Facebook knew you were in love a long time before you did. It noticed you scrolling back through her timeline. Every millisecond lingering over the photos of her at the beach was faithfully logged.
On the surface, you two were perfectly suited to each other. But Facebook had detected a problem. At your age, it's hard for Facebook to make money from your love. Sure, a promotion for flowers earns a few bucks. Adverts for romantic dinners can bring in some cash. But here's not much money in that.
So Facebook acted. It "lost" the occasional message you sent her. It made sure that photos of her with other guys were always at the top of your newsfeed. She mostly saw your posts about drinking - and all the girls who had liked your status updates.
With perfect algorithmic efficiency, Facebook found you a beautiful wife who was practically guaranteed to produce a sickly child. Nothing too bad, mind you, but just ill enough to make you spend a little bit more than you would otherwise. A child is a joyous event. Lots of photos posted to Facebook. Lots of likes. Lots of inspiring updates about bravely struggling.This is, as the author points out, a work of fiction, though once the deep-learning algorithms are given access to all incoming data and control of the entire system, and optimised only to solve one problem (maximise profits, whilst avoiding a list of forbidden tactics that someone has thought of), there may be millions of subtly malevolent scams like this, all of them too complex for any human in a position of oversight to understand. Billions of equations, predicated on complicated models of circumstances and human behaviours, combining into scenarios which result in one or more users becoming slightly better-performing profit centres.
Upon seeing the title “The City That Privatised Itself To Death” in this morning's Guardian, I began wondering what gruesomely absurd edge-case of neoliberalism the piece would be about; some bankrupt municipality in the US, perhaps, reduced to selling its fire brigade to Uber-like privateers (who, subsequently, would elude prosecution after having been found actually setting fires) and flogging off tolling rights to its roads; or possibly some once-vibrant city in central America, cracked open like a ripe nut by corporate raiders armed with free-trade treaties and the IMF's full backing, bled dry and reduced to a fortified enclave and a sprawl of miserable shanty towns, their inhabitants busily dying of preventable diseases? But no, it turned out to be the latest Humorous Rant About London Privatisation/Gentrification (so bleak, you have to laugh), this time by a chap named Ian Martin (who, if I recall correctly, has stepped in for Charlie Brooker when he had a column):
Perhaps eminent historians will study London in the early 21st century, see how its poorer inhabitants were driven out, observe how its built environment was slowly boiled to death by privatisation. And they will wonder why people tolerated this transfer of collective wealth from taxpayers to shareholders. And they will perhaps turn their attention to Eduardo Paolozzi’s fabled mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station.
Paolozzi's mosaics' significance is, firstly, that they date back to the instance before the privatisation explosion and, more importantly, whatever their artistic merit, they take up space that could be otherwise monetised for advertising, as the owners of the city would will it to be.
You can’t paste an ad on to a wallful of public art. You can’t fix one of those irritating micromovies over it, telling a vacuous five-second story about investments or vitamins or hair. The Paolozzi mosaics went up as decorative art, just as privatisation was about to explode like a dirty bomb all over the public realm. What survives at Tottenham Court Road station is a brave, forlorn little seawall set against a stormtide of corporate advertising.
I say “we”, although the greatest trick Thatcherism ever pulled was this redefinition of “us and them”. Suddenly, people in your own family were voting Tory. Mrs Thatcher’s chief information officer, Rupert Murdoch, was telling us that the firemen and the dustmen were our enemies. That the women of the NUT and Nalgo were the mad, selfish defenders of a doomed elite. The Tory government went after the local authorities, telling us that government itself was our enemy. You were just going: “Hold on a minute, if you’re the government …” and then they shouted: “Oh, God, look! The Falklands!”, hired more expensive PR guys and carried on privatising.
Further on, Martin contrasts the Blatcherite moment of privatisation with the old world, the shards and pseudo-public spaces in the middle of ridiculous-looking postmodern vanity skyscrapers, with the heady, wholesome, if at times drab and unexciting-looking, not-quite-socialism of the post-war decades:
Let me tell you, little ones, about how popular music and the bright optimism of collective space came together long ago in London’s heady, soot-laden, pre-privatised air of 1967. Song of the summer was Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, with its odd blend of keening melancholy and positivism. Nostalgia for a doomed postwar world, exhilaration for the coming of a new post-industrial one. Terry and Julie, facing the future unafraid. Wherever you went, it floated into earshot on a tide of treble from someone’s transistor radio.
(I have, as undoubtedly many who have heard Waterloo Sunset do, a particular image of Terry and Julie standing on the bridge; an image formed long before I heard that the song referred to Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Terry, in my vision, wears a beige cashmere jumper, and his chestnut hair cascades voluminously over his ears, as the hair of men did in 1967; he has a gold ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which rests on Julie's shoulder. Julie, his dollybird, hangs on his arm; she is tall (though half a head shorter than him) and beanpole-thin, with long, straight bottle-blond hair and teeth slightly too large, giving her a somewhat horsey appearance. Both of their respective sets of parents toiled in menial jobs, but the increased social mobility has allowed them to raise their expectations of what life has to offer. They have a little apartment near the Thames, which they've done up fashionably, a Dansette which they've bought on hire-purchase, and half a dozen records which get played when they invite friends over for parties. Life is good, and can only get better.)
And if you were Terry and Julie gazing at a Waterloo sunset in the summer of 67, you’d have seen the Hayward Gallery under construction. The beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s. And we did gaze at it, thinking: “This is us.” This is us, building something amazing, for us. Several eminent architects worked on the scheme, but oversight belonged to the GLC architects department. Imagine that. A time when most architects worked in the public sector, designing a world of public space and collective aspiration, a world of affordable housing with statutory space standards.
Martin outlines the Blatcherite big-bang which ended all that; the privatisation of architecture, the normalisation of privately-owned spaces, with actual public participation governed by conditions enforced by private security, the transformation of public ownership into a sin—socialism— and its abolition into a moral imperative, takes a few shots at the Shard, and then extrapolates the zeitgeist to a post-apocalyptic conclusion:
On the current track, maybe life does become unbearable in the future, when the last remaining cubic centimetre of public space – a trembling pocket of air perhaps, in a cellar at the Emirates British Library – is finally acquired by a friend of King Charles III. At some point, there’ll be no more space left to squeeze and monetise. The city’s overlords will own everything. Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds named after Shakespearian characters – all air will be their air.
Then – who knows? Maybe when London is pixellated into billions of stock-marketable units of sequestered air, boing! The world cracks and changes. Iceland acquires the north pole, discovers tons of diamonds and becomes the richest nation on earth. Ghana puts the first woman on Mars. Scientists announce they can convert rising sea levels into environmentally sustainable “brinergy”. The global petrochemical industry suffers a fatal prolapse. Its sheiks and warlords, the fawned-upon princes who once did as they wished – buying up most of Streatham in the morning, beheading someone for sorcery in the afternoon – well, they’re dust and shadow now. Maybe the global property market follows oil down the plughole. London’s last human inhabitants head north, their hovertransits stuffed with electronic belongings and omniplasma, to affordable housing, a temperate climate and a hopeful, collective future.Also on the topic of spaces in the shadowy hinterland between public and private, the Guardian has a piece on the Thames Path, a public walking route running along the river's banks, considerable lengths of which (particularly in “regenerated” parts of London) have been surrounded with fences and gates, with the aim of intimidating the public into abrogating the right they have to use them, allowing them to finally be fully, legally taken out of the public realm.
My impressions of the new Belle & Sebastian album:
- The disco/club/EDM direction. It's not all over the album, but in enough places (and lurking in the background elsewhere; i.e., the subtle pumping synth pad underpinning Nobody's Empire, a piece of layered indie-pop à la B&S played otherwise straight), and it works convincingly. This wasn't Belle & Sebastian's first foray into dance music, of course; not counting the synth noodlings of Electronic Renaissance, there was the DFA-pastiche of Your Cover's Blown. And it works convincingly; they seem to get the idioms and work with them competently. The Party Line is essentially Your Cover's Blown II; following it, The Power of Three is reminiscent of Saint Etienne in its combination of sixeventies popular song and dance/electronica, without sounding very much like them, and Enter Sylvia Plath goes into eurodisco territory; sounding a little like Geoffrey O'Connor hypothetically covering ABBA's Lay All Your Love On Me.
- There has always been something very male-gazey about Belle & Sebastian; Stuart Murdoch, in his musical practice, has always had an eye for the girls, photographing them for cover artwork and telling stories about them, their inner lives and their struggles with faith, sexuality, social issues and body image, in his lyrics. (One can imagine an alternate universe where, by some bizarre twist in the time continuum, Belle & Sebastian signed to Sarah Records, but ended up parting ways with the label after a heated argument over cover artwork.) This record is not an exception. Granted, Murdoch is a middle-aged man, and in some cases, the girls his gaze rests on have aged with him (“now I look at you, you're a mother of two, you're a quiet revolution”); in other cases, such as The Everlasting Muse, the subject of his medusa-like gaze is that classical cliché, inspiration as feminine object of desire, or perhaps any one of a number of a succession of ingenues. And then there's the question of whether The Power Of Three is itself a mildly pervy double entendre, in the Carry On-esque vein of Step Into My Office Baby.
- Belle & Sebastian never were, nor claimed to be, a band from the radical vanguard of indie music, preferring instead to find subtleties in the quotidian. Publicly Christian (though in a thoughtful, soul-searching sort of way, with neither fire nor brimstone) where others leaned towards Marxism, Situationism or the heady brew of continental philosophy, studiously apolitical, and emphatically heterosexual, in a way that manages to eschew any trace of swagger or machismo, in a scene where, between Blueboy and riot grrrl, heteronormativity was anything but a given. In any case, this has positioned Belle & Sebastian well to comment on the everyday, and Perfect Couples continues this, ever so gently skewering the discreet charm of the Waitrose-shopping bourgeoisie, and weaving a wry narrative of marital boredom and that cliché, the mid-life crisis break-up.
- The big surprise, musically, is not so much the disco elements, but the Balkan groove of The Everlasting Muse, whose chorus sounds like a thigh-slappingly good knees-up in a Greek taverna.
- The gentle, wistful melodies B&S are famous for are still there, i.e., The Cat With The Cream and Ever Had A Little Faith; now, of course, filled out with string arrangements which work nicely without being overwhelming. And the closing track, Today (This Army's For Peace), echoes the rustic languor of Yo La Tengo at their most mellow.
Apparently Finland's school system is scrapping cursive writing lessons in favour of typing. In other news: apparently, in the 21st century, children are still taught cursive writing in schools:
"There's research shows us that a child will have a better concept and better memory for what a letter is and what it represents if they actually handwrite it ... [but] the argument is really against those pages of cursive, joined-up writing exercises which, in the end actually don't change many people's hand writing styles... Cursive writing is cute, and nice, and decorative if you've got a leaning towards wanting to do it ... just like you might like to learn to crochet or knit.
"The handwriting exercises that we do are really based on very old technology," she said."So when we teach kids particular downstrokes and where to start their letters, it's really based on how you had to use the technology of a fountain pen and ink."Cursive writing is a funny thing; it's not quite practical (who writes an essay under exam conditions cursively, and who finds that more legible than neatly separated printed script?), and it's not quite decorative (it stops well short of anything that could even generously be called “calligraphy”). Its sole raison d'etre is tradition (that teaching children fountain-pen-era techniques is in some ways useful), if not an authoritarian, vaguely punitive disciplinary mindset (idle hands are the devil's plaything, and those little hell-apes that we call children must have their rebellious spirits broken with laborious exercises lest they get up to mischief). Perhaps killing it off as a mandatory part of the curriculum could be the best thing for it: once it's no longer compulsory, and is as alien to the average person as film photography or slide rules, some subset of artisanal crafters and/or hipster contrarians will take it upon themselves to revive this vintage skill and take it further than it would have otherwise gone?
The article, on ABC News, speculates on the possibility of Australia following the Finnish lead and removing cursive writing from its schools. I expect that will happen somewhere around the time of them ditching King Charles III as their head of state and abolishing Imperial honours for the second time in history. I can imagine the ultra-conservative establishment running the country wouldn't have a bar of any such proposal, and indeed can almost read the column in The Australian denouncing the very idea as proof that the Marxists have taken over the teaching profession.
Artefact found in a record shop in London:
A snapshot of 1980s major-label rock at its most excessive, moments before grunge/alternative came along, doused it with petrol and threw the fateful lit match. This has all the maximalist, late-80s-high-tech sheen of commercial rock of the time: beds of digital synthesizers, sheets of chugging, flanged guitars, drums gate-reverbed to within an inch of their life, and expansive mixes as if bragging about the sheer number of tracks on the mixing deck at the studio that the label was hiring by the day (and remember, this was in the days before ProTools, when audio tracks were actual physical hardware that took up costly space). And yet, the music laid atop this gloss argues vociferously that, despite all the expensive digital gloss, it is Rock, in its primal, testosteronal sweatiness. The guitar figures in places aren't a million miles from Guns'n'Roses or Poison, in that post-Lynyrd-Skynyrd South-of-the-psyche that bespeaks rock'n'roll Authenticity. The subject matter is vaguely in the cars'n'girls territory of Rock. And above all are the frontman's vocals, hoarse and grunty almost to the point of ridiculousless.
This is late-80s rock as cyborg caveman, a Hegelian synthesis of the dialectics of high-tech polish and Rockist Authenticity. Not a particularly convincing synthesis, though, in hindsight, given the lit match that was tracing a parabola through the air towards it at the very moment it came out. Rockist Authenticity won out, through Grunge and retrostyled Britpop and the waves of three-chord alternative-rock bands which all sounded equally rough-hewn; this state of affairs lasted until people realised that, while there were ProTools plugins for grunging up an expensively recorded boy band, one could make smooth, polished music on a cheap laptop, and the equation between roughness and Authenticity was forever broken.
I am writing this on a train to London from Birmingham, where I have spent the past two days at an academic conference about the electronic music group Kraftwerk. There were some 175 people in attendance; their ages varied from those who had not yet been born during Kraftwerk's heyday to a sizeable contingent of (mostly) men of a certain age who had been at various legendary shows back in the early 80s. The conference, whilst theoretically an academic conference, was open to the general public, and the talks presented varied from critical-theoretical analyses of the signifiers in various records to autobiographical monologues.
The conference began with Stephen Mallinder, of Cabaret Voltaire, talking autobiographically about his own experience of Kraftwerk and how they inspired his and his bandmates' own music-making; he mentioned that, back in the 1970s, he and his mates would refer to traffic cones as “kraftwerks”. Later, Nick Stevenson talked specifically about Cabaret Voltaire, the Sheffield scene, their use of Dadaist techniques and Burroughs' cut-up technique, and the themes of “the control culture” in their music. Other than that, the rest of of the first day was occupied with going through Kraftwerk's early career and first few albums, as well as the “archaeological period” of the three pre-Autobahn albums one gets the impression Ralf Hütter would rather were struck from the historical record. David Stubbs, author of the recent Krautrock book Future Days, talked about this period, tracing the band's history from their shambolic start as The Organisation (which, in surviving footage of live performances, looks like an “on-the-nose parody of Krautrock” in all its scruffy, hippie shambolicness), through the first three albums—Kraftwerk 1 (whose pastoral sound prefigured what Boards Of Canada would do several decades later), Kraftwerk 2 (where the potential of drum machines first appeared) and Ralf & Florian (which, in its title and cover photograph, showed the artists starting to make themselves part of the artwork, perhaps echoing Gilbert & George, who had visited Düsseldorf in that period). This was followed by a talk by David Pattie, a Glaswegian academic, elaborating on Ralf & Florian and from that, the question of Kraftwerk's relationship with Germanness. Among other things, Pattie pointed out a progression in the works of Kraftwerk and other West German bands (Can, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kluster/Cluster) through the early 70s; a divergence from pure rhythm and/or noise and rediscovery of melody in subsequent albums, and put forward the theory that all these bands had initially set out to reject the musical heritage of their forefathers, and gradually come to an accommodation with it.
In the afternoon, Melanie Schiller (from Düsseldorf, via Groningen) examined Autobahn and its cover artwork, examining the use of space in the sound and the past, present and future as depicted in the LP artwork, and the sense of forward motion, and of there being a start (the sound of the key in the ignition) but not an end (the road going on forever ahead; the self-referential lyrics referring to turning the radio on and hearing the song on it, forming a loop), and, of course, the Beach Boys reference alluding to the American car-song trope. This was followed by a talk by Hillegonda Rietveld about the Trans-Europa Express album; its theme of a borderless, unified Europe, the echoes of an elegant/decadent pre-war past (Neonlicht has a vaguely Weimar feel to it), and its musical antecedents (such as Pierre Schaeffer's 1948 Musique Concréte sound-poem etude aux chemins de fer, and parallels with railway rhythms in the blues in America). The final talk of the day, by Uwe Schütte, about Die Mensch-Maschine, and the idea of the Man-Machine, was rich with details and connections; he tied in Soviet structuralism (the cover artwork drew heavily on El Lissitzky's compositions), a notorious (though in today's climate, quaintly tame) 18th-century atheist pamphlet titled L'Homme-Machine, musical automata throughout the ages, a French novelty act named Les Robots Music, E.T. Hoffmann's 1817 Romantic novel Der Sandmann, Karel Čapek's Rossum's Universal Robots, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the evolution of Kraftwerk's own stage robots. After this, former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür was to read from his memoir, I Was A Robot, but was somehow unable to make it; in his stead, Rüdiger Esch (formerly of electro-industrial band Die Krupps) spoke about his book Electri_City, about the history of the Düsseldorf music scene.
The second day of the conference had a few more interesting talks; Pertti Grönholm spoke about the nostalgic retrofuturism in the music of Kraftwerk, specifically singling out the Autobahn B-side Morgenspaziergang, a short pastoral tone-poem of sorts, and Radioland, with its nostalgia for childhood radio listening. Ulrich Adelt (an academic from Hamburg based in Wyoming) talked about Amon Düül II and their unsuccessful Made In Germany novelty record, Faust (who played with the whole idea of authenticity by projecting footage of their guitarist playing a solo while he stood still), the leftist squatter blues-rock/proto-punk band Ton Steine Scherben (who never made much of an impact outside of the German-speaking world) and the Kosmische Musik movement and their prefiguration of what would later devolve into the New Age genre, finally finishing by boldly attempting to reclaim Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for the Krautrock genre. This led into a monologue from Rusty Egan, former Blitz Club DJ and drummer from new-romantic synthpop band Visage, Camden nightclub proprietor and currently still a working music producer and DJ. Egan was not so much an academic speaker as a force of nature; attired in jeans, turtleneck and leather jacker, all black, his hair slicked back, he went on for over an hour, pacing the stage, showing photographs on his laptop, playing fragments of tracks he had worked on recently, and telling anecdote after anecdote, often framed with sound effects, funny voices, hand gestures and beatboxing. One gets the feeling he could easily have gone on for another few hours, had it not been time to adjourn for lunch.
After the break, there were three more talks: Heinrich Deisl (who edits an Austrian music magazine titled Skug, which is a little like The Wire, only in German) talked about the metaphors of the Autobahn and the German forest in the music of Kraftwerk, Wolfgang Voigt and the Detroit techno project Dopplereffekt (who, like most Detroit techno artists, are African-American, but affect a stylised Germanness in their art; one of their albums is titled Gesamtkunstwerk). Alexei Monroe spoke about Laibach, their own relationship to modernism and problematic history, and their engagement with dystopian ideology. Finally, Alexander Harden talked about the topic of post-human authenticity, and the question of how one can ascribe authenticity (or its absence) to an act like Kraftwerk.
One theme that kept emerging in the talks was that of Kraftwerk's (and, to a lesser extent, other bands') relationship to the idea of Germany and Germanness, and the country's problematic history. In the late 60s and early 70s, the trauma and shame of the Third Reich and World War 2 was still relatively recent; most night porters in Düsseldorf hotels (as Rusty Egan mentioned) had missing limbs, the British music press made crude Nazi references when faced with the idea of there being bands from Germany, and the youth of the nation were waking up to the idea of post-war denazification having been largely unsuccessful, and of people in positions of power having done terrible things. The idea of Germany was contaminated by Nazism, and so was a lot of its much-vaunted culture, to which music had been central. There was the very real idea of Stunde Null, hour zero, of there being nothing before 1945 worth salvaging; and, indeed, a lot of the Krautrock bands started partly with this assumption, rejecting both the Western classical canon and the Anglo-American blues/rock-based sounds that were filling the airwaves, and venturing outward, to the extremes of experimental noise, the “ethnographic forgeries” of Can, to heavy psychedelic experimentation or the sounds of an imagined Cosmos. But, of course, that is not sustainable forever; and even if one does keep it up, one only has to venture abroad to be put in one's place as one of the Krauts.
Kraftwerk's work, at least from Autobahn (their own Stunde Null) onwards, attempts to answer the question of what is to be done with the past. For all its futurism, it is deeply nostalgic, albeit for the forward-looking pulse of modernism, the future that never was; in part for the Bauhaus-era modernism that was so brutally cut off (as evident in the video for Trans-Europa Express, with its 1930-vintage turbine train model zooming past Metropolis-style buildings), though partly also for the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder years of their own childhoods. What is to be done with the terrible years in between? Well, as much as in one sense, Kraftwerk strive to close the gap, their works are peppered with references which German audiences can pick up, alluding to the unspoken time before Stunde Null: the radio on the cover of Radioactivity, for example, resembles those distributed by the Nazi authorities to households, and indeed, the Autobahn system itself was bound up with the Third Reich (who did not initiate the programme though greatly extended it). As for audiences abroad, rather than seeking to escape German stereotypes, Kraftwerk took them and played, mischievously, to them; becoming the stiff, deadpan robot-men, and throwing in the occasional ambiguous turn of phrase like “total music” or the “mother language”, as if to see if they can jar the foreigners into Mentioning The War again. But Kraftwerk have, discreetly, the last laugh.
Kraftwerk's significance in popular music is hard to overestimate; on their shoulders stand not only electronic pop music (from the early synthpop bands of the late 70s to today's commercial hits), house, techno and dance music, but also much of hip-hop, via Afrika Bambaataa. As Heinrich Diesl quoted, “Before Kraftwerk, German pop music was perceived as Schlager; afterward, it was perceived as Techno”. And, because of their position at the intersection of various historical currents, there is enough to discuss about them to fill an academic conference. Speaking of which, the organiser, Dr. Uwe Schütte, says that, if all goes well, there should be an academic conference about Krautrock at Aston University in a year or two.